If you’re at all familiar with fair isle
knitting, you’ve probably heard of Shetland wool. But aside from grazing on
picturesque, windswept moors what makes Shetland sheep different from other
famous breeds? Sheep are just sheep, right? (“Pomp and Circumstance”) (sheep baaa!) Shetland
sheep come from, you guessed it, the Shetland Islands in Scotland but are
thought to have been brought there by the Vikings. These sheep are small and
can survive in rugged conditions on minimal diets which is how they have
endured for thousands of years. These sheep can have a variety of markings and
spots, each combination with its own traditional name. Because Shetland sheep
were not bred to have uniform fleeces, one sheep can produce wools with
different coarseness. This means fleece from a single sheep can be used
in everything from lightweight lace to heavy tweeds.
According to The Knitters Book of Wool, the finest fleece on Shetland sheep
comes from its neck and it’s often spun into thin lace yarn that is used in
traditional Shetland wedding ring shawls. These large shawls are so delicate they
can fit through a wedding ring. Shetland wool has also historically been used in
fair isle knitting. Fair isle, of course, being named after one of the Shetland
Islands. Shetland sheep today come in eleven natural colours, a variety from
blue grey to honey brown to true black. And their wool was often used undyed
but the bright white fleeces became very popular in the 20th century for dyeing.
Today you can find Shetland yarns in a variety of colors often with a beautiful
heathered quality. Have you worked with Shetland yarns before? What do you like
about this wool? Leave a comment and let us know!