One of the best things about Shetland Wool Week is that it provides rich opportunities for discovering the people, animals, landscapes, history and labour behind Shetland Wool. The events programme offers folks the chance to really appreciate its origins in a distinctive place and culture, and from a specific breed of sheep.
The Flock Book Fine Fleece Price Giving at the Shetland Rural Centre on Saturday is one of the highlights in the programme if you are especially keen on discovering the animals behind Shetland Wool! Here, you can meet Shetland rams, and watch the presentation of the annual prizes for Fine Fleece on the Hoof. You can also see rams and ram lambs being auctioned off to Crofters and Farmers looking towards next years crops of Shetland fleece and lambs.
I loved my day at the Mart. Meeting the sheep emphasises how the little balls of Shetland yarn I like to knit with start out as living fleece on the back of a sheep in all the wind and rain and weather.
This transparency – understanding the origins of wool on actual sheep – is important; but there is a deeper joy involved in meeting the sheep, too. They themselves with their faces, sounds, smells and behaviour are a source of inspiration as well as wool.
I am clearly not alone; many things spotted in Shetland make explicit, celebratory references to sheep.
Meeting sheep is one important step in closing the gaps between producers and users of wool, however the journey from sheep to shoulders is long and complex. Ambassadors to explain some of the intermittent stages along the way are vital for promoting better understanding between Crofters, Farmers, Knitters, Weavers, Spinning Mills etc. And few folk do more during Shetland Wool Week to explain how raw fleece gets turned into usable products than Oliver Henry.
I’ve never met anyone as close to wool as Oliver seems to be. His pair of hands is the first that raw Shetland fleece passes through on its way to the scouring and spinning mill, and he is directly and literally “in touch” with all of the Crofters and Farmers selling fleece to the Shetland Woolbrokers. However he also does an amazing job of speaking about the work of grading and sorting fleece to the public, and takes a really keen interest in the end products that are produced from Shetland wool (including the handknits that knitters produce). I loved listening to some of Oliver’s talks during Wool Week, and Jane Cooper has written a really lovely piece about Oliver’s talk at the Auction Mart with great images of him holding up finished products and raw Shetland fleece, describing all the stages in between those two things.
From Oliver, I learned the lovely word for a very rough fleece: “scadder”.
I adore SCADDER in all its hairy glory; to me it is the wildest edition of a Shetland sheep’s fleece, and conveys a marvelous sense of soil, earth, rock, stone and weather. I wouldn’t knit knickers out of it, but I bet it would make amazing felted bowls, table mats, rugs or an outer wrap… It has structure, character, resilience and liveliness.
There are finer grades of wool in The Wool Store, though, (in fact scadder is apparently getting rarer) and along the spectrum of the different grades, you can see the influence of scadder to a greater or lesser degree.
This fine fleece has far fewer guard hairs than the scadder, and you can see the tiny waves – the crimp – responsible for its bounciness. It could be finely spun to make beautiful lace, or used to knit scarves, mittens, or anything that will be worn close to the body. It’s amazing that both this and the very rough stuff can be found on Shetland sheep, but that variety is part of what makes Shetland wool special.
At the very top end of the scale is the Champion Fleece, which – this year – was an extremely uniform, soft, crimpy, beautiful thing of wonder grown I believe by Adie Doull.
I am really excited that Tom and Jane jointly purchased this special fleece and will be spinning and producing something from it. I am also really excited that they paid twice what was intially asked for this fleece: to me, this proves the value of allowing folk to understand where wool comes from. One of the best thing about closing the gaps between producers and growers of wool is that when you can discover the people, animals, landscapes, history and labour that are behind Shetland Wool for yourself, it gets easier to appreciate its real worth.
Hurrah for Shetland Sheep & their beautiful Wool!