Today’s blog post and an upcoming breed study webinar are all about Åland wool. This is my eleventh breed study. Previous breed studies have been about Gotland wool, Gute wool, Dalapäls wool, Värmland wool, Jämtland wool, finull wool, rya wool, Klövsjö wool (blog post only), Åsen wool and Gestrike wool.
This Saturday, April 9th at 5 pm CET (world clock here) I will host a free live breed study webinar on Åland wool! I will share my experiences with the wool from a spinner’s perspective.
The webinar has already taken place.
Åland sheep is a unique breed that has lived and developed in the archipelago of Åland in the Baltic Sea for centuries. Åland is geographically quite close to Sweden, but is an autonomous region of Finland. The belief used to be that Åland sheep were related to the Finnish landrace, but genetic examinations have shown that Åland sheep is its own and unique breed. It is believed to belong to the most primitive breeds of the Northern European short tail sheep.
In the 1980’s Åland sheep were endangered, but through dedicated work the breed was saved. Åland sheep got a status as its own breed 20 years ago. At the time there were around 150 ewes, now there are over 1800, of which around two thirds live in mainland Finland and the rest in Åland.
Åland sheep is a sturdy breed that have developed into excellent landscape managers in the barren skerries of the archipelago through centuries.
The sheep are relatively small, rams weigh around 60 kilos and ewes around 40 kilos. About half of the rams and some of the ewes have horns. The fleece comes in a wide variety of colours and patterns. Many Åland sheep are born black or dark grey but lighten with age.
In the gene bank for Åland sheep all individuals and their characteristics are documented in a database, including information of wool colour and quality. Through this documentation the aim is to preserve the breed and keep its genetic diversity.
When I read the guidelines for the Åland sheep gene bank I get the sense that the rules are similar to those of the gene banks of Swedish heritage breed. With an aim to preserve the genetic diversity of a very small breed there is no room to breed for specific characteristics like the wool, even if the work with the gene bank does include information about wool quality. I asked Maija Hägglund, the chair of the Åland sheep association about this. She confirmed that the genetic variety is the focus of the gene bank. However, they do recommend sheep farmers to consider wool quality and not allow too coarse or too fine wool to take over in the flock.
Tommi’s Åland sheep
To get hold of some Åland wool I contacted Tommi, a sheep owner with around 50 Åland sheep. His landscape managing sheep graze freely in the barren outer skerries of the Åland archipelago between May and October or November. He takes his boat to visit his sheep every now and them so they will recognize him and know that he is still there. Many other breeds would not be able to survive on their own in this kind of environment. But Åland sheep have grazed these islands for centuries and have adapted to their environment.
Åland wool characteristics
Åland sheep have a dual coat with fine undercoat and long, strong outercoat. The wool can differ very much between flocks, individuals and over the body of one individual.
I got parts of two Åland fleeces from Tommi, one grey with extremely long outercoat and very fine undercoat. The other almost white with some black fibers in it, silky soft undercoat and strong outercoat. Shorter and finer than the grey fleece. Both fleeces have some kemp, but it feels quite fine and doesn’t bother me that much. They add to the rusticity of the yarn and makes it more interesting to me. When I asked Maija about the kemp she said that the occurrence of kemp varies between individuals but that her experience is that the kemp in Åland sheep is relatively fine, expecially when the fibers in general are fine.
I look for the main characteristics of the fleeces I have. When I work with the Åland wool, through picking, teasing, carding and spinning I see and feel a wool that is full of contrasts – silky, yet rustic, fine, yet strong. The outercoat are the longest I have seen and the undercoat remarkably long for its fineness. I smile when I see the vast difference between undercoat and outercoat and how they still work together with the aim to protect the sheep from the harsh weather on the barren islands. If I have to pick three main characteristics of the Åland wool I have experienced it would be
- The length, particularly of the outercoat fibers. I don’t see this length of fibers very often. Some of the outercoat fibers in the grey fleece are over 30 centimeters. The undercoat fibers are also remarkably long for their fineness.
- The silkiness of the undercoat. What can I say, it’s like meringue batter.
- The contrasts. I love a fleece that surprises me. It tickles my heart to find these long and rustic outercoat fibers right next to silky soft undercoat fibers.
Every time the fibers go through my hands I get to know their characteristics. Through the time I spend with the fibers in my hands and in my muscle memory I get a chance to prepare and spin a yarn that makes the wool justice. By focusing on letting the main characteristics shine in the finished yarn I get the opportunity to show the soul of the fleece as I see it, honouring the sheep that once grew the wool.
Working with Åland wool
When I contacted Tommi he was interested in my view of the wool and what I could do with it as a hand spinner. I decided to spin a few samples to show the variety of yarns I can create from a versatile wool like the Åland fleeces I got.
One of the most rewarding things about a dual coat fleece is the opportunity to play. There is so much I can do with a fleece with two distinctively different fiber types. I could
- Separate undercoat from outercoat.
- card undercoat and outercoat together
- comb undercoat and outercoat together
- semi-separate the fiber types.
Separating fiber types
By separating undercoat from outercoat I get to enjoy and take advantage of the unique characteristics of each fiber type. To separate the fiber types I use my two-pitch combs. The two (or more if that’s available) rows of teeth in the combs allow a firmer grip of the undercoat fibers, keeping them in the comb as I doff the outercoat fibers off the comb. The undercoat fibers left in the comb are hereby teased and ready to be carded into sweet rolags.
I may run the separated outercoat fibers through the combs once more, or a couple of separated tops together. This is to make sure I remove any remaining undercoat fibers and to make the birds’ nests a bit fuller.
Carding fiber types together
I love carding outercoat and undercoat together. This preparation really shows the contrast between them – the soft undercoat, flexible in their communication between the cards, the outercoat fibers more sharp in their appearance, keeping a straight line. Then, in the rolag I see the undercoat sponged up in a bundle with the outercoat like an armour around the round shape.
But can you really card fibers this long without disaster? Wouldn’t the long fibers just double around themselves in the rolag and create a tangled mess? Well, they would if they were alone. In a combination of short, medium and long fibers the fibers sort of marry each other and create an airy rolag. A dual coat therefore usually works well carding since there are naturally different fiber lengths in the staples. The longest fibers will double around the rolag, but I don’t see that as a problem since there are so many other lengths that won’t. Spinning may be a bit slower because of that armouring, but it also means that the yarn will be stronger.
Combing fiber types together
By combing fiber types together I will get a preparation that has characteristics from both fiber type – length, strength, softness and warmth. I use my single pitch combs for this. The single row of teeth allows the fibers to slide through them without separating too much.
While the single pitch combs allow for the fibers to glide through the teeth, doffing the combed top off the comb will still result in a separation to some degree. As I grab the bundle the longest will naturally come off first and the shortest will stay in the combs longer. I can make sure I don’t just grab the outermost fibers to prevent this. I can also divide the combed top into sections and re-comb them.
Semi-separating fiber types
With a dual coats like my Åland fleeces I have the opportunity to tailor the preparation to meet my needs. By removing some of one of the fiber types but not all of it I can adapt the fiber content to a specific kind of yarn. I haven’t had the time to do this with my Åland fleeces yet, but it does present a number of additional possibilities from one single fleece.
With the different fiber preparations I have described above I ended up making eight wheel spun samples that I sent to Tommi:
- Z-plied 2-ply yarn from the white fleece, intended for two-end knitting, carded and woolen spun. I spun a full skein of this quality.
- worsted spun 2-ply yarn from combed outercoat only
- woolen 3-ply yarn from carded undercoat only
- woolen 2-ply yarn from carded undercoat only
- woolen 2-ply yarn from undercoat and outercoat carded together
- worsted 2-ply yarn from undercoat and outercoat combed together
- woolen and lightly fulled medium singles yarn from undercoat and outercoat carded together
- woolen and lightly fulled chunky singles yarn from undercoat and outercoat carded together
From the list you can see eight different yarns with different fiber preparations, fiber type content, spinning technique and plies. There are numerous other dimensions to play with here, these are just a few. I love fleeces like these where I can play and find an expression I think rhymes with the fleece I got from the beginning.
In my yarns I have taken advantage of the length of the outercoat fibers – on its own and together with undercoat. I have been able to let the billowy silkiness of the undercoat fibers shine through the orderly outercoat fibers. Finally I have enjoyed displaying the contrast between undercoat and outercoat, creating a range of yarns full of lovely surprises.
Traditionally Åland wool has been used for a wide variety of things – knitting yarn for hats, socks, mittens and sweaters. Weaving yarn for everyday clothing for men and women, interiors like pillows, sheets rugs and curtains. Even sails. It has also been waulked.
When I look at the list and yarn samples above, adding the possibility of yarns from semi-separated fiber types it is easy to see the wide variety of uses of a fleece like the Åland fleeces I have described. Anything from the softest next-to-skin garments, through sweaters, mittens and other accessories, outerwear and strong warps. By tailoring the yarn with different fiber type content you can make socks with extra strong yarn for heels and toes. Just like it has been used by Ålanders for centuries.
The woolen and worsted yarns with both outercoat and undercoat are allround yarns suitable for sweaters and outerwear with their combination of strength and warmth. They could also work well in weaving as warp (worsted) and weft (woolen).
The singles samples are despite their singleness and low twist strong through the long outercoat fibers and could work for any accessory that doesn’t involve too much abrasion, and of course as a weft yarn in weaving.
I haven’t come so far as to plan a project, but I do have plans to continue with a Z-plied yarn for two-end knitting with the white fleece. With the grey fleece I am leaning towards separating the fiber types. Outercoat fibers of this length is quite unusual in my experience and I would love to take advantage of that. A warp yarn from the outercoat and soft knitting yarn from the undercoat is my plan at the moment.
his Saturday, April 9th at 5 pm CET (world clock here) I will host a live breed study webinar about Åland wool from a spinner’s perspective. In the webinar I will talk briefly about the breed in Sweden, wool characteristics and how I prepare, spin and use Åland wool. I will use Åland wool during the webinar and show you glimpses of how I prepare and spin the wool.
The webinar has already taken place
Even if you think you will never come across Åland wool this is still an opportunity to learn more about wool and wool processing in general. The breed study webinar will give you tools to understand different wool types and apply your knowledge to breeds and wool types closer to you.
This is a wonderful chance for me to meet you (in the chat window at least, I won’t be able to see you) and for you to see me live and unedited. The previous live breed study webinars I have done have been great successes. I really look forward to seeing you again in this webinar.
You can register even if you can’t make it to the live event. I will send the replay link to everyone who registers for the webinar. Remember, the only way to get access to the webinar (live or replay) is to register.
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