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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Shetland textiles

So much to say! Wheely Wooly Farm encourages each and every person interested in Shetland sheep to explore spinning and knitting (crocheting, too, although I've not read of crochet in the famous Shetland textiles). How do you know you are raising genuine Shetland sheep? By the textiles you create. If you are not making these textiles, that's ok! Shetland yarns are lovely in a whole range of uses, and are to be enjoyed to the fullest! But if you are not making these textiles, you are not educated enough to redefine the Shetland breed.

Many people do not realize that each breed of sheep has specific characteristics to it's fiber. While fiber can vary from sheep to sheep, in a broader sense, you can define unique characteristics to each breed of sheep. For example, Border Leicester is curly and open, rambouillet is square and blocky, etc. These characteristics will cause the yarn to also have it's own characteristics. These characteristics will determine how a garment performs on the human body. Many people don't know this. The best way to develop a fascination and understanding of this is to spend a lifetime spinning and knitting wool from a variety of sheep (and other fiber animals/plants). Your hands (seriously old fashioned concept here!!) will be your best teachers.

Now can you tell how good or bad a fleece is by just feeling it for a few seconds? No. While your hands may detect quick assessments, it is really just the tip of the iceberg. To really understand how a fleece will convert to a wearable garment, you must have a lot of experience spinning and knitting. Trust me. You'll learn much greater depth of understanding if you do this.

Now when it comes to Shetland sheep, textile history is extremely important. The sheep became famous and have a stunningly interesting history based on the link between fiber and knitted items/garments. HOW the wool was spun and used tells the story. Because Shetlands have this rare and amazing history, unmatched by nearly any other breed on the planet, it is critical that us Shetland Shepherds embrace this history, and highlight it. It's what separates us from all the other breeds on the planet. That's why, even though Shetland Showcase was stolen and renamed, I am very happy it became reality (as the Handy Shepherd), for the link BACK to textiles was re-established. That is a HUGE success in my mind! Plan your yarns and knits now! I hope many of you out there will enter something in these contests next year! It's not about winning, although winning is fun! It's about getting the fiber back into people's hands and onto their bodies again. Spin it, knit (crochet) it, wear it! You won't be disappointed!!

I know this is hard for some shepherds here in the midwest. They trusted some breeders when they were new, and unknowingly bought sheep that were not genuine Shetlands: sheep with unusually short fleeces at a 12 month clip, and bodies that clearly indicate crossing with another well known breed. That is a hard realization. If those newer breeders like that type of sheep and wool, great! That's ok! If you want to develop that style of sheep, great! I have never heard anyone say you can't! However, it's something else when those breeders change the language of our breed to force genuine Shetland breeders to switch over to crossbred, too. NASSA has a real problem in this regard in how this will be fixed. One suggestion was have a crossbred class (stocky sheep with short, crimpy fiber head to tail), and a genuine Shetland class (with beautiful, historically correct drapey fine, soft, wavy fleeces that create the genuine textiles, and twinkly expressions). My experience showing was that being in the ring with so many crossed sheep made it unfair to the owners of the crossed sheep. This is something breeders of those sheep have been complaining about for the last few years and I can understand that. Genuine sheep cannot be present before the judge for crossed sheep to win. Our sheep just are different. If I was in the ring with other genuine Shetlands, I would be a lot less confident I'd win! I guess we'll all have to stay tuned to see where this all goes....

To make a fair isle garment, you can use any yarn. All you need is two different colors of yarn in a row, both of the same gauge. That's it. However, the type of yarn you use will make or break your fair isle garment. If you choose short fibers that "pop out" of the yarn, you will not be successful in fair isle. (Shorter fibers have more ends, more frequently placed in the yarn. Therefore, more ends means greater density of "pop outs". More pop outs means fuzzier yarn. Does this mean your garment will look fuzzy from the get go? No. But will it get fuzzy quickly upon each wear. Yes.) Why don't short fibers create historical fair isle? Because fair isle utilizes symmetrical and asymmetrical graphic designs to create interest with just two colors. If you are mathematically minded, read....FUNNNN! The possibilities are endless...a source of a lifetime of fascination. Fuzz will blur your images more and more as the garment is worn. The fair isle sweaters made from genuine Shetland wool do not get fuzzy, rather, they maintain clarity of the design...and are famous in maintaining that clarity often for years and into decades. Why? Because they are made with long, strong, fine, soft fiber. Long fibers sit in the yarn nicely, with fewer ends to "pop out", thus less fuzz is created, even over time. Long, strong, wavy fibers do not break apart in the yarn as easily when the yarn is stretched and returned over and over, thus less fuzz is created. Long and strong creates less bulk because you can easily spin, with no carding (although you can card if you want to) very fine singles yarns that hold together very well. The shorter the fiber length, the weaker and thus fuzzier the yarn will become. Simple.

Another factor: the technique of fair isle knitting was not original to the Shetland Islands, rather the concept is thought to have been imported from Norway, Sweden, etc. and western Russia (Ural Mountains) by people moving around on the sea...Lerwick was a major port for centuries and a frequent stop for ships from the above mentioned countries. While Shetlanders have designs to call their own, it's important to remember that fair isle techniques were originally knitted using cashmere goat undercoats (straight fibers) and Villseau, Spalseau, and other breeds of sheep in the Northern European Short Tailed Group...animals found in Norway, Sweden, and western Russia. Those sheep are double coated with very fine undercoats of wavy fiber. These fibers gave rise to fair isle techniques because the FIBER could create it. The Shetland people really brought fame to the technique with their skill and location on the North Sea, and the fact they had powerful royalty to advertise it for them. Note: when talking about the island Fair Isle, you capitalize the first letters. When talking about the knitting technique of fair isle, you don't capitalize the first two letters, even though the knitting technique was made famous by the residents of Fair Isle.

The other thing in fiber you need to create successful, genuine fair isle garments is just the right ease in the fabric. Fiber with high crimp can be lovely. However, it is also more elastic. It creates a yarn with more bounce. It makes GREAT yarn for baby clothes! Babies look great in bouncy yarn! You can achieve this type of yarn by using the crimpier neck wool of Shetland sheep. Babies are not hard on their garments, wear wise. They rarely "wear out" their clothes. Therefore, durability is not so much a concern. Crimpy neck wool is the perfect wool for the job. However, to make successful fair isle garments that can stand up to hard outdoor labor by adults, you need LESS bounce. First, most fair isle textiles created on the Shetland Islands were for sweaters, socks, gloves, and hats, primarily for older, more mobile children and adults. The adults ranged from rich to poor, homebound to working at sea to on the golf course. To create fair isle, you are stranding the yarn along the back of the fabric when you are working two colors. This stranding gives a second layer to the garment. The strands must retain their shape without too much elasticity, yet they need to provide some stretch for ease in the garment. Ease means that the garment can stretch and return as you flex your body in different positions...move with you without bagging or pulling taut. Now bouncy yarn creates a pretty thick and bulky stranded fabric. The first rule of fair isle is to not use yarn that creates thick and bulky fabric. Why? Because fair isle creates a DOUBLE fabric...your knitted stitches, plus the stranding on the backside. What fiber creates ease without bulk?? Long and strong, with wave. Waves create just the right amount of ease in a garment, without too much elasticity. Long and strong fibers sit in the yarn with greater strength because there are fewer "overlaps" of fiber strands. There are fewer ends to "pop out", therefore, your graphic designs will stay more in focus. When looking at pictures of Shetland fair isle garments in archived photos, you will notice common characteristics in them all...they fit relatively close to the body, they are always worn over other garments (hats and socks being the exceptions), and they are not bulky. What fiber creates this image? Long, strong, wavy. Can you picture a prince in his golfing pose out on the green with his fair isle socks pooling around his ankles? I can't. Too much ease (greater crimp) is not accurate for fair isle.

So to create fair isle garments that most resemble the real stuff of history, you need fiber that is longish, wavy, soft and fine textured. Hey! That's the language on our Breed Standard! Huh! There must be a connection..................

Where can you obtain fiber like that? From shepherds who raise authentic, genuine Shetland fiber, shepherds who are dutifully following, to the best of their ability, the 1927 Breed Standard. Their sheep will have lovely drapey fleeces come 12 month clip time, fleeces that gracefully fall to the knees of the sheep. The fleeces on these sheep will completely hide the sheep's torso curves, so much so that you will not be able to assess the sheep's conformation very well until it's sheared. These fleeces will have crimpy neck wool that is shorter; longish and wavy midside; and hopefully, not too britchy britch wool (the wool at the back of the sheep's for that because overly coarse wool in the britch area is a disqualification. It should be unlike the wool on the rest of the body, however, because this is the biggest asset in defense of high winds and driving rain..."bums to the wind" as Lenice Bell likes to say.)

I've spun a lot of fiber now. And I knit a lot too! And I cannot stop designing little things I crochet. I've learned that I cannot make clear fair isle patterns in fuzzy wool. I've learned that neck wool is best for garments that I won't wear often. I've learned that midside wool makes the most luxurious socks you'll ever put on your feet! I've learned that britch wool makes GREAT yarn to hook rugs with, although most of my britch wool goes into yarn because it is not very "britchy". I've hooked christmas ornaments and wall hangings out of yarn off the very back of the legs, basically running down the "tail pipe". It is all still very characteristic Shetland wool with wonderful handle and unique feel.

So what about those people raising crossed Shetlands? Well, if you like the results, that's great! Enjoy them, for that is what it's all about! However, when defining a breed, and in keeping a breed true, you must stick with the facts. If you are new to Shetlands, or have Shetlands and do not spin or knit or crochet, we fully encourage you to give it all a try! If you like it, you'll be hooked for life!! :) And warm!

And for the lone breeder of crossed Shetlands, if you don't like reading about genuine Shetlands, you don't have to read my blog. :) But you are still welcome to. :) We welcome everyone.

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