Know Your Fiber: Shetland Wool
Posted on June 01 2018
Shetland sheep are beautiful and friendly little sheep with a soft wool that comes in almost every possible natural sheep color. These short-tailed sheep are from the Shetland Islands in the United Kingdom’s far northern latitudes, and are descended from a succession of sheep introduced to the islands. The history of Shetland sheep began with the native sheep there since Neolithic times, who were later interbred with sheep brought over by Vikings during their centuries of exploration and conquest. These sheep, in turn, were bred with sheep from the long-wooled sheep introduced into the British Isles by the Romans. A few centuries later, additional breeds of sheep were bred into the line by enterprising farmers who brought in wool sheep from Scotland. Altogether, these different lines of sheep produced a breed of hardy little sheep with soft wool, perfectly suited for the challenging environment of the Shetland Islands.
The Shetland Islands were originally settled by Neolithic farmers over 4500 years ago. The horns of the sheep they raised have been found in archaeological digs on the islands, providing evidence of their presence. When the Vikings invaded and settled the Shetland Islands around the year 800, they brought over some short-tailed sheep from their continental herds, which interbred with the local sheep to produce further variation in an already hardy breed. By the year 1200, farmers began breeding the sheep of the Shetland Islands with some of the long-wooled sheep that had been brought north by the Romans. Either by accident or on purpose, this developed wool that was both longer and softer, and was therefore quite desirable for woolen goods that could both be used at home and that could be traded.
In 1468, the Shetland Islands were mortgaged to Scotland to raise a dowry for the marriage of Margaret, a Danish princess, to James III of Scotland. A few years following the marriage, the Scottish decided to just go ahead and annex the islands. Despite the protests of the Danes, they succeeded and the Shetland Islands became a part of Scotland. Trade in wool from the Shetland Islands was already occurring by this point, although it was likely happening only with Scotland and the Nordic countries. However, by the early 1600s knitted stockings from Shetland sheep wool, well known by then for its softness and comfort, were available through trade to the English and the Dutch populations.
In 1707 the Shetland Islands officially became a part of the Kingdom of Great Britain when the Acts of Union united England and Scotland as one country. At this time, wool from Shetland sheep was already widely known as a quality wool that was already softer than much of the other wool that was available. Except, of course, for the wool from Spain’s Merino sheep, which was highly regarded throughout Europe as the softest wool available on the market. As the late 1700s arrived, Great Britain set their sights on disrupting Spain’s firm grip on fine wool market.
It is important to understand that the wool industry in Europe during the 1700s and early 1800s was as beneficial to a country’s economy as industries such as steel, aluminum and technology are today. A country that could produce fine wool in great quantities was a country that would have a solid financial base, and with a solid financial base came power and influence. Great Britain wanted to be that country, and believed that by acquiring Spain’s Merino sheep to breed with their own, the British wool industry would as least be equal to Spain’s – if not outright exceed that of Spain’s. Unfortunately for Great Britain, Spain simply didn’t want to give them any Merino sheep. Spain tightly controlled their Merino sheep and while Spain had made gifts of Merino sheep to some countries beginning in 1735, England was not on their list. Who could blame them? Prior to Spain’s development of Merino sheep, the English had been dominant players in Europe’s wool industry and Spain certainly did not want them to regain their position in the wool market.
Enter King George III of Great Britain, Sir Joseph Banks, and Sir John Sinclair. By the 1880s, King George III had commanded Sir Joseph Banks to either find or develop a sheep that could compete the Spanish Merinos. At this point in history, a revolution in English sheep breeding using methodical, scientific and selective techniques had been going on within Great Britain for a couple of decades (see the article on Bluefaced Leicester). So, King George III and Banks had good reason to believe that by identifying and breeding just the right sheep, they could come up with something that would allow Great Britain to compete with Spain’s wool industry. With Merinos unavailable, Banks looked around the globe for sheep that would be suitable for wool-improvement purposes, even going so far as to examine sheep from Tibet.
Sir John Sinclair of Scotland, a friend of Banks, had identified Shetland sheep as a promising breed. King George III was already a fan of having his stockings made of Shetland wool. The question was, could Shetland sheep be bred for the qualities the British wanted to have without Merinos, or would Merinos be required? Banks and Sinclair began a long correspondence by letters during the late 1780s through the 1790s exploring the possibilities. Sinclair sent samples of Shetland wool to Banks, but Banks was doubtful that the samples being sent to him, while fine and soft, were representative of the entire breed. He had noted that “stichel hairs,” longer and coarser hairs, were found in samples procured elsewhere. In fact, this was because many of the Shetland sheep of the time, like Icelandic sheep, were double coated and could produce both fine and thicker wool. Some Shetland sheep today still retain this trait.
Sinclair pressed Banks for many years to consider Shetland sheep as what Great Britain needed to breed for fine wool, describing what he referred to as the “kindly breed” of Shetland, or Shetland sheep that did not have the double coat with longer hairs that Banks disliked. He gifted Shetland wool to Banks that was “properly dressed and prepared” to exclude the long, rough hairs, making sure to include separate samples for Banks’ wife. He continually sent letters to Banks reassuring him that many of the Shetland sheep were free from the dreaded “stitchel hairs,” and then sent more letters discussing how he was looking at sheep from Denmark without long, coarse wool that might be bred with the Shetland to further reduce that trait. In another letter he describes how it is the method of gathering wool that produces the soft locks that Sinclair is looking for – Shetland sheep at the time, and many even today, will molt which allows the wool to be plucked off of the sheep. Sinclair let Banks know that this process, called rooing, meant that the wool was sorted between the fine wool and coarse wool as the plucking occurred.
Despite all of Sinclair’s efforts, Banks was unconvinced that Shetland sheep were the answer. He continued to look for ways to get Merino sheep to breed with the sheep of Great Britain, which he was certain was the solution to improve the wool qualities in British flocks. In 1787, Banks managed to get two Merino rams and four Merino ewes out of Portugal, which became the base of the royal flock. Around this time, it can been seen from Sinclair’s letters that he gave up on the quest to convince Banks that Shetland sheep were the way of Great Britain’s future. Instead, Sinclair began to focus on breeding newly acquired Merinos from the royal flock to other sheep, and the Shetlands’ moment of glory began to fade. The Shetlands, like several other breeds of British sheep from that time, started to disappear as interbreeding for wool improvement resulting in the development of other lines of sheep. By the early 1920s, there were not many purebred Shetland sheep left.
The wearing of Fair Isle sweaters by the British royal family in the early 1920 may have saved Shetland sheep from extinction. Fair Isle knitting is a stranded colorwork technique named after Fair Isle, one of the Shetland Islands, where distinctively patterned sweaters were knit using the technique. These sweaters began their rise to popularity in 1921, when the Prince of Wales (later Edward III) wore his in public. Knitted mainly with the many hues of naturally colored wool produced by the sheep of the Shetland Islands, along with some dyed wool accents, these sweaters began to become immensely popular with the broader public. The Fair Isle sweater hit the height of its popularity in the 1950s, although by that point it was often just the technique and design that made a sweater a Fair Isle sweater; it was no longer necessarily expected that the wool of the sweater be from the Shetland Islands, although if it was it did give the sweater that extra authenticity.
With the burgeoning popularity of Fair Isle sweaters, it is perhaps not surprising that a group of 1920s Shetland islanders were motivated to preserve the few remaining lines of Shetland sheep. The Shetland Flock Book Society started in 1927, and around the same time the government was approached for assistance. The Department of Agriculture for Scotland agreed to support the effort by providing subsidies for purebred Shetland rams. The breed recovered slowly, though. Even the Fair Isle sweaters that were still knitted in the Shetland Islands during the 1950s did not necessarily use wool from the Shetland breed of sheep – there were still too few purebred Shetland sheep around, and the style of the day required bright dyed colors rather than the variety of natural colors provided by Shetland sheep – and dyed wool could be gotten from any sheep with white wool, not just white-wooled Shetland sheep.
By 1977, Shetland sheep were still listed as an endangered breed by the Rare Breed Survival Trust. However, interest in the sheep blossomed over the next several years, and by 1985 Shetland sheep were removed from the endangered breed list. It was perhaps not coincidental that the 1980s also marked the time during which Shetland sheep became popular among small farmers in United States. Although a few Shetland flocks had existed in the U.S. prior to the 1920s, it wasn’t a popular breed in the country until the 1980s, a time when many farmers in the U.S. were experiencing a renewed interest in rare breeds. A few Shetland flocks are on record as having existed in the United States during the early 1900s. However, from 1921 until the 1980s, Shetland sheep were not allowed to be imported to the United States, which prevented U.S. farmers from acquiring Shetland sheep during those decades. Today, though, a number of U.S. farmers are making up for lost time by raising Shetland sheep. It is a rare county fair, state fair, or fiber animal show that does not include these adorable little sheep among its ranks of livestock.
Shetland sheep come in a wide variety of marking and colors – they include white sheep, black sheep, and a wide range of browns and grays. As a heritage, unimproved breed, Shetland sheep have one of three different kinds of fleeces: kindly/single-coated, long, and double-coated. The kindly/single-coated is the finest and shortest of the fleeces at only about 2-4 inches in length; it is used for fine knits such as lace, shawls and finely worked socks. The long fleeced Shetlands with soft and long staple wool between 4-8 inches in length are the most common these days, and much of the available yarn on the market is spun from their fleeces. The double-coated Shetland sheep are even more versatile than that of either of the other types, having a remarkably soft undercoat of wool and long and lustrous outercoat of wool that can reach lengths between 6-10 inches or more. The coats of the double-coated sheep can be separated, or spun together. Generally, Shetland wool has a thickness of 23-25 microns, but is can be even finer or thicker depending upon where it is gathered from the sheep. Wool between 10-20 microns can be gathered from the neck and shoulders, while wool between 25-30 microns can be gathered from the britches. Like Merino, many people who find wool to be irritating to their skin discover that wearing clothing made from the wool of Shetland sheep to be quite comfortable and not itchy at all. The wool is graded from Fine at its smallest diameter of 10 microns to Medium at its largest diameter of 30 microns, making it a very comfortable wool to wear.
Want to experience the beauty and coziness of Shetland wool? Check out Jamieson's Shetland Spindrift yarn, a wonderful fingering weight yarn available in our Bellingham store or online. We can’t wait to see what you create!
Shetland Sheep photo by Andrew Michaels. Creative Commons Image License 2.0 Generic.