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.
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.
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.