Oliver’s Fleeces…

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.

Very Fine fleece
Oliver Henry in the 'white' sorting shed with a 'Very Fine' fleece

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.

Oliver and Katherine
Oliver explaining to Katherine the criteria for the 'Very Fine' catagory

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.

a coarser fleece
A coarser fleece

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.

the sorting table
Oliver at the sorting table

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.

the coloured fleece
The coloured fleece store

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….!!

sorting our fleece
Inspecting our fleece back at Kathy Coull's flat

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.

white fleece sm

white staple in hand sm

The colours in Katherine’s is wonderful – changing from tip to cut end.  Hers is a ‘park’ fleece, and so has no peat.

mioget in bag sm
Katherine's fleece - colour 'mioget'

mioget fleece sm

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….

28 thoughts on “Oliver’s Fleeces…

  1. 1784, wow! Can you tell us more about 18th century Shetland lace knitting? such as, what patterns, what was it used for – trim, fichus (what shape?), maybe bonnets, hats, unfashionable shawls. I’m told there was machine knit lace then; was the competition already beginning?

  2. Liz, thank-you SO MUCH for this post! There has been a lot of discussion lately on fleece type and fineness in North American Shetlands. I think your post will be quite eye-opening to some, so I have linked to your post on several Shetland lists. I hope many North American Shetland breeders will take at look!

  3. it must be a handspinner’s dream to be able to see and feel all those fleeces! I’d be hard pressed to decide between the white and the brown fleece – I’d probably have to take one each:))

    happy spinning!


  4. Oh, my! I am swooning. Shetland is my favorite yarn to knit…someday I want the experience of spinning it too. Have not been happy with American raised Shetlands….
    Your photos are *almost* as good as getting to touch!

  5. Thank you so very much for sharing this with everyone! I am a friend of Michelle’s, and fellow NA Shetland breeder. We are striving for these fleeces, which you describe so very well in this post. I found the description of the different fleece tips very informative. Now, I’ll cherish my blue-tips even more!

  6. Many thanks for posting photos of these beautiful fleeces. Can you elaborate a bit on the wool grading process? Specifically, how Mr. Henry makes the decisions about fineness. I assume that he judges by the hand of the fleece…

    1. Hi Lois,

      It is done by hand and eye. Part of it cam be written in words (how thw fleece handles when lifted etc) and part is experience. There are specific characteristics for each grade which include things like the presence of guard hairs, crimp etc etc. But a lot of it is down to a good pair of hands and a good eye.


    1. Definitely spin in the grease. No question with a new Shetland fleece. If they are several years old, I might consider giving them a bit of a wash, but not a scour ever!

      There is no one right way – lots of different ways. But for very fine yarns with very fine fibres, the grease does help to keep the fibres together as you spin, and makes life that bit easier… (And I am all for an easy life!)


      1. I know I have messaged you, but thought I might ask here as well Liz. I am going to spin my fine fleece to cobweb weight (plyed). If I spin in the grease, what would be the best way to scour/clean/wash to remove all the grease etc before knitting a shawl please?

        I just love your ‘blog’ almost like living up there myself !!

      2. Hi Jan,

        The key is to remove the grease – that means hot water and detergent! There are many ways, but that is the basic idea.

        Personally, I skein the yarn and put 4 ties on. Some folk put more, but I find 4 is enough. I use water from the tap as hot as my gloved hands can stand, in a bowl which gives the skeins room to move. I put in a good squirt of washing up liquid (dish soap) make bubbles, them lower the skins in. I then swish them about a bit – mainly by putting my hands on them and pushing then down – a gentle but fairly quick up and down movements. You want to get the detergent and heat to get in to the strands, but not to felt the fibres.

        If all the bubble go, then I know I need another wash. I then tip the water out, take out the skeins, and refill the bowl with more water of the SAME temperature. If I need anothr wash, I do that. If not, I rinse, again using the up and down movement. I usually rinse a couple of times, but if there is a lot of gunge, it might take several.

        I then squeeze the skeins before wrapping them in a towel (think sausage roll!) and wringing that sausage. Then I hang under tension until the skeins FEEL dry + 24 hours to be REALLY dry! For the tension I use either tins or a big bottle of water – it can always take more than you think!!



      3. oooppps,…..just notice I replied to the wrong posting !!! Old age !!! I put a reply to this one up above where I asked you about spinning in the grease…..must take a pill or something !! x

  7. Liz, thank you so much for sharing your trip and experience with everyone. I raise Shetland sheep here in the US and after a trip to the UK in 2001 I have been trying very hard to get my american fleeces to attain the fineness qualities of the fleeces I saw. I wondered if I could send you some fleece samples to play with and compare to get an opinion of feel and handle. My flock gets microned but I believe there is something intrinsic in the feel of the human hand, Thanks Lori

    1. I think you are right about the fingertips versus the science! It isn’t just the micron count, but something esle – I have no clue what, but the fingers feel in a slightly different way.

      Most People Who Know say there are two things ivolved with the fineness of the fleece – genetics and weather. If the genetics are wrong then you will never get a very fine fleece, but in some years the same genetics will produce a fleece different from another year… A right mix of art and science!


  8. Hi Liz

    Many thanks for posting this on Rav….I couldn’t believe it – I have just emailed J&S requesting a very fine fleece for cobweb spinning when next they have some !!! Lo and behold – you tell me they are there now !!!!

    Dizzyspinner (Rav)

  9. Many thanks Liz – that is exactly what I usually do with greasy yarn – just wasn’t sure if it was still ‘safe’ to do this with such a fine one !!! Fear walks in here a little lol….

    Must ring J&S….


  10. ooh, how lovely! Not the same at all, but I did get to visit a local shearer and see a huge pile of this years fleeces – and to touch and feel them and take home a bunch too. Including a shetland, which is quite nice, but I am sure not as nice as that.
    what a trip! paint me jealous indeed

  11. A Shetland Sheep farmer friend near where I live in Washington State (Olympic Peninsula area) sent me the link to this post and I loved it. Thanks for sharing it with the blogosphere! I so look forward to visiting the Shetlands and the Orkneys some day and loving up some sheep! Have been learning alot about fleeces recently and am looking forward to a true sheep to shawl experience. Naturally, I’d love to meet anyone from the fiber tribe along the road.

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