The Shetland sheep belongs to the Northern European short-tailed family, a group which appears to have been present in the area for some considerable time. Romano-sheep breeds began to spread their influence through Britain from approximately 2000 years ago, moving steadily northwards and it seems likely that these sheep impacted on the northern and island stocks.[i] Earliest indications suggest that short-tailed sheep were brought to the islands by Vikings around c.500 AD at the earliest.[ii] It is possible that this Nordic stock interbred with native wild sheep already present on the islands, though this cannot be proven. What is evident is that Shetland Sheep maintain several ‘wild’ characteristics.[iii]
The breeding of these animals continued through the middle ages, with their geographic location encouraging the development of a distinct ‘Shetland’ type.[iv]
The popularity of the Shetland Sheep and its fleece increased in the earlier part of the twentieth century, when Fair Isle and knitwear reached fashionable heights. By 1927 standards had been agreed and the Shetland Flock Book Society was established, which also created the Breed Standard.
The breed was for a time listed on the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s lists; as a Category 3 (Vulnerable) in 1977, then Category 5 (Minority) by 1985/1990s. The breed was removed from the list in 2002.
- Staple length can vary from 2-4.5 inches up to 10.
- Diameter of the fiber tends to fall between approximately 20-30 microns, although it can be both finer and coarser depending on the quality of the fleece.
- The fibre should spin up relatively smoothly.
- Finished product will reflect the coarsest elements of the original fibre. The fleeces are double coated; with an inner and outer coat.[vi] The longer guard hairs tend to be coarser and for softer yarns – these require removal.[vii]
- The Joy of Handspinning states that Shetland, along with other ‘down’ fibre types is not suited to the beginner.[viii] Interestingly, in a Knitty article from 2009, the author refers to the negative perception of many spinners concerning Shetland fibre.[ix]
According to the available resources, there are eleven ‘official’ Shetland sheep colours: Black, Shaela, Emsket, Gray, Light Gray, White, Musket, Mioget, Fawn, Moorit and Dark Brown[x]. These also have their own subtle variations – Shaela, for instance, can be applied to different shades depending on the Isle of origin.
The following table lists these colours, with their descriptors and the equivalent colours in fibre and yarn from the two major Shetland wool suppliers in the UK – Jamieson & Smith and Jamieson’s of Shetland.[xi] These equivalents are based on my own observations and on substitutions used on Ravelry for projects utilising the natural Shetland shades. These are therefore subject to my own biases concerning colour perception; others may view these colours very differently.
Jamieson & Smith’s Natural Shetland Fibre
Jamieson & Smith’s Shetland Supreme (Formerly Natural Shetland)
Jamieson’s of Shetland Spindrift
|Black||Black||Black||Shetland Black ||Shetland Black |
|Dark Brown||Dark Brown||–||Shetland Black ||Shetland Black |
|Emsket||Dusky Blue-Gray||Gray||Yuglet ||Shaela |
|Fawn||Fawn||Fawn||Sholmit ||Mogit |
|Gray||Gray||Gray||Shaela ||Sholmit |
|Light Gray||Light Gray||–||Katmollet ||Eesit |
|Mioget||Lightest Brown, warm yellowish overtones||–||Gaulmogot ||Eesit |
|Moorit||Reddish Brown, ranging from Fawn tones through to Dark Red-Browns||Moorit||Moorit ||Moorit |
|Musket||Pale Gray-Brown, from mixing both Gray and Brown fibres||–||Mooskit ||Mooskit |
|Shaela||Dark Gray, two types the name has different meaning in different parts of the Isles||–||Yuglet ||Shaela |
|White||White||White||White ||Natural White |
Some of these colours are rarer than others. Statistics from 1994 listed in Robson & Ekarius indicate that only two of the eleven colours are common, with the remaining nine shades only being registered for a total of 214 sheep.[xii] More recent statistics concerning the number of Shetland sheep on the islands indicate that there are just over 2000 registered pure bred examples of the breed.[xiii] The rarity of various colours appears to be continuing. Observations placed on a discussion thread on the Ravelry Jamieson & Smith forum provides a good indication behind the reasons for the decline:
The main problem stems back a few years to government legislation. It was thought at that point that certain genotypes were more likely to get scrapie – a sort of sheep brain disease that they thought might be able to pass to humans. So they gave farmers and crofters money to cull sheep with that genotype. At the same time, vast quantities of extra paperwork were put in place.
Now there has never been a case of scrapie in Shetland the place or Shetland the breed. But the extra hassle meant that quite a few people who had been keeping 20 or 30 sheep decided at that point to take the money and give up with their sheep. It was only at the end of the year, when the fleece started to arrive with Oliver, that he realised what was happening. It turned out that a big proportion of the coloured fleece was kept by these folk with small herds. The folk involved didn’t realise they held an important resource – no one knew it at the time.
By the time Oliver realised what was happening and got on to the media, it was too late. Those sheep had been culled. I well remember him saying that there was going to be a shortage for coloured fleece. And he was not wrong.
Now some people are realising that breeding coloured sheep is worthwhile, and with luck, the price increases will mean that more will be bred. But that will take time. And a good percentage of the gene pool has already been lost in Shetland itself. As Oliver has said many times, thank goodness for the hobby breeders down south – they have kept the colours.
From a forum post by Ravelry User NorthernLace[xiv]
In addition to the colours, there are also a significant number of markings associated with Shetland Sheep. These have no impact on the colours available for spinning but certainly demonstrate the variety associated with the breed.[xv]
My Shetland Spinning
[i] D. Robson & C. Ekarius (2011) The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, p. 184
[ii] S. Adalsteinsson (2000) 1000 Years of Sheep in Shetland. A later date linked to Norwegian rule of Shetland has also been suggested.
[xi] Derived from D. Robson & C. Ekarius (2011) The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, p.186-187; The Shetland Sheep Society – Colours & Markings (2012); Jamieson & Smith Shetland Supreme & Natural Shetland Fibres (2013); Jamieson’s of Shetland Spindrift (2013).
[xii] D. Robson & C. Ekarius (2011) The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, p.185.