Old World sheep

All my love for history materialised itself for good. Imprisoned at home by weather breakdown I put my spinning wheel in the biggest room. There, in the cold and with insufficient light I took in my hands wool which once passed through fingers of Viking women.

Wool I mentioned above belongs to one of the oldest sheep breeds living in the Old World – northern Eropean short-tailed sheep bred in Scandinavia, Greenland, British Isles and lands around Baltic Sea. It is believed they come from the sheep which arrived to the European continent with first settles in Neolithic Age, the last part of the Stonge Age, directly preceding the Bronze Age. Their great feature was the ability to adapt and survive in harsh climate they found here. They’re small with legs and faces free of wool and may be horned in both sexes.

As a spinner I am of course most interested with their fleece. Here happen the most interesting things. The colours! Sheep can be coloured in many ways, they may be in solid colour (usually white, black or in the shade of reddish brown – moorit) or patterned. Within shetland sheep alone one can distinguish 11 basic colours and 30 different types of patterns. The names of these colours still keep a trace of old Viking settlers, this way now a brown with reddish tint is called moorit, brighter moorit – mjoget, light grayish brown – musket, dark steel gray – Shael, gray with a bluish tint – emsket and so on..

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What’s interesting, some of them (such as Soay, Jacob sheep, Shetland, Icelandic..) retained the ability of molting, hence obtainig wool was possible not only by shearing but also collecting or plucking what sheep sheds (this process you can see here). This documenting their distant origins feature has been eliminated with passion in modern sheep breeds. As for the quality of wool the spread is huge! Not only there are differences between races, but even inside virtually each one of them there is another distinction between a thicker external coat protecting from rain and inner one, soft, which is a protection against cold. For example – Icelandic sheep external coat (tog) reaches a thickness of 27 microns, but the inner coat (thel) has magnificent 20 microns, which make it so soft it can be worn on bare skin. During further wool processing these different types of hair are usually separated from each other  and used for various purposes. The exception however is popular in Iceland Lopi wool, in which the fibers are mixed. Lopi is indeed a topic for a separate post that wil certainly appear here 🙂

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Above: a family picture (from left): Manx Loaghtan, Old Norwegian, Gotland, Shetland and Icelandic. Looking at the differences in spinning those wools I can say this family is as consistent as Vikings who plunderes each other’s villages 😉

Going to merituum! Let’s start with Manx Loaghtan, called once in memes the most metal sheep in the world. Bred on the Isle od Man, it’s probably the only one which grows more than one pair of horns, and you can even find and proud holders of 6 pieces! Till 1950s only 43 specimens survived. Thanks to the efforts of organization that cares about the national heritage of the Isle of Man ( Manx National Heritage) the herds bred today even off the island were restored. Still, however it is estimated that the amount of these sheep is extremely low and reaches aproximately 1500.

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What I can tell about spinning their wool is that although the hair is not super thick, you can still feel its character and a slight slip of fibers. They were not perfectly catchy, hence I had to twist the fibers properly not to pull it out of the tops without followers 🙂 This wool belongs however to the most fluffy yarns from among the ‘Vikings’.

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Skein characteristics:
– 90 g (3.17 oz)
– 240 m (262 yd)
– wpi = 13
– fiber tickness: 29 – 31 mic
– fiber length: 75 – 80 mm.

 

 
Next sheep coming from the British Isles is the one which wool is the most fluffy – gorgeous Shetland sheep. What makes them unique are not only the wool softness but the palette of colours they offer – from white to black passing through all possible shades of grays and browns.

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I must say here that it’s been a year since I have dreamt of knitting a real traditional shetland hap shawl in natural shades. The price of real shetland wool from producer and its shipping cost however cooled my attempts down. The yarn for this particular project will be spun myself then! When it comes to the spinning impressions – this wool belongs to my favourites. Spinning it is a pleasure. What’s odd, I’ve noticed that the moorit wool I have has much more slippery fibers than the white one.. I need to spin more of it to know this wool better.

Skein characteristics:
– 99 g (3,49 oz)
– 280 m (306 yd)
– wpi = 18
– fibre thickness: 29-31 mic
– fibre length – 90 mm.

Another sheep is my beloved Icelandic sheep.

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This sheep is unique thanks to the preserved purity of the breed. From the moment they were brought to Iceland by Viking settlers, they were retained in a non crossbred form – the only attempts of crossing the breeds with ones imported from the British Isles ended in a disaster. Mallards were unsuccessful and thus killed and an additional side effect of these attempts was bringing to Iceland diseases that had not been present over there. Today, the import of any sheep (including the Icelandic ones) is illegal to protect valuable genotype and the island itself against new diseases.

These sheep are the Icelandic national treasure now, they priority on the roads is theirs and whole summer they spend free roaming across the country and feeding on mosses and herbs .

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Receiving a raw fleece of this sheep is probably every spinner’s dream – thanks to the absence of strong sunlight such thing as burned fleece tips does not exist and hanging out in new places, lying on fresh grass and moss keeps their fleece clean. Spinning it is also a real pleasure, the wool is not perfectly smooth as today’s merinos, but there is no way to get bored with it – particular hairs have slightly different shades which looks natural and nice and the wool itself is soft with slight character. So far I’ve spun only 2 approx. 50 g skeins, but I’ve already ordered more wool in different shades so the Viking magic will continue 🙂

Old Norwegian sheep. It is also one of the oldest cultivated races today and its history reminds what happened with the Manx Loaghtan. In 1950s this breed found itself on the verge of extinction due to being unprofitable for the farmers. Their number was restored thanks to the efforts of breeders affiliated in Norsk Villsaulag. What makes them really interesting is fact that these sheep retained a strong herd instinct. Just 5 to 7 individuals is enough to develope a full hierarchy and they evolved a specific ability to respond to appearing predators – they disperse in fan shape way and stronger individuals distract predators from the herd allowing the weak sheep to escape. This instinct makes controling the flock difficult to the herding dogs , but on the other hand, opens the possibility of breeding these sheep in areas where where wolves or bears can be spotted.

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I feared very much that the old breed of wool would disappoint me with its roughness and therefore lack of further use . Doubts clung to me when spinning a single thread , the fiber is in fact quite strict , slippery and stringy in a way. I could feel in it the rock windswept by cool air carrying drops of salty ocean. However after plying it in a double yarn the wool relaxed so that all benefited from the softness and fluffiness . It is not as soft as the Shetland sheep, yet still surprised me incredibly! This breed may be one of the oldest but definately not the roughest.

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Skein characteristics:
– 99 g (3,49 oz)
– 245 m (268 yds)
– wpi = 18
– fibre thinkness: 33 – 38 mic
– fibre length: variable! from 8 cm till almost 20 cm.

 
For comparision, this is how 99 grams of Old Norwegian wool look like (top skein) and 98 grams of Gotland (bottom):

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Time for Gotland! . Gotland is the last of the primitive sheep spun by me during the recent rains . It is also the youngest child in the family. It was bred in 1920s as a crossbreed of an ancient Gotland race Gute with Romanov sheep and Karakul. It is an upgraded version of old beautiful Gute – the coat became uniform in colour and sheep became polled. Nowadays you can still spot Gute on Gotland , but they are rare and are kept in order to preserve the genes. I am really hoping to get its fleece someday!

gotland_origins — kopia

Wool of this sheep surprised me, but in a different way. It is very difficult to spin. The fibers are thick , poorly catchy and incredibly slippery. This leads to problems with not letting spun the strand slip from tops with no attached wool and requires some practice when adding new fibers in the event of rupture.

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The advantage if its beautiful steel-gray luster and saturated colour.

Skein characteristics:
– 98 g (3,46 oz)
– 117 m (128 yds)
– wpi = 13
– fibre thinkness: 30 – 44 mic.

This is how my last couple of days looked like. Rain was watering my flax field and I stepped back in time and took a journey through ancient Scandinavian countries and their sphere of influence. Quite briefly so far, but this Northern European project will soon be continued in two separate projects – the Icelandic and Shetland one. There will be new wools, their use and new stories.

 

 

 

Pictures were taken from:
Manx Loaghtan – www.langleychase.co.uk
Old Norwegian sheep – www.bjornefabrikken.no
Gotland, Karakul, Gute ,Romanov and Shetland sheep – wikipedia resources,
other pictures are of my authorship 🙂

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