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.


English sheep gal said...

Great post Rich, enjoyed reading of how it all began, and who has influenced the direction your flock has taken over the years, liked seeing some familiar sheepy faces, and learning their history. Funny to think the fiber wasn't really a big focus in the beginning, and what a huge component it is for flock decisions now.

I met you and Jen within a few years of moving here from the UK (in 2006), when I went to the WNY Fiber Arts Festival, which was then being held at Knox Farm, and was invited to tag along to a farm day when the Knitting or Spinning Guild was visiting in 2011, to learn about the flock and their fiber. The rest is history.........

It's great you are continuing to share your knowledge through the farm blog, Facebook page, talking to customers at shows, Jens articles published in Spin Off, and to people who buy sheep from you.

Abigail McEnroe said...

Thank you for writing this. I have always loved the shetlands but as a spinner their fleeces were always so coarse. Everyone said for years how soft Shetland yarn was....and I'm thinking are you nuts people? Next Fall will be my 50th year of spinning, I've seen alot. I'm supposed to be fading my sheep down as I'm 73. Now there is a little spark that says maybe this game is not over with yet. Thanks for your info...

Unknown said...

I found the writing about your journey very interesting. I might point out that your regrets about you beginnings shouldn't be.
You seceded in you originally goal of a 4-h project and to expose children to the animals. Simply put to travel 12 hours for a 4-h project would be ludicrous.
Could you have had a more efficient start with better sheep. Sure but lessons learned getting to where you are now would not be as valuable or as sweet. To me it sounds like an amazing journey.

Love to you and yours Cuz

Tom Alexander