In the spring 2019 issue of Spin-off magazine I wrote an article on sorting fleeces of Gute and Gotland wool. Some of you have asked for a breed study in Scandinavian sheep breeds. I think it’s a great idea and I will start today! I will look at Swedish breeds to start with and from the spinner’s point of view. A bit about the breed, the characteristics of the wool, how I prepare and spin it and what I want to do with the finished yarn. Today I will cover my thoughts on Gotland wool.
Next Saturday, April 13th at 5 pm CET I will host a live webinar where I share my thoughts and experiences on Gotland wool.
The Gotland sheep
The Gotland sheep is not one of the older Swedish sheep breeds. However, it is the most common breeds in Sweden.
The origin of the Gotland sheep is the Gute sheep. Gute sheep is a very old breed with a rustic fleece. I will cover the Gute sheep in more detail in a later post. In the 1920’s a program started to develop a breed that was good for meat and skins. The new breed was originally called Pälsfår (Fur sheep) to emphasize the use of the skins but was later changed to Gotland sheep to accommodate to a more international audience.
Today the Gotland sheep is the most common breed in Sweden. In 2018 there were 520 registered flocks of Gotland sheep with around 18000 lambing ewes according to the Swedish sheep breeders’ association.
The breeding standards Gotland sheep include standards for meat production and skin quality. The goals for wool characteristics are primarily set for skin quality.
The first characteristic that comes to mind when looking at a Gotland fleece is the shine. Gotland wool has a beautiful shine in different shades of grey from medium to dark grey and black. The staples are shaped in a 3-dimensional curl. The wool has a uniformity across the fleece with a solid colour, lock characteristic and staple length. The fleece consists of mostly outercoat and very little undercoat.
These characteristics are very well suited for a beautiful skin. However, Gotland wool is not my favorite wool to spin. It is easy to be fooled by the beautiful silvery locks, but they can be deceptive.
- Since there is so little undercoat and wave rather than crimp, the staples are very dense. This facilitates felting, especially at the cut end. Anyone who has shorn a Gotland sheep knows that this breed is a challenge to shear because of the dense fleece.
- The shine in the locks makes a beautiful sheen in the finished yarn, but the fibers are also very slippery. You need to pay close attention to the fibers when you spin or you are running the risk of the fibers pulling apart. Swedish spinning mills have difficulties spinning pure Gotland wool for this reason. They usually blend Gotland wool with around 25% Swedish finewool.
- The high percentage of outercoat makes the spinning less… cozy I would say. The fibers feel sort of coarse. The average Gotland fiber is around 40 micron.
With that said, this is my experience of Gotland wool in Sweden. As I understand it, Gotland wool in the U.K. and U.S. are usually softer.
Sounnie, a Gotland lamb
At the great sheep walk last year I suddenly saw her: A Gotland lamb with the sweetest curls: Sounnie. You can see a glimpse of her at 2:20 in this video about Överjärva farm where she lives with her flock. There are also purebred Gotland sheep in the video, the grey ones with black faces and legs.
She is 75% Gotland and 25% Swedish finewool, but the characteristics of her fleece is very Gotlandy, with unusually long staples (which doesn’t make sense at all since Finewool staples are around 5 cm/2 inches). I knew I needed her fleece when I saw her, even tough I am a bit reluctant towards Gotland wool. In September it was shearing day and I was there to harvest Sounnie’s sweet silver curls.
At the time I was writing the article for Spin-off and I only had time to make samples and swatches. It was wonderful to work with the newly shorn and freakishly long locks.
Just after Christmas I picked up where I had left Sounnie and started processing the locks. And I was shocked. Gone were the sweet curls and instead I found a tangled and very much felted mess. Just by being in a paper bag in my wool storage (aka the sofa bed) a lot of it had felted. But I wouldn’t let that stop me.
The natural way to attack the locks was to comb them. I had envisioned a thin yarn spun worsted from hand-combed tops. But since so much of the fleece had felted, combing was a big challenge. Combing straight off resulted in an uneven top that I had to struggle with. Even after five passes in the combs the top was uneven.
I tried flicking the staples and spin them individually from the cut end but that also resulted in an uneven yarn. So, as a middle step I flicked each individual staple and then combed them. This gave me the result I wanted. Ironically, a lot of the precious undercoat ended up in the flick card.
Since the locks are so dense I loaded the combs with only a few flicked locks. I landed at eight locks for my mini-combs. Anything more than that would require more muscle power than I had.
The method with pre-flicking and then combing a limited number of flicked staples resulted in beautiful and even bird’s nests.
Since Gotland wool is so dense, it also has lots of drape. I want to use that. But too much drape can get heavy. Therefore I wanted to spin a thin yarn that would give me drape without weighing a garment down. I spun the top with short forward draw with a low twist on my spinning wheel and 2-plied it. It resulted in a beautiful, shiny light fingering yarn with lots of drape.
With such a long staple length I needed to keep my hands far apart. Also I needed to pay close attention to the fiber to prevent the slippery fibers from pulling apart.
Spinning the Gotland wool was not a smooth feeling, eventhough this was a lamb’s fleece. It felt like the fibers had a triangular shape rather than round. That is the only way I can explain it.
The two-step preparation took a lot of time and resulted in quite a lot of waste (50–55%). But the spinning was lovely and resulted in a beautiful yarn that was remarkably consistent.
Because of the strength of the fiber, Gotland wool is a good choice for sturdy garments like socks. To keep the shine I would comb and spin worsted, but Gotland wool is definitely suited for carding and woolen spinning too.
Sounnie’s yarn is too pretty to be used for socks. I’m planning on a drapey top. I did spin a tailspun yarn from her short neck curls, but even if it turned out nicely, it is far too little to do anything with.
This Sunday, April 14th at 5 pm CET (world clock here) I will host a live breed study webinar about Gotland wool from a spinner’s perspective. I will talk briefly about the breed in Sweden, wool characteristics and how I process, spin and use Gotland wool. I will use Sounnie’s fleece as a case study and show you glimpses of how I process the wool.
This is a chance for me to meet you (in the chat at least, I won’t be able to see you) and for you to see me live and unedited. The last live webinar I did was a great success and since then I have been longing to host another webinar. So register now!
The event has passed
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