Why Shetlands?

A Letter from Deb Robson…

February 27, 2013

Deb RobsonAs I’ve recovered from the intense work involved in The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, the opportunities for future inquiry arise on all sides, and there are more fascinating possibilities than can be even listed, much less adequately considered, in a lifetime. Sheep and their wools continue to capture my interest and attention–even more than before, because of what I learned in writing the “big book.” So the question over the past couple of years has been where next to invest my curiosity, since it won’t be put to rest!

With about 1400 sheep breeds identified globally, I won’t be able to cover them all in the years available to me, however many those are. The Sourcebook included fibers that English-speaking fiber folk might reasonably get their hands on. Natural next steps would include covering more sheep breeds from continental Europe, and that’s a series of topics for which I’m collecting both fiber samples and reference books. It’s a big enough area, and sufficiently complicated, that it will take years to manage. I’ll be working on it.

At the same time, I’ve been ambushed by the Shetlands. This is a good thing. Shetlands were the most difficult breed to write up for the Sourcebook. They took the most time and raised serious questions that apply to all sheep, through all time, although not in as concentrated a form as for the Shetlands.

Shetland wool For publication in 2011 and 2012, Spin-Off magazine had me write up pieces on Soay sheep, Lincoln sheep, and a few puzzling aspects of wool quality. Also for 2012, The Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers asked if I would write an article on the history and development of British sheep breeds. Next, for 2013, PLY magazine tantalized me with the idea of researching the origins of sheep: how they became domesticated, how they traveled around the world, how people have shaped sheep to fit particular environments and how sheep have been willing partners, able to adapt and thrive on every continent except Antarctica. I knew when I said yes that none of these would be an easy assignment. I couldn’t resist the questions behind them.

As I’ve followed these intriguing trails, the Shetlands kept cropping up on the edges, emblematic of ideas relating to thousands of years of history, and of human/animal interdependence, and of breed definition, and of unique (and diverse) textile traditions, and of local and global economics, and of what we fiber artists pick up to spin, or knit, or crochet, or weave—and whether we will have these materials to work with in the future, or not.

Deb's Shetland NotebookShetlands are (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) and are not (Rare Breeds Survival Trust) a rare breed. Looking closely, it becomes apparent that whether or not the breed as a whole (whatever that is defined as) is rare, some strains of it, including some of the fleece colors, are quite endangered. Shetlands cannot be easily categorized or described.

Sheep known by one or another group as Shetland sheep grow single-coated fleeces that are very fine or medium in quality; double-coated fleeces that contain several fiber types; crimpy fleeces; wavy fleeces; and everything in between. They grow this wool in multiple countries and landscapes, in flocks shaped by differing human intentions and pressures.

Shetlands connect to the earliest sheep, and they demonstrate what happens when humans influence a breed to fit alternate environments and to respond to economic pressures–in fact, they demonstrate this multiple times, in many ways.

When I was researching the Sourcebook, it was at the point that I read a well-informed account of wools describing Shetland as a “Down” wool that I determined that I needed to spend as much time as necessary coming up with a supportable definition of “Down” wools.

Shetlands open many questions, for which there are almost certainly no right or definitive answers.

Notes About WoolBut I think that spending the next year (or more) of my life exploring Shetland sheep and Shetland wool in greater detail will illuminate many aspects of how rich and interesting our fiber world is–in ways that will apply to topics as small as the hats we put on our heads and as large as the global wool marketplace.

I can’t wait. In fact, I haven’t. I’m already deep into this project. The front page of my first notebook on the topic reads: “All wool, all good,” and “What is Shetland wool about?” The study of Shetland sheep and their wool has already begun to reveal to me, and has the potential to show other people who care about these things, a lot about why it’s true that “all wool” is “all good,” and why we need to pay attention to both history and the future in order to maintain essential values related to being human and being responsible residents of the planet.

One bit of fleece at a time,

Deborah Robson