Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fleece Clinic II

Last year we did a fleece clinic on this blog to illustrate some Shetland fleece characteristics that we like. Shetlands come equipped with many fleece types, so don’t take this to be the definitive guide on the breed, but I will attempt to contrast the different types and, at the same time, illustrate some reasons to go with each type.

First of all, it’s not unusual to encounter double-coated Shetlands on your Shetland journey in the US. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a double-coated Shetland. They are common. What you need to determine is what you want to do with the fleece. Below is an example of a double-coated Shetland fleece.

This sample is very straight and coarse. But it has nice luster, which is to say it’s silky. It will spin up very well. But you would never want to use it in next-to-the-skin garments. It’s far too coarse for comfort. And without crimp, it lacks the elasticity that you want for some projects. This particular sample is about 34 microns on average, and the CV is over 30%, but not much over. This fleece is about 9" long.
It is not a breed standard Shetland fleece by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn’t mean it is bad, necessarily. But I can’t see using it for anything other than rugs. I think it's an example of the type of fleece that starts a lot of arguments between breeders. When you say something does not meet the breed standard, people take exception to it, but, in my opinion, this one doesn't. Why? For one, 34 microns is too coarse. Shetlands are supposed to be fine. Secondly, there is not crimp here. Some might try to argue that it's wavey (which is what the breed standard calls out), but that's equivalent to saying blue is almost green. This fleece has no movement at all in the finished product. It has no elasticity whatsoever.
Now, given that this sample has two very distinct coats, you could easily spend the time to separate them and then the finer inner coat could be used for clothing, but it will still lack the elasticity that you desire. As I said, it comes down to what you want to do with the fleece. But the bigger question might be why would you choose Shetland if you are making rugs and/or other items that require extra durability, without crimp?
The next sample is also double-coated, but not as extreme. I’ve seen Shetland fleeces ranging from 2” to 16”, and this one is closer to 6”. It has good luster, but also lacks crimp like the first example.

In terms of fineness, it is about 32 microns with a 30% CV. It’s certainly not my ideal, but it is pretty silky, and doesn't feel as coarse as the first sample. You can do a bit more with this fleece than the last one, because the outer coat (guard hair) isn't as dominant, but it still lacks the crimp to really provide good elasticity to projects. And I know there are things you can do during the spinning process to compensate for the lack of crimp, but when you compare it to finer fleeces, there is a very noticeable difference. In terms of spinning properties, it's probably equivalent to the first sample. Both will spin up easily, which makes them a favorite of beginning spinners.
To sum up the first two samples, both are Shetland, but not particularly good examples of the breed. If these fleeces were the norm in the old days in Shetland, the breed would not have been called the finest of the British breeds. That's not to say they didn't exist, however.
Next is a sample of a fleece that I think is a pretty good example from an adult Shetland. You can see distinct crimp here.

The staple is 4", which is what I have found to be a good length. As far as fineness, this one is about 29 microns with a 23% CV. Not bad at all. Nice luster, but not as nice as others that I've seen. Having made products from this fleece, I can say we are pretty satisfied with it. You might say that 29 microns is at the very upper limit of what wool authorities would call fine, and you'd be correct. But you have to evaluate fleeces against multiple criteria, and this one grades out pretty well overall. It has a lot of good properties. And coming from a three-year old ewe, this is not bad at all. There are two coats here, but they would be difficult to separate. If you are into separating the coats, you might be better off with a fleece that contains a more pronounced difference between them. Icelandics have such fleeces and a lot of people like them for that reason.

The next sample is from what I would call a fine fleece. This is basically what we breed for here at Whispering Pines. That doesn't mean anyone else needs to follow what we do, but I'm merely illustrating what we are after.

This fleece falls somewhere between 26 and 28 microns with a 20% CV. It’s about 4” long and you can see the crimp quite clearly. This fleece is fully functional in that is has nice luster and fineness to go along with the other classic Shetland properties. It could be used in most projects, including those requiring extra durability. It really has no limitations for use. It's not as fine as some of the best Shetland fleeces I've seen, but it's very good. This fleece would not need to be separated into two coats because there really aren't two of them.
The final sample is what I would call an extra fine Shetland fleece. It's not Merino fine, but it is still very fine.

In Shetland parlance, an extra fine fleece should have an average micron of between 21 and 24 microns. Some would disagree with my assessment on that, but I’ve seen too many really nice 24 micron fleeces to say that they are not extra fine. And yes, you can notice the difference between one of these fleeces and say an 28 micron Shetland fleece (like the one above). I also don’t think there’s much of a downside to fleeces this fine. I would think you might give up some durability with the really fine stuff, but for years, they used Shetland fleeces in the UK for shawls and other next-to-skin applications. And they were able to do that because of the versatility of the fleeces. It has properties that allow it to be used in many applications. Shetland fleeces are very unique in the totality of their properties. They aren't like Alpaca fiber. They might not be as fine as Alpaca, but they are very durable. Shetland fleeces were commonly used in the hosiery industry back in the day. And that was another thing that made them so unique. They could be used in a demanding application like that, and yet still had excellent fineness. A good Shetland fleece handles like nothing else.
Shetland fleeces can also be quite diverse. The breed itself is very diverse in terms of the various attributes that make up the breed, but fleece is one example of that. I have seen single sheep that had three types of fleeces on one animal. The neck and shoulders were kind of like the good  sample above - very decent - to - good with lots of utility. Not extra fine, but still pretty good. Then by midside, you were into a fleece that resembled the second one from the top. Then, as you moved back a few inches, you were into something more like the top photo. The back half of the sheep really was very limited in terms of what you could do with it. For all intents and purposes, you started out with a three pound skirted fleece and ended up with less than a pound of what I would call decent and reasonably crimpy, and maybe another pound of fleece that wasn’t terribly coarse, but still had limited functionality. That’s just not what we breed for here, but you can find sheep like that without very much difficulty if that's what you like. As I said, it really depends on what you like in your fleeces.
In closing, here are a few other examples of extra fine fleeces with 4" staple lengths and great uniformity. And notice the classic Shetland lock structure on each one.

These fleeces might not be for everyone, but we think they represent the breed nicely. They won't be 6" long, but 3" to 4" is more typical of the breed when you get this fine. If someone can show me a fine and soft Shetland fleece that is longer than 6", I'll be very interested in that fleece. I am sure there are bloodlines like that, but I haven't come across one yet. A 6" fleece can be quite acceptable, but I wouldn't expect it to be this fine. I suppose it could be, but I think this would be the exception to the norm, based on what I have seen.
And maybe that's the final point of this post. You don't have to go super short to get extra fine. The Shetland Sheep Society allows fleeces to be as short as 2" and as long as 6". I don't care for the fleeces at those extremes, but I've seen some good stuff at those ends of the spectrum.

I have been fortunate to have visited 15 Shetland farms over the years, and I have seen a lot of different types of Shetlands and fleeces. That has given me some perspective on the breed that I would not have gained otherwise. It allowed me to really fine tune my craft. And to me, breeding is a craft. It's not easy. It's not hard breeding Shetlands because they are so small and hardy, but getting fleeces like we like has not been easy. And, to be honest, we still haven't reached our goals yet, but we have had enough success to get a glimpse of what is possible with the breed. And that keeps me working at it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sommarang Idelle

When I headed out to Wisconsin to attend the WSWF this past September, I left home with specific instructions not to buy any katmogets, but this one was too good to pass up. She is out of Sommarang Challis, another ewe that I am impressed with (hey, Lori knows what she is doing). Her father was Sommarang Gilroy who microned around 20.5 or something as a yearling. I also liked Gilroy a great deal. He wasn’t far off of the top rams in my estimation. It’s always nice to see the parents. In fact, if I don’t like one of the parents, I won’t take the sheep.

Anyway, this beautiful ewe is Sommarang  Idelle. In the best pair of ewe lambs class, she took first or second, and Isla took the other spot. I don’t remember who they were paired up with, but it wasn’t each other. So, Lori took first and second place with her two pair of ewe lamb entries. Not too bad. Idelle’s micron test was: AFD: 21.0 CV: 4.3 CV: 20.7% CEM: 8.1 SF: 20.4.
How does this lamb compare to the other two Wisconsin ewes? Structurally, I like her better. In terms of fleece, I prefer Isla and Ilke. But Idelle's fleece, although not quite as silky and fine as the other two, is a little longer and denser.
I just don’t encounter spotted ewes of this quality very often. I don’t breed specifically for spots these days, but I do appreciate a good spotted ewe when I see one.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sommarang Ilke

Proving how much I liked Firth of Fifth Avyt, I decided to buy another moorit daughter out of him. Ilke is another beautiful ewe. I didn’t go to Jefferson with the goal of buying up Avyt lambs, but once I saw him, I knew one wasn’t enough (of course, is it ever?). Ilke is out of Sommarang Comfrey, another of the amazing ewes that Lori owns. I prefer Isla if I had to pick one, but they are very close. Ilke’s micron test was: AFD: 20.2 CV: 4.5 CV: 22.3% CEM: 8.8 SF: 19.9. I think Ilke and Isla will have very similar yearling numbers, and certainly both will be keepers for next year.

They both feel really fine, but Ilke feels slightly softer. Either way, they are two of the softer ewes in our flock.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sommarang Isla

When I went to Jefferson this fall, I was on a mission to learn and to see if there were any moorit ewes that I thought would help our flock. There were, but most of them were not available. Fortunately, I left early for the trip so I could spend some time on the Thursday before the Judge's training talking to Lori Stephenson, Kate Sharp, and Alan Hill. I had already been talking with Lori about moorit ewes so I knew what she had, but I figured I'd take a look in person to see if I could talk myself into buying sheep (that's how I buy sheep. I go into it not planning on following through with whatever hairbrained idea I might have had earlier). Once in a while, I see something that blows me away, and so begins the inner turmoil of trying to talk myself out of it.

In this case, Lori had several really nice moorit lambs, so right away I knew I had some issues to deal with. I'm lucky to find one Shetland that I like (and that is also for sale) and here there were several. After looking them over pretty well, I slept on it and went to the training on Friday. Needless to say, I was really blown away with two of Lori's adult rams that were at the show. Hacket and Avyt were incredible rams, and certainly two that would've looked good on my farm...if they were polled. Still, they were (are) two excellent rams and I thought to myself that it would be nice to have some offspring from one or both of them.
After the training, I went back to the pen and looked the ewe lambs over again, and picked out two moorits that I liked a lot. I wrote down the eartag numbers and then proceeded to look at the pedigrees.

I was surprised to discover that both were Avyt daughters.

When I went to Jefferson, I already had an eye on Isla, but I didn’t know it was Isla I had selected that day until I looked at the pedigree, so that was kind of cool. The one I picked in the picture ended up matching my in person evaluation.

I think she adds a lot to my flock other than moorit. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t have brought her home (although I am excited to have an Avyt lamb).

Isla is a ewe out of Sommerang Ginger and Firth of Fifth Avyt (a Black Forrest son). I nearly bought Ginger last year, but elected not to when I decided not to go to Jefferson in 2010.
This year, I had a hard look at both of her daughters out of Avyt and decided on this one. Avyt (for those who aren’t into Shetland genetics) was the Reserve Champion Shetland at Jefferson in 2011. That means he was not only the very best ram there (in the eyes of two certified Shetland Sheep Society judges), he was the second best Shetland. And honestly, the competition was incredible.
Lori sent in Isla’s fall micron test, which was pretty nice: AFD: 20.1 CV: 4.7 CV: 23.5% CEM: 7.9 SF: 20.0. I have often said that I don’t put much stock in fall micron tests, but I do think they provide some value. In this case, Lori provided the results after I had selected, so that was cool. Isla is very fine and soft, which was obvious to me the minute I handled her fleece. The CV is interesting in this case, because I don’t see a lot of tip, which would be indicative of double coating. I don’t see that at all. In my opinion, this is a very nice fleece.
The bottom line is that I like this lamb a great deal or I wouldn't have gone to all of the trouble of bringing her in. I am influenced by colors and patterns a little bit, but if the underlying sheep doesn't make the cut, it doesn't really matter. Every time we bring in new sheep, it ends up costing me a lot of money for OPP and Johnes testing to ensure we aren't bringing anything into our flock, and we keep everything in quarantine for four-to-six weeks, so when we bring something in, it has to be special. I think Isla is.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Whispering Pines Genoa

Genoa is out of our F2 Heights Orion ewe out of Whispering Pines Shiobhan and Sheltering Pines Pompey. She is one of the prettiest lambs we have had here and I really really like her fleece. It will probably micron at 23 with a low CV as a yearling. But, I really don’t care because it is very consistent from shoulder to tail and just has wonderful properties. And the color? Dark blue, which is just the best Shetland color ever. Okay, it's my favorite anyway. And soft soft soft.

In my opinion, she has the best fleece of any lamb we've had born here in terms of handle, lock structure, crimp, color, and overall fineness. She wasn't the finest lamb born here this year, but I just dig the fleece. Still, it's extra fine. Of course, I'm feeding the heck out of our lambs as of this writing to try and get more weight on them heading into the winter. Although that tends to have a negative impact on fleece fineness, I like our lambs to be close to 60 pounds on December 1st.

Her fleece is probably the most like Sheltering Pines Blue's Clues of any of the sheep we've had here on the farm. And the funny thing is that she's not even related to him. I have two of his daughters and this one is the most like him. The fleece just has a lacey quality that makes you want to take a nap in it. All I know is that I would like an entire flock with fleeces like this one.

As I scanned her pedigree recently for this post, there is a nice collection of great bloodlines in there that I hope bodes well for her lambs once I breed her next year. And the funny thing is that her fleece is unlike either of her parents. Both parents had wonderful fleeces, but I prefer this one right now.  I liked Shiobhan a lot, and her mother, Queen Anne's Lace, was also pretty nice. Anyway, whether it was Pompey's influence, or what, I don't know. But I do know that this is a really nice ewe lamb.