According to The Shetland Sheep Society, Shetland Sheep are a very hardy breed, easy to lamb, make great milk mothers and have the highest quality fine fleece, tasty, sweet meat and a gentle nature.
Shetland sheep – breed history
Archaeological evidence suggests that primitive sheep of the Soay type were kept in Britain by early
Neolithic farmers over 4500 years ago. Horns of the Soay type were found during the excavation of Jarlshof, a noted prehistoric site on Shetland.
It is likely that the Norwegians brought their own sheep to add to the Soay types and other sheep already on the islands when they settled in Scotland and the Northern Isles around 500 AD.
Shetland sheep share many similarities with the Spaelsau and Vilsau sheep of south western Norway. There are wild sheep on the small islands off Bergen which resemble the double coated and patterned Shetlands of Foula, an inhabited island off the west coast of mainland Shetland.
The current Shetland gulmoget has Soay or Mouflon markings suggesting that these early sheep contributed to their genetic makeup.
“Shetland Wool, taking all its properties together, is perhaps the completest article of the kind in the universe, possessing at the same time, the gloss and softness of silk, the strength of cotton, the whiteness of linen, and the warmth of wool.”
Sir John Sinclair, 1790
Shetland sheep have for generations been noted for their very soft, well crimped fleece. The wool is the finest of all native breeds and shows an amazing variety of colours and markings. There are 11 main whole colours and 30 recognised markings.
By selecting from coloured fleeces a range of naturally coloured yarn can be produced. This eliminates the need for dyeing and therefore retains the soft feel of the natural fibre and is favoured by those who prefer a totally natural approach.
Shetland wool fibres are of a simple construction with a central cortex covered by a thin scaly cuticle with an average diameter of about 23 microns. However there is a range from 10 to 20 microns for neck and shoulder wool to 25 to 35 microns for britch wool.
The average staple length is 3.5 inches. The amount of crimp varies and is important in providing the ‘bounce’ required for knitwear. There is a positive correlation between fineness and crimp, with wool of the finest quality being crimped at between 8 and 12 to the inch.
Wool from Shetland sheep is used to produce gossamer lace as used in the Unst bridal shawl, famous ‘Fair isle’ knitwear, and fine tweeds.
Pure bred Shetland sheep tend to shed their fleece in spring. The growth of new fleece can cause a rise or weak point and where this is present the fleece can sometimes be plucked or ‘rooed’ by hand.
The timing of this can be different in each sheep, however, it is worth taking the care to get it right as rooed fleece can be amongst the softest because the fibres have no harsh cut ends as occurs with a sheared fleece.
Shetland fleece can be hand spun straight from the fleece or made into rolags and then woollen spun. It can also be worsted spun by hand, used on a peg loom or handwoven. It also felts well using either dry or wet methods.
When processed commercially the wool can be made into the finest lightweight worsted cloth or heavier weight, harder wearing fabrics and tweeds.