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.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

General Wool Quality

We are often asked how we get and keep the high quality in our wools.  Well, I'm no expert, but after years of spinning and raising our own flock, we've come to a point where we've understood a few things about fiber and it's general quality.

Light, fluffy, soft Shetland fleece freshly handsheared

As we've traveled around to fairs, farms, and shows in our area, we come across very few Shetland sheep.  Two breeds of sheep dominate heavily in this region: Suffolks and Hamps.  Nearly every week at market, we are approached by people who either have these breeds, or have family with these breeds and their questions usually go right to fleece:  How do you get high fleece quality? Here are some answers beyond the scope of good breeding and nutrition.  Before you read on, please take note that I own the copyright to this material and that I reserve all rights to it. You do not have the right to use or replicate it for your own gain.  It's flattering that so much of my work has transpired into others' articles in sheep publications but I think it's time now for that to stop.  That said, I hope nice small flock owners will find this information useful in improving their own flock's fiber quality and we are happy to help!

The first thing we usually explain is that there are many breeds of sheep available, and that each breed has it's own fleece characteristics and qualities.  I am always amazed at how many people in my region do not know this.  The different breeds grow different types of wool.  The wool may be spongy, crimpy, blocky, wirey, cushy, dense or not dense, or extremely short, among other things.  To be successful in raising high quality wool, you need to select a breed of sheep that genetically carries high quality wool genes.  The extremely short fleeces seem to be what most people have on their sheep around here, as fleece is generally viewed as a nuisance to throw away.  That view of things, I believe, is indicative of powerful people guiding sheep production in our country  who know NOTHING about spinning, knitting, or clothing, and you never see them wearing wool.  What gets missed is that a sheep is a whole animal with very valuable qualities to it's wool.  Good wool equals good meat.  Bad wool means junky meat because bad wool means an unhealthy sheep or one raised in filth. I get questions all the time about if this wool is usable, and how can they raise quality wool.  Here is how we raise wool and I hope it helps!

First, we are very, very picky about mud.  Mud is extremely bad for wool (and the health of your sheep!).  It totally ruins the quality of the fibers so that even if the mud washes away at a later date, the fibers are already damaged and usually do not repair themselves enough to gain back high quality.  If it's wet or muddy outside, keep the sheep in!  Another good strategy is good pastures with high density of grasses.  When it rains a lot, keep them moving around on good thick grass, then they are out of the mud.  Clobs of mud in fleece attract all sorts of other problems such as flies, filth, bacteria, parasites, odor, and seems to attract vegetative matter that you certainly wouldn't want.  Mud dries out fibers, removing the natural lanolin and suint in the shaft, causing brittleness and weakness.  It stops the natural cleaning process sheep use to maintain healthy fleeces.  Mud also wreaks havoc on hooves if the sheep cannot get to dry ground.  Ongoing standing around in mud invites hoof rot, which catapults into unhealthy sheep who's bodies work is compromised and functioning at lowered levels.  That's bad for muscle, bad for fleece.   Mud is bad.

Second, watch the rain!  Good, steady, gentle rains or intermittent down pours are outstanding for fleece, especially shetland fleece!  These sheep are designed to be in rain, and need to be for health and growth of high quality wool.  If the sheep are kept in during rain, or if the sheep are jacketed, the rain cannot do it's magic on the fibers.  That's bad for Shetland wool, although I could not say if it is for other non-shetland breeds.  Rain restores moisture to the fibers, and is absorbed slowly, "cleaning out" the fibers and freshening them.  As the sheep gets wetter and wetter, they raise the fibers on their skin and give their fleeces a good hard shake like a dog.  This is extremely important to raising high quality wool!  It keeps the fleeces in high moisture without dirt or filth, helps them restore lanolin and suint to the tips, and keeps everything nice and fluffy.  This is also extremely important for healthy hides!!!  Hides need air and moisture to maintain high health, especially fresh air exchange.  Without that, suint and other gunk builds up at the base of the fibers near the 'skin', ruining the quality of your fleeces.  One bad thing about rain, especially for non-shetland breeds is felting!  Heavy, ridiculous, cloudburst type rains can ruin good fleeces in a real hurry by felting at the skin line.  This has happened to us in our crossed wether.  That is a painful loss!  If super heavy downpours are predicted, get your non-shetland sheep under a roof so that you don't have to shear felt off your hides!

Last, watch your pastures for burdock and other self-attaching menaces!  Once sticky seeds get into your fleeces, the headaches in maintaining high quality fleeces begin!  Sticky things attract all kinds of filth into the fibers while at the same time preventing the fibers from naturally cleaning.  Go out on frequent pasture walks during the growing season and either a) pull the buggers out and burn them or b) get the goats out!  Goats and sheep are not the best teammates, but goats are outstanding at keeping menaces out of your pastures, keeping them 'clean' for sheep.  Works like a charm and is a lot easier than the pull and burn method.  Also, watch your hay!  One year, a bale of hay was thrown to my ewes on a day I wasn't around and it just so happened that that bale was FULL of burdock!  Auggghhhhhh!  It was a very bad day.  Hope that never happens again!  I no longer buy hay from that source.  Look before you feed.

By following these simple guidelines, you'll be amazed at how the quality of your fleeces will improve!  Keep the sheep moving, keep them out of mud, keep an eye on your vegetation, and use rain as a tool to maintain high levels of health in your stock.  Good luck!

PS...I forgot to comment about the fleece in the photo above!  This is a freshly sheared Shetland fleece from this last spring.  Note how fluffy it is?  That's really important in maintaining high quality on the sheep and in the yarn.  Fluff is how the sheep keeps the individual fibers 'groomed by nature'.  The suint and lanolin can do it's work on each and every fiber from 'skin' to tip.  Also, notice the topline?  I often hear of and see sheep with thinned toplines, meaning that the fiber is shorter here and less dense.  That is a real problem.  I'll talk about that in another blog, but notice here how nice the topline is...dense, fluffy, with amply long fibers?  The bits of vegetative matter are extremely important here as well.  Notice how they are very small, all about the same length, and are all 'riding' near the outside of the fleece?  This indicates a fleece that is working, meaning it is 'breathing' and that the sheep was successful in keeping the debris OFF the hide, nothing is settling down on the hide and causing bad health via irritation and filth.  After I shear my fleeces, I do a general skirting and grooming on the skirting table with tips up, then I flip the fleece to tips down and give it good shakes like a wet sheep would.  Wow!  Works like a charm!!  

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