One question that continues to come up at fiber events that we attend is "What is correct for Shetland wool?". I’ll attempt to answer that in this post.
What is correct? There is no correct. Correct is what a person needs for a given project. That was easy. Thanks for reading.
I do have to elaborate on that, however.
First off, Shetland Sheep are known to have a great deal of diversity in fleece types. Even in the UK, there is a fair amount of diversity, although not nearly as much as we see here in North America.
So, the first thing I want to say is that there is no correct fleece type because you will encounter all of them if you look around. The North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association (NASSA) is a registering body in North America, and they allow all types. A North American Shetland Sheep with a shorter, single-coated fleece type is equivalent to a longer, double-coated sheep in that regard as long as they are registered to prove that they are purebreds. In other words, a registered Shetland is a registered Shetland. A purchaser of a Shetland fleece might prefer one over the other depending on their needs.
Having said that, in Shetland, Jamieson and Smith purchases most of the Shetland wool clip each year from Shetland sheep. They separate each fleece into five grades: Superfine, fine, good, Rough, Heavy.
Approximately 3% to 4% are grouped into the Superfine category. At Whispering Pines, we breed exclusively for the Superfine type of wool. Why? Because it’s uncommon just like it is in Shetland. In the past, we have had all of the above grades. We only care for the Superfine and Fine grades, however. That’s pretty much where we settled in after trying everything.
|We are breeding for single coated, fine crimpy fleeces.|
|A shetland sheep with a longer double coat|
|Oliver Henry at J&S with all the wool around him|
|Samples of Superfine locks from our sheep|
|Samples of rough locks from sheep we had in the very beginning of our journey|
What is a Superfine Shetland? The Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association (FFSSA) defines Superfine in two categories: Premium and Regular. The difference? Premium focuses more on lower variability in fiber diameter than does the Regular category. Both require average micron values (fiber diameters) of less than 25 microns. Most of our adults (95%) on our farm are in the Superfine Premium category (we micron test all of our sheep every year so we can see where we are year-to-year. That’s how we are able to label our products with the micron data).Why? It’s not common anywhere in the world. How often can you say that you offer a product no one else in the world has? Not often. I should note, however, there are people in the UK that do have this kind of fiber, but good luck getting it. And if it’s yarn you are after, that is also a challenge. Even Jamieson and Smith (who have some of the finest Shetland wool available in the Islands) only put the superfine category of wool in their Supreme Lace weight yarns.
|Micron data from all the sheep in our flock. We test every year and use as input for our breeding decisions|
Other than being uncommon, what does the superfine label buy a fiber person? A finer fiber unlocks the ability to make next-to-skin garments. Historically (probably five years ago), we have had yarn and other fiber products produced from wool that is 27 microns and very low variability (this would be called Fine Premium in the FFSSA lexicon). When you compare that to what we have now (which is typically 20-23 microns for the most part), you notice two things right away (and the differences are striking). The fiber is much softer today than it was say five years ago. You don’t have to understand fiber diameter to feel it. Like I said, the difference is striking. The other benefit is in regard to elasticity. The finer fiber has great elasticity or bounce. This also has great benefits for many final products. People often comment that they’ve never seen Shetland like ours and some have questioned whether it is actually Shetland. It is.
One thing we have focused on doing over the past 10 years or so is mimicking what they have in the UK. I have been trained by certified judges/inspectors from the Shetland Sheep Society. So, I can claim with confidence that what we have is representative of what they have over in the UK where they have formal criteria for registration. That’s why people notice a difference in our fiber.
That’s why the FFSSA has a trademarked tag “Traditional 1927” Shetland Sheep and Wool products.
You can not use that label unless you are a member of FFSSA. Why is that? It’s sort of a quality control that exists to protect the consumer. There are many types of Shetland fleece. But if someone wants really fine, crimpy Shetland, they can look for that trademark and know what they are getting. What does that mean? The Shetland Sheep standard was written in 1927 as a means of protecting the purity of the breed. Back then, there was much cross breeding occurring with Cheviots and Scottish Blackface sheep. Shetland breeders became concerned and created the Shetland breed standard to show folks what the pure Shetland should look like. Cheviots and Scottish Blackface sheep have very different traits (from each other and Shetlands). So, the phrase "Traditional 1927" harkens back to that. Today, it’s not crossbreeding that we are concerned about since a registered Shetland has proof of purity. What we have found, however, is that they do throw back to more primitive fleece traits if you aren’t selective with your breeding program. The same thing happens in the UK, but they are very skilled at knowing what is technically correct per the breed standard.
The thing that many people have lost sight of is that in the 1700’s, Shetland were known as the smallest and finest of the British breeds (there were no Merinos in the UK back then as they were a Spanish breed).
Anyway, that is why we breed the type of Shetland Sheep that we do. It doesn’t mean that our fiber is better overall, it merely means it is better for next-to-skin products that require that kind of softness and elasticity. That is also why I don’t throw around the word correct. Even though we breed for the finer end of the Shetland fleece spectrum, there are five grades. Each are correct. If you are making carpeting, for example, Rough is probably correct. If I was making rugs, however, I probably wouldn’t use Shetland. Some might disagree, and that’s fine. I will say, however, once you make a hat out of a fleece in the “Good” grade, and one out of say “Superfine”, you’ll never use “Good” again. As you exceed 25 microns and well before you reach 30, the scratch factor quickly rears its ugly head. That is what give Shetland such a bad rap, unfortunately. Most of what you see out there are either 30 microns on average or have a large population of fibers that are. You can talk about silky all you want (and silky is also an important, but separate trait), your skin knows coarse when it feels it. If you mix hot and cold water, you get warm water. That’s not really how fiber works. Mixing coarse and fine does not somehow get you something useful. It gets you something that feels prickly in the same way that mixing steel wool and cotton gives you something you wouldn’t make a hat out of.
Editors note (Rich): It took great restraint to avoid using statistical jargon in this article. It is much easier for me to explain and understand variability using statistics, but I am in the minority apparently.