WHO KNEW . . . SHEEP AREN'T JUST WHITE? (Shetland Yarn)
I learned to hand-spin yarn in the 90's and one of the first fleeces I ever bought and prepared myself was a fleece from a Shetland sheep. I bought it at the county fair from a wonderful woman who has since retired from the sheep business. The sheep was cute, the fleece was soft and not overly greasy . . . . but it was kinda wierd! It seemed to have these extra "hairy bits" that none of my friends knew what to do with.
It wasn't until much later that I learned that these sheep were a primitve breed. They weren't anything like the modern, more commercial style sheep that had been bred for soft, white, consistent fleece suitable for the modern age and it's voracious machinery. These were sheep that still grow two coats of fleece at the same time -- one soft downy undercoat and one a bit longer and a bit coarser for added protection from the elements. On top of that -- they come in multiple colors! Who knew that sheep weren't just white?
Well, this was the beginning of an ongoing love affair. With the help of some good friends, knowledgeable teachers and a determined rancher, this North American Shetland wool yarn was born. The registered, Shetland sheep for this yarn are all raised in Montana on my friend Cathy's ranch near Helena, Montana. They have a relatively luxurious life as they have their own Peruvian shepards, wonderful guard dogs, shelter, feed . . . and the job of helping Cathy control and manage the flora on the land she husbands for future generations.
It has been no small feet to produce this yarn, even on a small commercial scale. As a hand-spinner, I have the choice of separating the different types of fleece produced by a single Shetland sheep. But, it isn't economically possible to do so when spinning several hundred pounds of fleece. So, the yarn had to be spun with both the really soft undercoat and the hairy overcoat together. Another obstacle is the fact that commercial spinning equipment is not set up to spin what is often a 6" - 9" long staple. Through trial and error (and a very cooperative spinning mill) I found that with a small adjustment to the wool card, the wool could be blended together and spun as a woolen yarn. Because of the high quality of Cathy's fleece (unusually soft undercoats with low micron hair coat), we are able to produce a wonderfully soft, pure Shetland yarn from our own North American Shetland Sheep.