Shetland: Gift from the Islands

Trawler makes Shetland landfall, 1965

The Shetland Islands provoke many images to me. Windswept coasts, prehistoric sites, oil platforms parked in Sullom Voe, the hull of an old fishing boat, lonely light houses long automated, fields dotted with shaggy sheep.

To many a knitter a lace hap or Fair Isle cardigan would be just as likely an image. There are numerous books out there that attempt to sort out the origins of both Fair Isle patterning and Shetland lace so what this will focus on are the sheep and the wool they produce.

Creedy Jamie

Shetland Sheep are a breed that was developed on the Shetland Islands. It appears they are related to other Northern European short-tailed breeds (Icelandic, Finnsheep, Romanov). It has been touted as having the finest fleece of all the breeds of sheep native to Scotland. The sheep, like the better known shetland pony, are a small, athletic breed that is well adapted to the meagre vegetation. They come in a dizzying assortment of colors and patterns with exotic sounding names. This makes it easy to plan a project using a variety of natural shades or by dying the darker colors to extend the color palette.

The breed was imported at two major points into North America. Once in the 1940’s into western Canada and then in the mid 1980’s under much more stringent conditions. The original sheep imported in the 80’s lived under lifetime quarantine and their first offspring were released for sale after 5 years of quarantine. This was due to the prevalence of scrapie among sheep in the UK. Since then there as been some importations of semen, but no other animals have been allowed into North America since then.

Our Shetland sheep

The older style fleeces are double coated, with a finer undercoat and a coarser outercoat. It’s not unusual for these to be different colors. But there are also many single coated examples as well. Also some of the sheep still will go through a yearly molt unlike less primitive breeds. Most shepherds who know they may have an issue with this schedule shearing such that the fleece is sheared before the molt occurs. Watch for this when purchasing a fleece. It will appear to be a persistent second cuts. Vegetable matter can be a real issue so watch for this in the fleeces. Also the lanolin of shetland sheep has a distinctive odor I have not detected in other breeds (but as of this posting I have never processed any icelandic fleeces.)

Shetland fleeces are light, usually 1-4 lbs and are very open. Carding the fleece is the most common preparation. Combing a double coated fleece will separate the longer, coarser fibers from the finer undercoat which then can be spun into a fine, lace-weight yarn. Thicker yarns are easily spun as well from either the undercoat alone or the combined fleeces.

Whatever you decide to make, from outerwear to lace shawls there is a shetland fleece out there appropriate for the project.


4 thoughts on “Shetland: Gift from the Islands

  1. I was wondering, in your research did you find any hint that the imported Shetlands have a different coat quality than those raised actually on the Islands? It has been my impression that the food they eat and the weather they live in are two of the factors that cause their coat to be what it is, in conjunction of course with their breed characteristics.

    I am currently spinning some lovely moorit Shetland wool, and enjoying it very much.

  2. I just found your blog and have been enjoying reading back through it. I wondered if you had noticed regional differences in Shetland fleeces from different parts of the country. I’ve bought quite a few Shetland fleeces from Michigan, where I used to live. Most were fairly long (3-5 inches) and sort of wooly — a silly description, perhaps, but the best one I can come up with to compare it with several fleeces I bought from a breeder on the west coast. Hers are kind of crisp feeling. I don’t see much difference in staple shape or in fineness of fiber (as far as I can tell) but they just feel kind of crisp and crunchy. Have you run across anything like this?

    I’ve spun one fleece from the Shetland Islands, and it was like the Michigan fleeces, but shorter. It also had a tender spot in the middle of the staple — it was one of the first fleeces I ever bought and I didn’t know any better.

  3. I’ve spun shetland fleeces from the midwest and the east coast, but I’m guessing compared to other fleeces I’ve handled that have come from the western US it has to do with the humidity that the sheep live in. It is much drier out west than it is in the east.

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