Åsen wool

Åsen sheep is one of the ten Swedish conservation breeds. Today’s blog post and an upcoming breed study webinar are all about Åsen wool. This is my ninth breed study. Previous breed studies have been about Gotland wool, Gute wool, Dalapäls wool, Värmland wool, Jämtland wool, finull wool, rya wool and Klövsjö wool.

This Saturday, May 29th at 5 pm CET I will host a free live breed study webinar on Swedish Åsen wool! I will share my experiences with the wool from a spinner’s perspective.

Åsen sheep

Åsen sheep is one of the ten Swedish heritage breeds. This means that it is protected in gene banks and that the sheep farmers in the gene banks are not allowed to breed for specific characteristics, like the fleece. Therefore the fleece can vary a lot in a flock and in an individual.

The Åsen sheep were found in the 1990’s on three farms in the village of Åsen in county Dalarna. The flocks had been kept on the farms for many years with no interference from other breeds.

Åsen sheep. Photo by Ylva Örtengren.

Åsen sheep are one of the forest sheep breeds and quite small. Ewes weigh 40–50 kg and rams 50–55 kg. The rams usually have beautiful horns. In 2020 there were 465 breeding ewes registered with the Swedish sheep breeder’s association, in 55 flocks.

Wool characteristics

As most of the other Swedish heritage breeds, the wool of Åsen sheep can vary greatly between individuals and within one single individual. Some individuals have kemp in their fleece. Kemp is a hollow fiber that is designed to keep the staples upright to protect the sheep from rain running in to the skin. Usually the wool from Åsen sheep is easy to work with.

A wide variety of wool types are represented in this breed – pälsull type (mostly outercoat with a little undercoat), rya type (about 50/50 of outercoat and undercoat), vadmal type (mostly undercoat with a few strands of outercoat) and finull type (almost only undercoat).

Locks of different wool types from different individuals of åsen sheep.
Locks of different wool types from different individuals of Åsen sheep in one flock – from mostly outercoat wool to mostly undercoat wool.

The colours

The colour can vary from white to black with all the greys in between. Many sheep are born dark and lighten with age. So within a flock of sheep of different age there can be a wide variety of colours and shades. It is easy to see that you can spin a wide variety of yarn qualities and colours from a flock of Åsen sheep.

This ewe has three wool types in her fleece – rya wool type (left), finull wool type (middle) and vadmal wool type (right).
This ewe has three wool types in her fleece – rya wool type (left), finull wool type (middle) and vadmal wool type (right). You can see some kemp in the staples to the right.

Vadmal type wool

One of my favourite wool types is the vadmal wool type, with mostly undercoat fibers and just a few strands of outercoat fibers. Usually the staple is triangular in its shape, with a wide and airy undercoat base and a thin outercoat tip.

Mostly vadmal type wool in the staples from this Åsen ewe.

I contacted a shepherdess, Ylva, who has a flock of Åsen sheep. I asked her to get me samples of the different varieties of wool found on her sheep. And she delivered. She had fastened staples on cards with information about the sheep and some thoughts about the wool. You can see some of the samples in the images above.

The main characteristics

When I explore a fleece I want to get to the core of it. I look for the characteristics that I think represent the soul of the fleece. Every fleece is unique, but for the sake of these breed study webinars I choose characteristics that I think can work for the breed as a whole. The characteristics I chose for the Åsen wool fleeces I have worked with are

  • The versatility – there can be a wide variety of staple types in one single fleece. Across a flock there can also be a wide colour range from white to black.
  • The kindness – Åsen wool has a kind air to it. The soft but still a little rustic wool, the open staples and the gentle sheen.
  • The vadmal type staples. I do have a weak spot for this staple type. There is so much you can do with it!

Sample batches

From Ylva’s sample cards I found two favourites, the fleeces from sheep 16010 and 12002. The first two digits in the numbers tell the year the sheep were born. I specifically looked for the vadmal wool type, with most undercoat fibers and just a few strands of outercoat fibers. I asked Ylva if she could send me larger batches of them, which she could.

12002 – a little kemp, a little curl

I found all staple types in this Åsen fleece – from mostly outercoat to the left to mostly undercoat to the right.
I found all staple types in this Åsen fleece – from mostly outercoat to the left to mostly undercoat to the right.

In this fleece I found all the staple types, from mostly outercoat fibers to mostly undercoat fibers. However, the vast majority of the staples lean toward the more undercoaty edge of the range with finull type and vadmal type wool in the forefront. The staples aren’t very long, around 10 centimeters. It is mainly white but does have some light grey spots. Chances are that this sheep was born black.

The staples have a lovely shine and are somewhat silky to the touch. They are soft to touch while at the same time having just a brush of rusticity to them. I see that kindness I talked about earlier – this fleece is easy to work with and doesn’t make a lot of demands. It is kind and gentle. The staples are open and easy to draft.

When I see and feel this fleece I imagine woolen spun yarn for warm sweaters and an occasional hat.

16010 – a dream of vadmal wool

This fleece is a little bit rougher than 12002 above. The staples are considerably longer, around 18 centimeters with undercoat fibers 10 centimeter long. It is a lot more consistent with almost entirely rya type and vadmal type wool and a mix between the types. The fleece is creamy white and I see only a few black kemp fibers. The fibers are almost straight. This wool is a bit clingy to draft.

This fleece was shorn in the spring. Usually the spring shearing is of lesser quality than the fall shearing. This has a number of reasons, like lots of vegetable matter due to the sheep being indoors, pregnancy, cold and less fresh food. Ylva keeps her sheep outdoors all year round and they only seek shelter when they need to. This means that they don’t stand and lie in straw all winter. This fleece is clean and with a lovely quality.

Staples of Åsen wool. Most of them are of rya or vadmal type or in between.
The staples from this Åsen fleece were more consistent. Most of them were of rya or vadmal type or in between.

One technique that comes to mind when I feel this fleece is nalbinding. The soft and airy undercoat fibers will give the yarn warmth while the long and strong fibers will add strength. This wool felts easily, which is another excellent characteristic since I like to full my nalbinding projects for extra strength and windproofing.

Preparation

I chose the fleeces with the vadmal type wool because it is such a lovely type of wool to work with. Mostly soft, but with a little outercoat fibers to keep the fluff in order and add some strength. This wool type is quite rare and my heart sings whenever I dig my hands into a fleece with lots of vadmal type staples. The name vadmal type refers to the fact that a wool with this kind of undercoat to outercoat ratio is particularly suitable to weave for wadmal cloth, a thick broadcloth to keep you warm through the winter.

Åsen wool carded into fluffy rolags.
Åsen wool carded into fluffy rolags. This is from the first Åsen fleece I ever bought. It was a couple of years ago and my first fleece from Ylva’s flock.

While it is fully possible to separate the undercoat and outercoat fibers I choose to work with the fiber types held together. I want to card and spin a woolen yarn. With the majority of the fibers being soft and airy I get the warmth I want, and the few outercoat fibers will elegantly marry these together and add strength and stability to the yarn. So I tease the wool with combs and card rolags.

Spin

Carded rolags like these are just itching to be spun with an English longdraw. The short and airy undercoat fibers will make the draw light while the longer outercoat fibers will add just a little resistance to prevent the rolag or the yarn to fall apart.

A 2-ply tarn with low twist from åsen wool.
The resulting yarn from the rolags above. The skein has long since crossed the Atlantic and is in Sara Wolf’s safe knitting hands. Read more about her knitting samples in Knit (spin) Sweden!

I choose to keep quite a low twist here. I want to show off the wool and all its superpowers and keep the spinning simple. Doesn’t this skein portray a perfectly kind wool?

Use

The whole range

With the wide variety of staple types available in Åsen wool it is easy to understand that you can use the yarn for a wide variety of projects – knitted mittens, sweaters, hats as well as weft yarn for weaving. If you find a fleece with enough outercoat fibers warp yarn is definitely possible too. I know an Åsen shepherdess who spins both weft and warp and sews beautiful garments with the wool from her flock. The undercoat fibers from a soft lamb’s fleece would definitely be a candidate for next to skin garments.

Fulling

Coming back to the wool type vadmal wool – a fulled sample is a very good idea with a fleece like this. Such a lovely way to explore a fleece.

Woven square, 2-ply yarn and fulled square (from a woven square same as to the left) from Åsen sheep 16010. The fulled square took me less than five minutes to full to size.
Woven square, 2-ply yarn (that I didn’t have time to finish) and fulled square (from a woven square same as to the left) from Åsen sheep 16010. The fulled square took me less than five minutes to full to size.

As the fleece of sheep 16010 felt a bit clingy to draft I suspected that it would felt easily, so this was my wool of choice for a fulled sample. I wove a 10 x 10 cm square on my pin loom and started to full with hot water and some dish soap. It took me less than five minutes to full my woven sample to the size above. So I was right, the fleece was a very good candidate for fulling. In this I need to remind myself that wool preparation is a fresh produce, especially with a fleece that is this prone to felting – I will only card as much wool as I need for the day. Carded wool saved for the next day may well felt just by breathing too close to it.

It was a long time since I made something in nalbinding and I think a yarn like this would be a very good candidate. The airiness in the outercoat fibers brings warmth to the garment while the outercoat fibers will give the yarn strength. Just as with the previous nalbinding projects I have made I would full a pair of Åsen mittens. I know the felting properties of the wool and I can’t wait for winter.

A kind wool for teaching

Once I brought Åsen wool to a spinning course. I had several other breeds for the students to choose from, but the Åsen wool was by far the most popular choice, especially for the carding classes. Again, this is a kind and gentle wool. I also believe that some of the students contacted Åsen sheep farmers to buy Åsen wool after they had finished the course.

Live webinar!

This Saturday, May 29th at 5 pm CET (world clock here) I will host a live breed study webinar about Swedish Åsen 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 Åsen wool. I will use Åsen wool during the webinar and show you glimpses of how I prepare and spin the wool.

Even if you think you will never come across Swedish finull 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.

Happy spinning!


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