Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles

Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles! Our farm mission is to enjoy and promote the wonderful diversity of the Shetland breed by fully utilizing to the best of our ability all they have to offer historically. We believe the best preservation and management of this breed includes it's full spectrum of history. We encourage old and new shepherds alike to join in the fun by engaging in fiber arts, especially spinning and knitting, as this breed is so intimately linked with those aspects of the arts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Feeling Lucky!

I am feeling very lucky... lucky to have gotten started with Shetlands a few years ago before things began changing so much. I live in the north central part of the United States, where serious changes have occurred within the Shetland breed very recently. BIG changes are on the horizon, of which I am not a part of, thankfully! I'm also feeling lucky that I got my start by spinning and knitting FIRST, before I began shepherding, and ultimately breeding. Why do I feel so lucky it went like it did? INFORMATION!

Wheely Wooly Gracelyn reads her favorite book

When I worked on getting started, I had access to much great information, well beyond the handbook. The Shetland breed organization in our country was focused squarely on protection and preservation of this exceptional breed, something I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of. I knew I wanted to enjoy the benefits of protecting and preserving this lovely breed, and work to keep things together with like-minded shepherds to make this breed available for future shepherds. Afterall, that's what shepherds did in the ME the ability to know and enjoy this breed. I knew early on this was the work I wanted to carry forward.

Today, I see our breed organization falling apart. There is much effort to skew language, history, and related sheep to create a change from a diverse, historical breed to a narrowly confined standardized breed. New shepherds are not getting access to the works of those who protected and preserved like I had. Instead, they are getting piles and piles of "new" information that supposedly all those before them "never found" (you know, the geneticists, university faculty, and of course, the Shetlander themselves). Hummmm.

I also feel bad for the people who didn't have the opportunity to see the problems as they were building. They are now stuck defending a change they don't really want to see happen, but are stuck because that is what their sheep are like. I feel very lucky our farm has not fallen into the trap of those change-makers. We can continue to enjoy the genuine Shetland for what it is. We can continue to protect and preserve, because I was careful enough to buy only those genetics and bring them home to my flock. I don't own one short-fleeced sheep at this time. The shortest staple I have at a twelve month clip is six inches. Most of my fleeces run to eight inches. Last year, Iris went nine inches midside, with britch ten inches. Wooly Bear went nine inches of ultra-fine fiber so soft I was afraid to wash it. When people touch it, their eyes pop wide open with delight. And I can't keep it in stock. Meanwhile, the "consistent head to toe" four inch crimpy fleece I purchased from a long time breeder still sits in my inventory...unsold. It draws people, they touch it, and walk away. Any suggestions on how to sell it? I paid a lot of money for it. I even knitted a scarf from it, a style of which I've sold countless of...but here it still sits....
Scarf for sale...

So where are we today? Luckily, we have good bloodlines to maintain and enough diversity to remain independent. We have many like-minded shepherds around us who have been maintaining the genuine Shetland all along...having stopped supporting our breed organization long ago...and thinking I was crazy to get involved there! I only know one shepherd in my area that sells sheep similiar to what is taking shape in our organization, and that shepherd has said several times that crossbreeding is where money comes in because they cannot sell very many purebreds. I have seen a decline at our regional show as well. People have stopped coming. Last year, I saw whole pick-up loads of sheep brought to the grounds for sale, and whole pick-up loads taken home to the same farm because nobody bought those sheep.

So I am feeling very lucky to have had access to the real, genuine Shetland sheep. There has been some commenting lately that these changes will devalue the long-fibered sheep. I think the opposite will happen. If some want to raise super short, super crimpy fleeces... they are the ones devaluing their flocks because that fleece type is so common on the wool market today, and people find the fleeces extremely limited in usability. Ask any good business person and they will tell you your lifeblood in business is diversity. I know I won't be getting rid of that!! We will continue to strive to breed sheep with fiber diversity head to tail, longish and wavy, soft and fine texture...with bright expressions and straight toplines...just as the standard English.

I feel lucky. I know these changes will increase the value of my sheep quickly so that by two or three years from now, people will be looking for that "sheep like we used to know...the pretty ones with the long wool that is so nice to spin up and wonderful to wear!" You'll find THAT wool here.

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