Thursday, February 20, 2020

FAQ - Why do you micron test all your sheep annually?

We get this question from people when the topic of the use of statistics and math in our breeding program enters the conversation.  It is important because fleeces will change over the years.  If we only did a test once or twice in the early years we would miss out on a lot of important information about our flock by excluding data on the more mature members of our flock.

Blue Sapphire as a lamb

Blue Sapphire as a yearling with tons of potential

Blue Sapphire as the regal matriarch at 9 years of age
The answer is, we probably don’t need to anymore. I think it’s important to test the yearlings just to see where they are. You might be able to make an argument that you should test the two year olds just to see how the second fleece changed. I think you can see that, however. 
Micron results for the entire flock are used for breeding decisions as well as accurately depicting the fiber products we offer
The main reason we do it is to make sure the products we offer are accurate. If I say a skein of yarn is superfine, it’s incumbent on me to back that up. So, we put the micron data on the label. I can’t use the yearling test for that; it has to be from the same fleece we are selling. 

Every fleece we offer inncludes the micron data from that sheep
Initially, I think it was important to calibrate my senses against what the fiber actually was. By testing annually, I can use data to make a claim as to what the fiber actually is. Moreover, I can provide useful information on variability, which is as important as the actual average fiber diameter.

Example of a yarn label with micron data for that year/ewe
We will be taking fiber samples this weekend as we are getting close to shearing day.  One more month of winter break on the farm before shearing, lambing and spring tasks kick in.

Is micron data important to our customers?  I would love to hear feedback/comments from those who actually worked with our wool if this information is important or helpful before I answer this question (hint hint).  

Saturday, January 25, 2020

FAQ - Does your soft shetland wool felt?

I frequently get asked this question, and up until now have not been able to answer because I don't felt.  I now have the answer thanks to a fellow fiber fancier we met at Rhinebeck last year who took one of our fleeces home with her.  She has since posted some very interesting information on her results with felting that she has generously agreed to allow me to share.  In her words on a post in Ravelry:

I bought a whole moorit Shetland fleece from Whispering Pines at Rhinebeck, and finally finished going through the lot of it. It’s low micron (I think the report indicated 22 or 23 micron), and I sent it through my combs and dizzed it into roving. The combing waste is getting spun on my drop spindle, and looking remarkable well for spun yarn from waste fiber.
But since I now have a nice bag of roving, I decided to get my felt swatch before making any decisions. I can spin, but wet felt is my true art form.
OMG, the felt this stuff makes is softer than an angel’s butt. Every bit as soft as Merino, and with every bit (or more) of the drape of Merino too. Where Merino makes kind of a hard, flat surface on the skin of the felt, the Shetland swatch is fuzzy. Not hairy, just lightly fuzzy. And oh-so-soft. Now I’m going to have to make the hard decision as to whether I want to spin this on a wheel, or just make a bunch of delicious felted garments out of it. I am LOVING this stuff.
A side note for other felters: Shetland takes rather more fulling than one would expect. The other Shetland I’ve swatched was a higher micron fiber, so rougher, but behaved exactly as this one did. It gums together into prefelt pretty quickly (a bit longer than Merino takes, but not much longer), but it seems to take bloody forever to finish fulling down. It’s very hard to get it to full completely with nothing more than rolling. My higher-micron swatch needed some time on the glass washboard to get it to full completely. I knew that the surface finish of my low micron swatch wasn’t going to stand up at all to the abuse of the glass washboard, so I finished it by shock fulling in the kitchen sink. This caused the surface to fuzz up a bit more, but was effective in getting it fulled down.
Shrinkage rates are considerably lower than Merino because it doesn’t full as tightly - but the payoff comes with increased drape. I would regard this as a garment-quality felt rather than a utility felt. I will try to get my hands on some of the really rugged end of the Shetland fiber continuum at some point to see if my opinion changes.

Here are the accompanying photos:

Susan - the donor ewe.  Gratuitous adorable baby photo.  Mom is Georgianna.

Susan at 6 mos - fleece is scrunched due to coat which we removed for the photo.

Man that is nice.


Combed and diz'd

Drop Handspun single of the waste.  Yes you heard me right, this is waste wool.  Wow.

There are additional posts on Ravelry where she further explains felting, fulling etc.  Its on the SE2SE shetland thread if you want to read more.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Tour of a Shetland Fleece

I said in a previous post that I wanted to break down a Shetland fleece from front-to-back in order to give everyone a better perspective on what to expect. One thing that I need to say at the start is that all sheep fleeces are finer in the front (specifically, the neck area) than they are in the britch area all the way in the back. I have tested a few fleeces over the years and found that the difference could be as small as two microns, but it’s there nonetheless.

Whispering Pines Neda - the model for the photos in this post.  She is a 2018 ewe.
We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the neck wool because it is the part that is not covered by our coats and is always loaded with VM. Therefore, this gets skirted and collected for handprocessing (which, quite frankly is how I think all neck wool should be handled since it is the finest the sheep has and should be treated like gold). Here is an example of what neck wool will often look like in a Shetland.

You can see very fine crimp. Just like with britch, we don’t micron test the neck wool, so I don’t have data on it, but I can say that Neda has an average micron value taken at mid-side (the infamous last rib) of 23 microns.

The VM isn’t too bad yet at this time of year. Next is the shoulders. Not as fine, but still superfine.

Next is the middle third. I have three different sections photographed here going from front to back (right in front of the hips). The middle third needs to be consistent from the front to back because that is where the micron test was performed and that result needs to apply to the entire thing. When you feel the middle third fleece on most if not all of our sheep, you won’t notice a difference in softness as you move backward.

Middle Front

Middle Front

Middle Middle

Middle Middle

 What you really need to do, however, is part the fleece and evaluate the crimp. Crimp tends to vary based on genetic lines, but there is a high correlation between fineness and crimp. Once you get to know your sheep, you will know whether your fineness holds well just be evaluating the crimp. That’s not to say you can tell how fine the sheep is by looking at the crimp. Crimp is hereditary. I’ve seen finely crimped Shetlands that are coarser (relatively speaking) than another one that has bolder crimp. But when you are in the middle third of each fleece, you shouldn’t see a dramatic change in crimp size as you move to the back. This is what people mean when they say a sheep falls off in the back. Now we are into the back third of the sheep.

You will almost always see a larger crimp structure when you get to this part of the sheep. As I have said previously, however, you should not see a completely different fleece type here. At most, you should see a one grade change when you get to this point compared to the middle third right before it. It should not feel coarse. All of these comments exclude the britch, which admittedly is part of the rear third, but is always skirted out. Finally, we have the britch.

We do not have extreme britch examples to share with you or I would. What you will notice here is that the britch still has crimp and a defined lock structure. It is not hair, in other words. If it was hair, it would have a long tip extending past the main fibers, there would be no crimp, and it would feel coarse. This does not. It is noticeably different than the rest of the fleece, but still very much “Good” Shetland. I am not saying every Shetland should have a fine britch wool. I am saying it doesn’t matter what the britch is like since most people skirt that. I am also saying that the britch has to be limited. If you are in the hip area and have very straight, coarse fiber, you have a fleece that will have to be separated into its various grades and processed accordingly. You are not going to produce next-to-skin yarn from this condition. We tend to skirt pretty heavily in the britch area because it is heavily contaminated with VM, but much of it is very good fiber.  We have started sending our britch wool to the mill to process into yarn.  Before we were at this level of quality the britch wool would just go into the compost pile.

That’s pretty much the nickel tour of fleece variability. I don’t like to see a dramatic loss of crimp in the back third, but it’s not uncommon.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Breeding Groups 2019

Breeding season has come and gone, we (Rich) set the groups up thanksgiving weekend and just broke them down last weekend.  Again we are working towards black based, soft wool, 3" staple length and well conformed bodies.  We used 4 rams this year.

Jon Snow got a nice sized group, I love him as he has great staple length, pretty color, and he roos cleanly which is very cool.
Jon Snow posing.  That is not his thingy, its just a loose piece of wool hanging down from his belly.

Jon's group starting in upper left and going clockwise to center:  Brienne, Blue Sapphire, Elara, Elinor, Susan, Soraya, Ofeibea Soshi and Sarin.  He would have gotten more but he is closely related to many of the ewes in our flock so that limited his usage.

Rush also got a nice sized group.  Rush gives us a fresh genetic pool, flashy spots, plus all the characteristics we are working towards.  He has done well for us over the last few years and we are hoping for more lovely ewes from his group.

Again from top left clockwise to center:  Genoa, Georgianna, Mrs. Hughes, Lakshmi, Baxter, Edith, Sansa, Cersei, and Audi.

Also Arya, Audie and Cokie.

Rush has a very intense stare and a beautiful head

Then we wanted to give one of our ram lambs a chance to try his hand at breeding, so Thor was put in with 3 ewes.  Thor is out of Sansa and Rush.

Full disclosure here - I am not sure which one is Thor, as we have 4 black ram lambs in this pen.  Its either the one in the front, or the head just behind him with the white fleck on his head.  They weren't cooperating for a nice picture and I got cold, so there you go.

So he got Ivy, Pearl and English Garden.  Funny how Ivy and English Garden struck the same exact pose during the photo shoot last summer.  Silly girls...

And finally Mr Knightley was put with Gilly and Korva.  Not quite in line with our goal of increasing the proportion of black based, but he is so very nice and has never had a chance to breed and also he would have been alone in his pen during breeding season which never works out well, so he got to be with our Gilly and Korva, two very nice ewes that we are interested to see what they throw.

And now the wait begins!

Saturday, December 7, 2019

What I am working on

Man I got a lot of stuff cooking.

I started working on Marianne to spin yarn for a special request, but discovered much to my dismay her locks were very short and was not going to be a fruitful spinning effort.

So instead of spinning all into yarn, I am using her energetic curly bits to make some felty sheep.

Instead of Marianne for the yarn, will be using Cora, a lovely fawn katmoget ewe who has similar color and feel of Marianne, with a much longer lock which will be very wonderful to spin.

washing her today

Began work on one of the patterns recommended to me by some of my more talented knitter friends with the grey millspun yarn from my skirtings.

On the wheel is Marianne, I think I'll get a skein out of her from some of the long enough locks.

Hallelujah, its a Christmas miracle I finished the stupid thrum mittens.  So they will be used to show how amazing soft shetland wool is for knitting thrum patterns.  Which I will never. ever. do again.

A pretty project from our soft shetland wool (Lady Mary) shared by a fellow sheep fancier - so pretty with a flirty little pom pom on the end.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

How it all began - Rich

In my last post, I mentioned how we grade our Shetland fleeces, and why we ended up focusing primarily on the Superfine grade. Today, I want to explore how we got there.

We started breeding Shetlands in 2001 as a 4H project for our sons. Jen and I both grew up around animals (not sheep) and had been talking about getting some type of livestock so the kids could have the same experience. Note: We didn’t even have a dog yet, so who does that, right?

We went to the two closest farms at the time to learn more about Shetlands (there weren’t many farms at that time). I was struck by how different the Shetlands were at those two farms. To be honest, I was drawn to the long flowing fleeces though. I had already decided that Shetlands were the direction we were going for two reasons: The incredible diversity in natural colors, and the small size. I had already read that they were more robust and easier to handle than most breeds, so that was also compelling since Jen and I both worked full time and had a limited amount of time on our hands. I had heard that Shetlands were the finest of the British breeds, but that didn’t mean much to me at the time. I figured most Shetlands were similar. Who knew? Note: I should’ve known. I read an article in the NASSA news that stated that you shouldn’t necessarily just buy sheep from the closest farm. As a person that grew up around horses, I knew this to be true, but I figured there wouldn’t be extremes to be concerned about with such an established breed as Shetlands. I saw no need to drive 12 hours to buy sheep. I learned there was every reason to do just that.

After breeding for several years, we started to see more blogs and websites promoting Shetlands. I was drawn to spots, but I also kept hearing that some people were getting good results with very soft Shetlands. This seemed odd to me, because I had already decided that Shetlands were not as fine and soft as hyped. Apparently, the fine fleece Shetland was a myth. I elected to visit Stephen Rouse at Sheltering Pines in Michigan because he had a very prominent website and was one of those people who seemed to have the mythical fine fleece Shetland and was very vocal about it (those who knew him will laugh out loud at that understated assessment). Hmmm…I thought, maybe the fine fleece Shetland wasn’t a myth after all. Stephen had them. Note: Stephen was a pioneer in the North American Shetland community, and was constantly striving to get the breed back to its original glory as it is in the UK.

We had mixed results with our fine fleece improvement efforts, largely due to the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve lost track of how many Shetland farms I have visited over the years, but I think it’s around 15. Having said that, I would say the biggest eye opener for me came during the NASSA AGM that took place in Canada at the Dailley flock. Getting a chance to see sheep from the original import in 1980 helped ground me a bit. Listening to Linda Doane talk about her experiences in the early years was also interesting (Linda and her husband imported the first flock of Shetlands to the US in 1986). I still remember Bill Stearman’s (another top Shetland breeder back at that time and for years after) passionate speech on Saturday night about the breed.

That was all good stuff, but I still wasn’t having great results with the fiber part of our breeding program. Shortly after, I went to Stephen’s to pick up some Shetlands. I brought home quite a few including Wintertime Itasca and Bond (who I got from Karen Valley, but picked up at Stephen’s).

Wintertime Itasca

Wintertime Bond

Bill told me to breed those two sheep together, and because he knew stuff and I didn’t, I did. Pearl was one of the ewe lambs we got out of that breeding the next spring and she is still in our flock today. When she was born, I immediately thought, “well, that’s something we haven’t seen before”.

Whispering Pines Pearl

Little did I know that was the beginning of our program if I am being honest. We later did Artificial Insemination on three ewes and we still have genetics from that. Whispering Pines English Garden is one of them. Genoa is another one. We have used rams from both of them, so there influence on our flock is pretty substantial.

Whispering Pines Genoa

Whispering Pines English Garden

I mention all of this because the sheep with the AI backgrounds were finer than the other sheep that we had in our flock at the time (out of mostly US backgrounds). Note: It’s tough to say “UK genetics” and “US genetics” because all Shetlands originated in the UK at some point in their background.

What was different? The fleeces were softer and crimpier. Once we started sending in samples for micron testing we started to see why. The so-called UK genetics were finer than the other sheep we had (all we had were Shetlands).

Around that time, we started doing fiber events and getting actual customer feedback on what we were offering. People were struck by the elasticity and softness of the yarn. Not all of it was superfine either. I sometimes cringe at what we had back then compared to today, but it took many years of research and training to figure it all out.

An example of customer feedback - this was a comment from Ravelry

To the main point of this article, we went on a journey to experience the best of what Shetland Sheep have to offer. We literally worked with all the five grades of fiber. I originally planned to have a flock consisting of all five grades, but the more we worked with the finer grades we couldn’t go back to the coarser ones (even what we would call “Good” in our grading system). There is a noticeable difference between the top two grades even. This isn’t to disparage what other people have. I’m merely stating how we arrived where we are. I served on the NASSA board of directors because I thought other breeders would have a similar interest in learning from the mistakes I made early on (that turned out to not be the case). 

Oliver Henry provided limit samples for wool grading

I’ve learned a ton along this journey to fine fleece enlightenment. I am eternally grateful to the Stephen Rouses, Bill Stearmans, Karen Valleys, and others who helped guide me along the way-showing what the possibilities were. Once you open your eyes and remove the blindfolds, you really do begin to see what’s possible. I don’t know how many breeders told me things that turned out to be false, but it only takes one knowledgeable person to get you to believe in the breed.

I went to Wisconsin to attend a training seminar in 2011 put on by Kate Sharp and Alan Hill. Kate and Alan were certified by the Shetland Sheep Society in England to judge and inspect Shetlands over there. 

Proud graduate
The SSS has a rigorous inspection process over there to register their best-of-the best. Often-times in life, you think you know things that you actually don’t. That training helped align my thinking with what they are doing in the breed’s homeland. I’ve certainly adjusted our breeding program around what they taught me at that training. I remember Kate telling me that Shetlands in Shetland tended to have longer fleeces and more wool on the poll than in England. I then asked about fleece length and whether that meant that Shetlands in Scotland would have staple lengths like we have in America. Both jumped in with “Heavens no, nothing that extreme.” What I’ve learned since then is that when fleeces are over 5” in staple length, you lose the very properties I talked about earlier. You lose crimp and fineness, which are the two properties that make our fleeces special. But it was good to hear that the longer fleeces are not desired or proper. It may be possible to get good results with fleeces longer than that, but I’ve not seen it in the years we’ve been doing this. Honestly, even the lengths approaching that seem to be problematic. Note: I’ve seen Shetland fiber much longer than 7” and they are quite common here in the states. 

The issue with the longer lengths isn’t spinnability, it’s what the yarn is like after it’s spun. Longer fibers are actually quite popular with spinners because they are easier to spin in most cases. But (and again, I have to say there are rare exceptions to this rule), you will pay a price for the extra length and that price will be fineness and crimp. One thing to keep in mind if you are thinking about seeking out Shetlands with the longer fleece types is that those animals will almost certainly be double-coated. Why is this relevant? Double coated means there are two populations of fiber on the same animal. So what, you say? What you will have in those animals is a shorter, finer, somewhat crimpy inner coat, and a coarse, hairy, crimpless outer coat. Spun together you will get fiber that isn’t particularly soft and crimpy. Trust me, we have done it many times, and it just doesn’t result in products that are next-to-skin soft even if the average micron diameter is similar. Again, some people like that property in the longer Shetland, but I will argue again that they probably haven’t used anything else.

In closing, that’s how we arrived at the type of Shetland that we have. Although we like this fiber much better than what we’ve had in the past, it’s important to me that we remain aligned with the breeders in the homeland in breeding the historically correct Shetland. I know I said in a previous post that there is no correct Shetland. But there is incorrect. My gage for Shetland fiber is what I have learned is allowable in the UK. That doesn’t mean that some of the fiber you encounter in the U.S. is not correct for what you want to do with it. It qualifies as Shetland fiber if it comes from a registered animal. That is no proof that it’s good Shetland, however. Part of the reason that Shetland in this country has received a bad reputation is that people think of it as the finest of the British breeds. There is a brand, if you will. Then they use the fiber (often times purchased online), and don’t like it. As a purist, that bothers me.

This is an incredible breed that has served a valuable purpose in Shetland going back hundreds of years. I have heard people argue for years that the Shetland crofters used Shetland sheep as a multi-purpose fiber. They would take the neck wool and use if for next-to-skin garments. They would use the side wool for sweaters and the like, and britch for rugs. And that is true to some extent. Flash forward to today in the U.S. where people are taking that concept and misrepresenting the breed (usually unintentionally). In some cases, you have (and we have had this) sheep that are fine in the neck, Good on the sides, and Rough in the back third. That’s three or more different wool grades on one animal. That is not what the Shetlanders raised. No one should expect to have a Superfine Shetland fleece from neck to britch (we do, but you shouldn’t expect that), but nor should you have all five grades in one sheep. When we process fleeces here on our farm (and when I say we, I mean Jen), we use the entire fleece in the making of the yarn. We put a picture of the sheep on the yarn along with the micron data.

Example of the label we use for all of Jen's handspun yarn

We would not do that if the back third of the fleece was a completely different type from the front third. Britch is a different story since most people skirt that and it is coarser than the rest of the fleece. In our case, we skirt that, but typically because it isn’t coated and has a great deal of vegetable matter in it. Most of our britch is fine enough to make yarn that would be graded as “Fine” or better. Kate Sharp told all of us in attendance during the training in 2011 that all Shetlands should have britch, but that it should be no larger than a handful in the area above the hocks. It should not extend into the hips like it often does.

At some point in the future, I am going to do a post where I break down a fleece from neck to britch so everyone can see what Kate was talking about. Those of you who were there and have watched the video will be bored since I have nothing new to offer over what the experts have said.