One of the joys of visiting Shetland is a trip to the J&S shop. I know I go on about it, but really, the yarn, the tops…
And at this time of year The Fleece. Over the past couple of months this year’s wool clip has been arriving at J&S. (It is officially known as Shetland Wool Brokers after all…) So the sheds are piled high and Oliver Henry and his team are very busy.
The smell of the fresh fleece was wafting through to the shop when we were in there on Wednesday, and Sandra, who mans the shop, suggested we might like to see the sheds. Before we could answer she had gone off to find Oliver, and that was us for quite a while!
Oliver Knows everything about Shetland sheep and their fleece. And I mean EVERYTHING! He knows their history (dates off pat), their lifestyle, and, most of all, their fleece. Each year it is Oliver who judges the fleece at the Shetland show, and it is Oliver who decides which of the fleeces coming in to the shed come in to the coveted ‘Very Fine’ category. Fleece is not only his job, but his passion.
As he showed us the differences between the different grades of fleece, he told us of the report done on the Shetland sheep in 1794, and how that explained there were two types of fleece. Most of the sheep were quite ‘coarse woolled’ but there were a small percentage which were ‘kindly-woolled’. These tended to be kept out of sight, as their fleece was so highly prized. The report said that the farmers’ wives would use this wool for spinning the very fine yarns for knitting lace.
Oliver went on to show us examples of the Very Fine against the lower grades. Only the Very Fine and Fine go in to the yarns for knitting; other grades were of less use, but now are used for carpets. (The first roll is now in the shop and they are expecting delivery of five more rolls shortly.) He also explained that sheep which have lived out on the hills have a fleece with blue-tinged tips before it is washed, whereas ‘parkland’ sheep have browner tips.
At the Wool Brokers, it isn’t just the whole fleece which is graded, but the wool within a fleece is graded. As spinners know, the neck and shoulders tend to have the finest wool on any sheep, with the back end, or britch, being coarser. Each fleece is manually checked over before being put into the correct area to be bagged up and sent off for processing.
Each year, Oliver keeps some fleeces for hand spinners. These are the best fleeces – he knows what spinners require from a Shetland fleece! The white is usually the very finest, but some coloured fleeces are very, very fine too. I wanted some white, and Katherine hankered after some mioget. Oliver said that he would look some out for us and it would be ready for us when we came back later.
And what awaited us when we arrived?? A bag of fleece each.
Now, I am used to good fleece. I am used to exceptionally good fleece. I am used to fine fleece. I am used to exceptionally fine fleece. But this….!!
As mine is white, you can see the blue in the tips – definitely a hill fleece. The crimp is tight and fine, ending in ‘sneuds’ – the clumped tips which come apart at a touch.
The colours in Katherine’s is wonderful – changing from tip to cut end. Hers is a ‘park’ fleece, and so has no peat.
Although I can show you pix, you cannot feel the softness, or smell that fresh, sheepy smell! You will have to take our word for that….