Friday, June 29, 2012

The Art of Wool Grading

If you own sheep, they need to be sheared at least once and often twice a year, depending on the wool growth of the particular breed of sheep that you raise.  Once shorn, you end up with big bags of fleece that need to be shirted.  (Skirting is the process of removing all of the unusable wool- primarily the belly wool, the 'tags' or dirt and manure encrusted wool often from the very rear end of the sheep and the strip of wool down the center of the back that is often damaged by the weather.)  Once this is done, the wool that is left needs to be graded or sorted.

Martha Owen from the John C Campbell Folk School, North Carolina visiting with Shetland wool grader, Oliver Henry in the Lerwick warehouse of Jamieson & Smith, Ltd
With Shetland wool, the fleece is sorted into five different grades.  The grades range from 'Super Fine' all the way up to 'Rough'. Each grade of wool has it's own specific uses.  'Super Fine' can be spun into delicate lace weight yarn for fine lace shawls while 'Rough' is best suited for carpets.

With the older, more primitive versions of Shetland sheep you would probably find all five grades on one sheep.  From an evolutionary point of view, each grade had it's purpose.  The 'Super Fine' grades would be found surrounding the jugular vein areas on the neck of the animal.  It's downy character would have been extrodinarily insulating in the very worst of weather!

Wool classified as 'Rough' would most likely be found on the britch or hind quarters of a sheep.  On an island known for it's gale force winds, sheep tend to stand with their backsides facing into the wind for weather protection.  This 'Rough' wool would serve as a bit of a wooly wind breaker.

Jamieson & Smith LTD in Lerwick, Shetland

 Martha Owen had the chance to visit with Oliver Henry in the warehouse of Jamieson & Smith, Ltd in 2011.  Jamieson & Smith have been in existence in one form or another since the late 1940's.  Oliver came for a summer job in 1967 and never left.  Oliver grades Shetland wool for Jamieson & Smith which purchases 80% of the Isles annual wool clip.  The company also produces extremely high quality Shetland yarn that can only be purchased in Shetland or through the internet

I personally understand the concept of wool grading from a visual perspective.  However, when Elizabeth Johnston of Shetland came to teach in 2010 along with Martha Owen, I had the opportunity to watch her grade a local fleece.  She essentially closed her eyes and placed her hand into the fleece and 'felt' the wool in her hand.  From that short 'squeeze', she was able to tell what grade the wool was in that particular portion of the fleece.  In much less than a minute she had graded the entire fleece.  I was in awe of her abilities.  It is definitely an acquired skill (which I have yet to acquire)!

Here are some links with more information about:
Jamieson & Smith
Their book  - Knit Real Shetland
Shetland Wool Week

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Card Woven Halter for Shetland and Icelandic Stallions
When I first met Elizabeth Johnston several years ago, she was working as an Iron Age interpreter at Scatness in Shetland.  From my point of view at that time, she was a weaver who just happened to spin and knit. Most of you however know her as an exceptional Shetland knitter and spinner.

Last week she sent me these great photos of a new weaving project - a tablet or card woven halter for a friends' horse.  She had the chance to model it on both a Shetland and an Icelandic stallion.

Indy Ping-pong : Shetland stallion

Indy Ping-pong with card woven halter
Elizabeth made this halter using an ancient weaving technique called tablet or card weaving.  In this case she has handspun and hand dyed all of the yarns she used in the weaving.

Detail of card woven halter - note that this pattern imitates the look of a knitted object
Card weaving dates back to the Celtic Bronze Age in Scandinavia with the earliest findings in the second century A.D.  The earliest known cards from this area were made of wood. One of the greatest archaeological finds relating to this type of weaving was from the Oseberg ship found in Norway dating back to A.D. 850.  Here a tablet loom with 52 threaded cards, a partially woven band and a number of other card-woven bands was found in the tomb of Queen Asa.

Tablet loom in the Oseberg ship find from A.D 850
The pattern on the card woven bands is determined by a number of factors including how the cards are threaded, the number of cards used and the sequence that the cards are turned in, to create each new weaving shed.  The variation can range from simple to endlessly complex.  

Although today, we have a limited use for these bands, historically woven bands were used for reins, bridles, saddle girths, cloth edging as well as being used for tying and attaching all manner of things.  They were the decorative forerunner to zippers, pins, elastic and Velcro.

Haakon - Icelandic stallion with card woven halter
Note chevron pattern that is woven into the halter
For more details on the weaving and dyeing of this halter as well as links to the horse owners website, go to Elizabeth's blog .