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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What is Shetland Fiber Like?

Well, to describe what Shetland fiber is like, let's first look at what Shetland fiber is NOT like:

1. There is no such thing as "straight" Shetland fiber. If you have straight fiber, you don't have Shetland.

2. If you ask a Shetland breeder how long Shetland fiber should be, and they reply simply "four inches", you've discovered code that they are not raising pure Shetlands. Why? Genuine, historical Shetlands from the Shetland Islands had fiber of various lengths on their bodies. This is the reason the Shetland sheep IS SO FAMOUS!!!!!! Neck wool can be very short. Lower neck and deep shoulder wool is longer. Midside wool is even longer. Britch wool is longest. Now in commercial breeds, consistency in fiber length head to tail is required. If I was raising say...Suffolks, I could say "four inches" and you'd find that head to tail. A breeder of genuine, historical Shetlands will answer your question properly by telling you of the length variety on the sheep's body, and why that's important. If you want whatever fiber, buy "four inches". If you want the wool the Shetlands became famous for, buy short neck to long britch.

3. Fiber that is twisty or cork screwy is not Shetland. There are no twists in genuine Shetland locks. Will you find that fiber on Shetland sheep? Yes! I have a 2010 lamb out of AI genetics with corkscrewy fiber. I wethered him. He is also the only lamb we've produced with that characteristic to his fleece. His tail is also off; too long, too hairy, with wool not coming down far enough and it doesn't have a tapered tip. His fleece is very nice and I can't wait to spin it, for it WILL spin up easily and make nice yarn, but I do not want to pass this corkscrewy characteristic along in breeding, for it is not genuine Shetland.

4. As Dr. Bowie, a man who assisted in writing our 1927 Breed Standard clearly writes in his notes, as well as his son, Mr. Bowie writes, there is no such thing as "single or double coated or dual coated" Shetland. That's why the language is not on the standard. This was a mystery to me until recently. ALL SHETLANDS MUST HAVE POINTED TIPS ON THEIR LOCKS. Why? So they can shed rainfall because they are from a very WET place!! This is critical. Mr. Bowie plainly and clearly wrote that if the fiber is blocky, it's not Shetland!

Whew! I want to end on this thought for today because this one is sooooo important. Of late, there have been many pictures of "Shetland" fiber on blogs and such, that are very blocky, and that don't have tips on the ends of the fiber. This fiber is promoted as "ideal" Shetland fiber. I remember being around for a conversation amongst those kinds of breeders last year. These breeders raise a lot of those super short, no tips kinds of fleeces. They are nice fleeces, but they are not genuine Shetland. The concerns being discussed that day was rain rot. Those breeders were experiencing lots of rain rot issues while the fleeces were still on the sheep last fall. The area we live in gets around 25 inches of rainfall a year. Last summer was a wet year. We had upwards of 37 inches of rainfall. The Shetland Islands get 100 inches of rain, or MORE a year, and cloudy/damp/high humidity all the time! If sheep are getting rain rot on less than 40 inches of rain, SOMETHING'S WRONG WITH YOUR FLEECES! Forty, Sixty, or even eighty inches should be a piece of cake! I was intrigued at the conversation, for I have yet to experience rain rot on my tipped fleeces, and I wanted to learn more about what rain rot is like. Sounds nasty.

End note: I was very lucky to have received some old literature from one of the early Shetland breeders in America awhile back. Giddy and very thankful, I raced home and read as much as I could. There was a LOT to digest! As I get through the material, I am continually finding new surprises (And serious delight!!!!!!)! The biggest one was the point that "if it's blocky, it's not Shetland"! There ends my usage of that completely useless language of single or double/dual coats! ALL GENUINE SHETLAND SHEEP HAVE TIPS AT THE OUTER ENDS OF THEIR LOCKS. I've come to realize that if that language has to be used to describe a fleece, then you are talking Shetland (has tips), or not Shetland (doesn't have tips, is blocky).

The information given above can help new people, or confused people sort through all the myths flying around about what is genuine Shetland, and what isn't. It is currently popular and trendy to breed for super short, blocky, same staple length head to tail fleeces. These are nice fleeces, but they are not what created the famous Shetland textiles. For people like me, who are enthralled with the accomplishments of the Shetland people and their little sheep, in that horribly rugged group of islands, I strive to keep the sheep as true as possible, so that I may enjoy the fruits of the proper fiber myself, as well as pass that on to my loyal customers (many of whom are excellent knitters). It's not only been worth it, it's been an honor!!

Final note: I believe our breed organization should make it it's business to propagate the genuine sheep and promote the genuine textiles (and indeed, that was the mission of the early board members who worked hard to grow our breed properly here in the U.S.). In 2010, a group gained control of the organization and in July, swiftly changed critical components of the definition of Shetland sheep, among other critical things, then didn't publish their changes for the membership to see until the January 2011 newsletter (THAT'S SIX MONTHS!). Their changes steer the organization away from the genuine Shetland sheep and the genuine Shetland textiles. That is not preservation nor protection. We are heading down the road of the Shetland pony here in America. What once was a very cute, furry, stocky, headstrong but humble pony, has now become a lean, glistening, Grand Prix, long-legged, dished-nosed, girlhood jumping partner for wealthy families on the show circuit. Nothing wrong with people enjoying what crossbreeding can do, unless you love the originals and belong to an organization once devoted to protecting and preserving the originals!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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