Tongue River Farm 5000 CR 4910, Pomona, MO 65789 ph (417) 469-1151

Scandinavian Sheep

By Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts , Knitters Magazine
This article printed with permission of Priscilla and Knitters Magazine, 824 W. 10th St., Sioux Falls, S.D. 57014 Ph# 605-338-2450. To find more on this subject, see Priscilla's new book, High Whorling or contact her at Ph# 970-856-7708.

     Evolution of sheep and wool Eons of selective breeding have led to the wools as we know them today. Domestication of the wild sheep probably had little to do with the use of the wool as a fiber source: more likely the animal was to provide food, bones for utensils, and skins for clothing. But once domesticated, their destiny was determined by human needs-with the development of fiber crafts, first felting and then spinning and weaving, a dependable and suitable source for plentiful wool was needed. Sheep with better coats were saved for breeding and fiber; the remainder were consumed.
     To understand the changes that occurred in fleece in the past 8,000 or so years. we need only to look at the Bighorn sheep still roaming the western states today. Their coats consist of coarse outer hairs and a short, fine woolly undercoat-the outer coat provides protection from the elements while the undercoat provides insulation. They shed, or molt, annually. But, with the development of the textile arts, this type of fiber was not sufficient. Slowly with the intervention of man through the ages, the hairs became finer, and the underwool became somewhat coarser and longer. With succeeding generations, the hair coat, as such, was eliminated, leaving only a crimpy wool coat.
     Although relatively fine in many cases, this new wool has never reached the fineness of the original undercoat, but the fibers are much more plentiful.
Early sheep shed their winter coats in the spring. The fibers could be plucked, often referred to as 'rooing.' This was a viable means of gathering the wool, especially since the more desirable undercoat would molt prior to the hair fibers, but it was relatively inefficient. The invention of shears provided a means for clipping the fleece, and it was certainly more efficient to collect the fibers on demand rather than when the molt occurred. Further selective breeding led to the elimination of the molt replacing it with a continuously-growing fiber.
     Wild sheep were and still are principally brown, a color which offered some degree of camouflage in their native habitat. But in protected domestic surroundings a wider range of colors appeared; no longer only the best-camouflaged sheep survived. Selective breeding probably maintained a wide range of colors. In about 1,000 BC white wool became highly desirable as dyeing developed in the Middle East. The refinement of white-fiber-producing sheep began, and today colored wools are the exception.
     The development of the modern fleece was not a centralized program. It was a process that occurred concurrently in many parts of the world. Therefore, we have many modern breeds with a wide variety of wools from the very coarse braid wools used in car-pets to the very fine, soft wools suitable for wearing next to the skin. And, in all parts of the world, stages in the selective process varied. Therefore, even today, we have some of the ancient dual-coated domestic sheep breeds still in existence alongside their modern counterparts. And selective breeding continues as we seek to further refine the wools to meet modern needs, not the least of which is to have wools that are easy to process with mechanized industrial equipment.

Dual-coated wools of Scandinavia
     Many of the ancient dualcoat breeds still exist in Northern Europe, but their numbers are relatively small. This is particularly true in the Scandinavian countries where the native sheep have their origins in the Old Norwegian (Northern Short-tailed) breed. These breeds offer a wide range of colors from true black through browns and grays to white. For example, In Norway the indigenous breed is the Spelsau, a short-tailed dual-coated mountain sheep making up 10% of the total sheep population. The native sheep of Iceland developed from the Old Norwegian breed which came with the Norse settlers to the island in about 900 AD. The dual-coated Shetland sheep also show the Norse bloodline; although they are now a part of Great Britain, the early settlement of these northern-most islands of Scotland was Scandinavian: they were part of the Norwegian domain from 875 to 1468. In all of these areas, great effort has been extended to protect these unique bloodlines.
     Today many handspinners wish to use a single fleece to produce a range of yarns suitable to a wide variety of uses from only one fleece-a perfect job for a dual-coated fleece. Some of the ease of processing the wool of the modern breeds is forfeited in return for a garment such as the version of the Norwegian Luskofte featured -1 this issue.

Spinning the dual-coat wools
     The dual-coat offers three distinctly different yarn possibilities for the handspinner- two different woolen yarns and a worsted yarn. The first woolen yarn can be constructed by combining the long, silky hair fibers with the short, fine undercoat wool during the carding process. The second woolen yarn and the worsted yarn require that the two fiber types be separated, the undercoat to be carded and spun woolen and the long fibers combed and spun worsted.
     When the dual-coat is combined into a single carded unit, the resulting yarn is soft and lofty like a woolen yarn, but the long hair fibers add greater durability. This is a particularly desirable type of preparation for a bulkier, low-twist singles yarn such as the commercial Lopi yarns made of Icelandic wools.
     Hand carding to produce a rolag is relatively simple: the wool must be lightly teased to open the locks and then loaded onto the carding surface, taking care to evenly distribute the long silky hair fibers. With care, the wool can also be prepared on the drum carder. The wool must be carefully and completely opened in the teasing process and then fed onto the drum slowly-turning too fast or feeding too much wool to the roller only leads to difficulties: the long fibers wrap onto the feed roll.
     For the other two yarn types, separate the two coats. For the worsted yarn, this is usually done in the combing process. The long silky hair fibers are combed and removed from the undercoat by any of the usual combing techniques. The choice of method depends upon the type of tools available to the handspinner, although some of the tools are more desirable for a particular end use of the yarn. The professional style wool comb can be used to prepare a top for spinning, drawing off the long hair fibers while the tines retain the undercoat. Or, the fleece can be combed on the peasant-style paddle comb and spun directly from the comb, worsted style -this is a less involved process which actually results in superior separation of the fibers. The most complete and total separation of the two coats can be achieved from the use of a pet rake, but this method is somewhat slower, does not allow for any blending to occur within the combing process, and is therefore most suitable for small amounts. In every case, the resulting worsted yarn is lustrous, extremely durable, and suitable for outerwear. The yarn is dense and heavyweight, the result of the combing process which aligns the fibers parallel and of the lack of crimp.
     After the long hair fibers have been removed, the remaining undercoat of wool can be carded for a fine woolen yarn. These fibers are short, fine, and highly crimped: the resulting yarn is lightweight and lofty, not very durable, and somewhat prone to pilling. The wool can be prepared on either a drum carder or with hand carders, but a fine card cloth is recommended. :)

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