I think a lot of us in the Shetland world have preferences for different types of fleeces. There is no Shetland fiber store that you can go into and order generic Shetland. Most people go to fiber festivals and stuff like that to get their fiber fix. Anyone who does that will testify to the fact that there is a lot of variability in that fiber. In fact, you are lucky if you find good Shetland fiber. You are really lucky if you live in a part of the country that has it readily available.
Other people order fiber from Jamieson and Smith in the UK. That seems like a good idea; going right to the breed’s homeland.
I recently had an opportunity to send some samples from our flock to Oliver Henry, the Shetland Wool Grader at Jamieson and Smith. Kelly Bartels was nice enough to bring the samples with her on her trip and Oliver was gracious enough to grade them. Oliver is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Shetland wool (at least in Shetland).
I didn’t send my entire flock, but I did send a cross section of types.
The first one is Whispering Pines Pearl. She is a super fine ewe that we raised out of Wintertime Bond and Wintertime Itasca. Her fleece is very fine and crimpy, but also has great density. I had a superfine grade on her. Oliver had a superfine+ grade on her. That’s good. He knows a lot more about fine Shetland than I do. That one was pretty easy, however, because it meets just about any reasonable definition for fine Shetland fiber. More importantly, she has good fleece structure. All of that adds up to a gold standard fleece. Shetland fleece has to have some tip. If you lose that, you are left with fine fiber that came from a Shetland, but isn’t Shetland. This picture doesn't show a lot of tip, but she does have it. All of the samples I have here were retain samples that were stored in a plastic baggie, so they look a bit compressed and balled up. Pearl's fleece is about 2.75" long and very stretchy.
Another thing I need to point out here, is that all of the fleeces I am sharing were from last year which was year two of my nutrition study. In most cases, I like this year's fleeces better in terms of handle and crimp. These fleeces, in my opinion (and I believe the micron testing will prove this) showed an increase in fiber diameter because of the grain. I would not want an entire flock of fleeces like Pearl's because I prefer a noticeable tip along with a tapered staple. Still, it's a type that I do like and it is so fine, crimpy, and soft.
The second fleece is Sheltering Pines Constantinople. Her fleece is also very dense, with good staple length and pretty good handle. The fleece is crimpy, but not nearly as fine as Pearl’s. I had a solid “fine” grade on her. Oliver had a superfine+ grade on her fleece, however. I am not sure why we did not agree on this one, but I think he is comparing fleeces against what he typically sees in Shetland, where I am comparing against other fleeces I have seen in the U.S. as well as our own flock. The other thing that I do is knock a fleece down a grade if it isn’t uniform from front-to-back. Oliver only looked at a single staple, which isn’t really fair to him. Some people will grade different parts of the fleece and then break them up accordingly. We don’t do that. It’s one grade, which means it has to be consistent. I could not find a sample of her fleece, so I am sharing one that looks like it. It is my example of what I call "fine" Shetland. Notice the tip. This is closer to what we are breeding for.
This year, we used Egyptian Autumn for the first time, and we used him quite extensively. The reason is that he is an exceptional ram. He has a great conformation and bloodlines that I admire. He is an F4 Jericho out of Egyptian King that I have a superfine grade on. What did Oliver have to say about him? Oliver graded him superfine+ with the comment, “I have never seen Shetland as fine as this. Denser crimp structure.” He is probably the best all-around ram we have used here. He isn’t the finest ram we’ve had, but he does have a pretty amazing collection of attributes.
Oliver also graded Autumn’s father, Egyptian King as superfine, perhaps finer. That is Oliver’s best grade.
I also had a superfine grade Blue Diamond. Oliver agreed. His comment on her fleece was that she was “like Shetland Island superfine.” This is another one of those fleeces that would still have a great handle at a higher micron. This picture shows a fleece that his higher in micron than it was the year previously, but it handles the same.
Blue Sapphire is a favorite of ours, so I was curious how he would grade her. He gave her fleece a grade of superfine, which matched my assessment. The other thing I should add here is that you really need a good handful of fleece to grade properly. Once you sink your hand into a fleece, you have a good idea about the handle. You can’t get that from looking at a staple. Still, I’m grateful to Oliver Henry for taking the time to grade my samples and to Kelly for taking them with her.
Interestingly, I also had a superfine grade on Kiyah. She is a half-sister to Egyptian Autumn (EK is the father). Oliver also made the same statement about her that he made about her father. He had a superfine+ grade on her. Both Kiyah, and Egyptian Autumn have ultra-crimpy fleeces and are unique that way. Both had CRV’s (which is a scientific measure of crimp) over 100 as lambs. We don’t typically see numbers that high. That doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it is a different type of Shetland fleece that has its pros. It’s not really what we are breeding for, but if we can get it along with correct lock structure, we’ll take it. Kiyah's fleece is the shortest in our flock at 2.5". It's also the crimpiest, which means it stretches to about 4" or more.
Kahlua is a good example of what I was talking about from last year's fleeces. Kahlua's yearling fleece was nice, but this year's is much much nicer. It's rare for us to have adult fleeces that are better than the sheep's lamb wool, but that's what we have here. Kahlua is out of Vogue. She has a rich moorit superfine fleece according to my grade. Oliver also gave it a superfine grade. Length is about 3.25". I know there will be people who say these fleeces are too short, but those who say that have never worked with fine Shetland. Shetland fleeces should be around 3"-5" according to historical literature. They can be a little shorter or longer, however. In my experience, I find very few 5" plus fleeces that I am all that impressed with, so those guidelines look pretty accurate to me.
What did all of that tell me? Well, we agreed most of the time on the grade. My system does not have a grade higher than superfine. I have considered having a higher grade, but we are trying to pattern our system after Oliver's, hence the terminology. I'm really not interested in inventing something new.
As I stated previously, I now grade fleeces by hand before I look at the micron values. The fleece either feels exceptional or it doesn’t. The micron values (which Oliver did not have when he graded these) should help explain why I graded them the way I did; it should not dictate the grading. I am not Oliver Henry, however, so I have to use the micron data to help me out. I cheat a little, if you will.
I submitted 20 fleeces to Oliver for grading. He came back with 13 superfine or superfine+ grades. Granted, I submitted some really old fleeces as well some that I knew weren't good. The 13 that were superfine were all our sheep, however, so that I was pleased with. There were a number of fleeces that I did not submit like Genoa's and Vogue's, but I knew they were superfine, so I didn't bother. I was trying to submit a variety of types. A bit of a cross section of our flock. I also had several "fine" fleeces in that mix. Those were different types, but still really nice Shetland. They had bolder crimp and upper 20's micron.
I have mentioned tip several times here, and what I mean is that the staple would normally be triangular in appearance, with the top having a point, for lack of a better word. The Constantinople picture above is a good example. The picture below (which is similar to a sample that I also submitted to Oliver. We have a lot of retain samples for a lot of sheep) is not what I mean. This has long, coarse guard hair. That is not the same thing as tip.
The sample below is what I would call proper tip:
So is this:
This isn't as fine, but it is correct as well. Notice the luster.
That is Irish Rose's fleece, which Oliver and I both had a fine grade on.
I think this is good stuff. The more we learn about Shetland sheep and their fleeces, the better it is for the breed as a whole in North America. Shetlands, in the US anyway, have become quite a bit different than what one would see in the UK. That is not a good situation for the breed in this country because they have slowly become something else. My main concern is that our flock continues to strive to be aligned with the breed’s homeland, and not part of the continued drift that we are seeing in this country. That is difficult to do since the sheep in Shetland are different from the sheep in the mainland. I think, the best examples, however, share the same traits, and that is what we are looking for here.