Not all Fibres are Created Equal

This was something that struck me the other night. I got a handblended fibre club subscription for Christmas (200g of handblended loveliness for 3 months – bliss!) and had decided that 200g of fibre (a primarily Merino blend) would be plenty to knit up a project which required 800-1000m. What was my thinking for this? Well, I’d spun up some other fibre I had in my stash and got 500m out of 100g so surely that seemed reasonable?

Apparently it isn’t. I got a third spun up and plied, wound it all up into a skein and got 146m. Hmm. Not quite what I was expecting. And this got me thinking – do different fibre types impact on the yardage you spin? Google didn’t help. Despite phrasing the question in different ways I couldn’t locate anything specific to this query. So I asked Ravelry – where else?

Is it just me or do you get less yardage from Merino when spinning? I’m spinning up a batch of a primarily Merino blend (over 2/3rds) in my normal fashion – aiming for a fingering/sport weight. I have a third done and plyed – it is coming out at the desired weight but my yardage compared to say, BFL, is dramatically lower. Does anyone know if this the norm? And secondly, are there any resources out there which discuss different fibres and their yield rates?

The response I got indicated that this was normal (phew – not just me!) but that they weren’t aware of resources on this either. However, the discussion focused in fibre length and thickness. The thicker the fibre, the less you need to get the desired weight; the longer the fibre, the less you need to get the desired length.

So how do Merino and BFL compare? For sake of ease I’m focusing in on the finest ~ coarsest / shortest ~ longest figures for the ranges normally found for these fibres.



Bluefaced Leicester (BFL)

Microns (Finest)



Microns (Coarsest)



Staple Length (Shortest)

2” / 5cm

3” / 7.5cm

Staple Length (Longest)

5” / 12.5cm

6” / 15cm

So if we apply these figures to real life; a batch of very fine, short stapled Merino would require significantly more to provide the same weight and yardage as the BFL. If the Merino was of similar micron / staple length to the BFL – say 24 microns and 5″ – yardage could theoretically be similar.

This is an aspect which intrigues me, so I’ve added a new section to Fibres & Spinning concerning yield rates on the fibres I’ve spun (as well as archiving a copy of this post there).

Fibre: Shetland

Sheep, Wester Quarff, Shetland IslesDascha the Shetland Sheep, photograph (C) Mark Sinclair 2009.


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.

The Fibre[v]

  • 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.

Official Name


Jamieson & Smith’s Natural Shetland Fibre

Jamieson & Smith’s Shetland Supreme (Formerly Natural Shetland)

Jamieson’s of Shetland Spindrift

Black Black Black Shetland Black [2005] Shetland Black [101]
Dark Brown Dark Brown Shetland Black [2005] Shetland Black [101]
Emsket Dusky Blue-Gray Gray Yuglet [2009] Shaela [102]
Fawn Fawn Fawn Sholmit [2007] Mogit [107]
Gray Gray Gray Shaela [2003] Sholmit [103]
Light Gray Light Gray Katmollet [2008] Eesit [105]
Mioget Lightest Brown, warm yellowish overtones Gaulmogot [2006] Eesit [105]
Moorit Reddish Brown, ranging from Fawn tones through to Dark Red-Browns Moorit Moorit [2004] Moorit [108]
Musket Pale Gray-Brown, from mixing both Gray and Brown fibres Mooskit [2002] Mooskit [106]
Shaela Dark Gray, two types the name has different meaning in different parts of the Isles Yuglet [2009] Shaela [102]
White White White White [2001] Natural White [104]

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

  1. Ring-a-Rosie Shetland Top
  2. HilltopCloud Shetland & Kid Mohair

[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.

[iv] The Shetland Sheep Society – History (2012).

[v] The technical information is derived from D. Robson & C. Ekarius (2011) The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, p.192; The Shetland Sheep Society – Shetland Wool (2012).

[x] See D. Robson & C. Ekarius (2011) The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, p.186-187; The Shetland Sheep Society – Colours & Markings (2012).

[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.

[xiv] Ravelry profile for NorthernLace. For the forum thread (published 2012), see here, particularly pages 6 and 7 of the discussion. The post quoted above is #136 in the thread.

Changes Afoot

The eagle-eyed amongst you will probably have noticed the new button in the top menu bar. For those of you that haven’t, I’ve added a spinning section to the site.

This is very much under construction at the moment, so if you go and look at it now, you won’t find anything other than some lists and some *coming soon* notices. The plan is to add description pages for each fibre type – both natural and man-made – which is available commercially for the handspinner. I’m planning at the moment to include a few non-commercial fibres used historically as I personally find them interesting. Obviously, this will take a not-inconsiderable amount of time (and fibre) to generate so it is very much  long term project.

So where to start? The logical starting point is focusing on fibres that I have already spun, or have in my stash waiting to be spun. Some are blends – which obviously can be very different to spinning pure fibre types, but it seems appropriate to include them. I’m aiming to provide some information on the breeds – their history, information on the fibre itself, ease of spinning and my own observations. The plan is to include references and links wherever possible so that if more information is needed – it can be found.

Spin: HilltopCloud “Dark Rainbow”

More spinning – and the first bit of spinning finished in 2013. Even if it was started in 2012. The fibre was HilltopCloud’s Dark Rainbow, a blend of Black Welsh Mountain and Tussah Silk. I’d planned to use it for a Puffin Sweater from the Kate Davie’s Colours of Shetland book (see here), using the individual colours to stripe in place of the more ‘puffin-ny’ colours in the original.

I split the braid into the component colours and spun each one up individually. In the end it worked out at approximately 300 yards, split unevenly over the six colours, all at Fingering weight. I’m not sure how much I’ll need for the sweater so some careful planning, swatching and modifying may be in order.


Spin: HilltopCloud Shetland & Kid Mohair

More spinning! This time some Shetland and Mohair, from November issue of HilltopCloud’s Best of British Club. An unusual but extremely lovely combination of fibres in a gorgeous colourway, the very aptly-named (for December) Sitka Spruce.

Again I spun it up before I took a picture of the braid!


I tried something a little different to my normal spinning and opted to aim for a heavier-weight yarn. The colours look great all spun up and sitting in a row though. I got 91 yds of a 2-ply Aran / Bulky weight yarn. It looks and feels fabulous, especially since it was my first time spinning a thicker yarn on the wheel.

Spin, Spin, Spin

I got the wheel built the day after I got it. I opted to wax it rather than varnish as I like the natural wood.

That is one of the really fun (to me) things about this wheel, you get to build it. There is something extremely satisfying watching all the pieces slot and screw together, seeing the shapes form, and finally having a fully working item at the end of it.


And it has been great fun to use too… more on that over the next few days…

Plotting 2013: Colours of Shetland

I received Kate Davies’ new book Colours of Shetland (signed too!) as a gift this year. And I’ve spent some time pondering what to make out of it. Until I realised that pondering was pointless as I wanted to knit everything. This is very unusual for me, as normally there are patterns in a knitting book which don’t appeal, so to find ten patterns I liked in a single volume is rather fortuitous.

But what to knit them in? All the patterns called for the ever-lovely Jamieson & Smiths Jumper weight, which I do adore. Only the quantities needed would cause much pain to my bank account. So the logical thing was to consider what I had in my stash to start with and work from there. As it happened I already had a few balls of J&S yarn which can be saved for these projects, plus some Cashmere to replace the Angora that two of the patterns call for. Other than that my stash yarns were rather deficient. However a solution did come to mind.

Namely my new spinning wheel. Since I seem to spin a fingering weight yarn as a default, why not spin some of the yarns needed for these projects?

Northmavine Hap

I picked up these silk bricks at the Glasgow School of  Yarn and was planning on knitting them up as one project, so I think they’ll work  well for this hap. The pattern calls for four shades striped together, but I’ll just stick with the two. I’ll use the Jumper weight for the gray sections though, I think the contrast in textures will work well.

Northmavine Hoody

As I said before, I have some Cashmere to use for the pocket linings but no real options in my stash for the rest of it. I think this may be the one pattern I knit as written.

Puffin Mantle

I’m pairing this with some cream Shetland Supreme I have left over from another project. At the moment, I’m not sure whether to split the braid up into the different colours and spin each one up separately. There should be enough shades to match the stripes in the original. Alternatively I may spin and knit it up  as a long colour transition. Decisions, decisions!

Puffin Sweater

Another GSoY purchase, I’ve split the braids into their separate colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple) and will stripe them in the yoke following the pattern instructions. I actually have most of this spun already – just the purple left to do. I’ll use J&S for the body and sleeves, unless the Rowan Cashsoft in the John Lewis sale gets reduced further – in which case I may substitute that.

Scatness Tam

Apart from this small (20g or so) batt of Shetland fibre, I’ll use the proper colours in the J&S yarn for this project. I’m hoping that there will be enough leftovers from the Tunic skeins to complete this one and I already have a spare 25g ball of the Cream shade to use for this.

Scatness Tunic

More brown fibre to spin! As I said with the tam, I’ll use the colours as written – I have one ball each of red and orange – so I’ll need to pick up two more of those (1 of each shade), the rest will need to be ordered.

Stevenson Gauntlets / Stevenson Sweater

I’ve seen this spun up and it produces a lovely warm, slightly heather blue-purple shade. I’m planning on using this for the blue stripes,  pairing it with a cream and a rich purple for both the sweater and the gauntlets.

Ursula Cardigan / Ursula Mittens

I liked this pattern but not the original colour choices, so am planning on replacing the cream background shade with a pale gray. The stripes of colour will be these two fibres plus a to-be-purchased dark fuschia shade.

Colours of Shetland image from here

Resolutions 2013

I’m not one for making resolutions, or to be more honest I like the idea of them, just not the actual practice of carrying them out. Last January I posted on one of the stash down forums on Ravelry which was discussing the idea of 12 12’s in 2012.

These were the aims:

  1. 12 Sweaters, Cardigans, Tops
  2. 12 Socks (6 pairs)
  3. 12 Mittens, Gloves (6 Pairs)
  4. 12 WIPs or Queue Items
  5. 12 Favourites
  6. 12 Scarves, Cowls, Shawls
  7. 12 Hexipuffs per month (12 x 12)
  8. 12 Techniques (New and Previously Used)
  9. 12 Seasonal Decorations
  10. 12 Wildcards
  11. 12,000 Yards Knitted
  12. 12 Months Keeping my Knitting Stuff Organised

I think I can safely say that all of these probably didn’t happen. I need to actually review what I knitted last year and match it up to the list – I’ll post on that later. But really – it won’t have happened. Some categories will be complete, others will be half done, some will not be done at all and others will probably have been forgotten. Although with my memory for these things, I may surprise myself.

So this year I’m considering things a little differently. Less limitations, more flexibility and no categories.

So for 2013:

  1. Plan ahead
  2. Knit from stash where possible – Although I’m allowing additional purchases if necessary to the project, or if something else specific shows up, i.e. where I see something I *have* to knit and just buy the yarn for that.
  3. Get the stash (yarn and fibre) down to a comfortable level – I have no idea what that level is, just that I’m not there at the moment.
  4. Try and knit from patterns already purchased (or free!) – My Ravelry library is extensive, and I’ve been lucky with the free pattern codes this holiday, I have no excuse.
  5. Spin more – Far easier now I have the wheel. 
  6. Knit with the handspun from resolution #5 – Should be made easier if I have an idea of what I’m knitting and what is needed – see #4.
  7. Try and design more patterns – I have many ideas, I just need to get on with it. 
  8. Try and actually publish my own patterns – see notes accompanying #7.
  9. Stay organised – in terms of stash, equipments, notes etc – Should be straightforward, my office is better organsing and I like sorting things. 
  10. Try and take better photographs – More on this later.
  11. Keep blogging – Speaks for itself really…

I think this should work; I’m already working on #1…


Spin: Ring-a-Rosie Shetland Top

I’d picked up this fibre at Ring-a-Rosies in Whitley Bay back in November – I just loved the colourway. But I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

Then the new Knitty came out (Winter bis 2012) and with it, the new Wanderlust pattern which suggested handspun as an excellent option for the pattern. So while I didn’t have enough fibre for full-size mittens I certainly had enough for an abbreviated versions.

This was my first time spinning singles, which I know I overspun, but careful management when winding and knitting ensured that the overspun sections were corrected. I got a slightly variegated weight yarn but the majority came out as worsted.