Longitudinal study

A couple of months ago I started playing with the idea of a longitudinal study of the fleece of one individual sheep through its lifetime. The idea grew on me and I contacted Claudia Dillmann, a shepherdess with a small flock of Swedish Gestrike sheep. This is the first post in a what I hope will be a long row of posts from different perspectives of the fleeces of one sheep.

A width of perspectives

A longitudinal study allows me to look at the changes in an individual sheep’s fleece during its lifetime, over the seasons, in different weather conditions and other environmental factors like pregnancy, food and choices a sheep farmer needs to make. It will give me an opportunity to look in depth at a fleece and how it develops during the sheep’s lifetime. It will also give me a deeper understanding of what factors influence the quality of the fleece and all the work a sheep farmer invests in their flock to keep it healthy.

Fleece subscription

Claudia has a small flock of the Swedish conservation breed Gestrike sheep (yes, there will be a webinar eventually) at her farm about two hours from my house. She is also a board member of the Swedish sheep breeders’ association (Svenska Fåravelsförbundet) and responsible for skin and fleece. She is very knowledgeable about fleece and Swedish sheep breeds.

I asked Claudia if I could “subscribe” to the fleece of one of her sheep. Preferably a lamb to get hold of the first shearing. She loved the idea and a couple of weeks later she presented the sheep Gunvor as my subscription sheep.

About shearing in Sweden

Before I move on with Gunvor’s story I want to cover the shearing a bit. Sheep must be shorn at least once a year according to the law, but most sheep in Sweden are shorn twice a year. A whole year’s fleece may get felted and become very difficult to both shear and process. Usually the sheep are shorn in late fall and early spring. This follows the natural rhythm of the fleece growth and is usually adapted to the lambing periods.

Many sheep farmers have the ram serve the ewes in late fall. It is a good idea to have the sheep shorn before that so the fleece isn’t in the way of the mating. It is also a good idea to shear the sheep a few weeks before they lamb. Shearing a sheep with littluns crying their little hearts out for their mum can be a challenge. And they may not even recognize her afterwards without her coat.

The fall shearing usually has a higher quality than the spring shearing. The sheep have been grazing during the summer and the fleece has grown a lot from the nutrients in the fresh food. During the winter the sheep are usually pregnant. Some of you may know what can happen to your hair during pregnancy when most of the energy goes straight to the fetus. It is the same for sheep. The sheep also produce more lanolin during the winter to keep warm. Hey and straw can easily find their way into the fleece. Still, for the purpose of a longitudinal study I want to experience the difference between fall and spring shearings.

Gunvor the Gestrike sheep

Gunvor was born in May 2020. She is the lamb of Gosprick (“cuddle spots”) which came to Claudia from Vallby open air museum in 2014. Gunvor was Gosprick’s last lamb and Gosprick has now moved on to greener pastures.

Gunvor the Gestrike sheep in April 2021, a few weeks before the second shearing. Photo by Claudia Dillmann.

Gunvor had her first shearing in October 2020. As Gunvor was so young Claudia decided not to let the ram serve her the first year, so the outgrowing second fleece wasn’t affected by pregnancy. Lucky for me, Claudia had saved Gunvor’s first fleece and was a good choice when I asked Claudia for a sheep to subscribe to.

A bike ride through town

A couple of weeks ago Gunvor was freed from her second fleece. Claudia and I live a couple of hours away from each other. I don’t drive and I didn’t want to sit for two hours in public transportation during the pandemic. Instead Claudia sent Gunvor’s first and second fleece with a friend of hers who was going to Stockholm (thank you Kristina!). This week I took the bike through town to collect them. Next time I hope I can get to Claudia’s farm and meet her and Gunvor.

Two bags full! Gunvor's first and second fleeces ride safely home with me.
Two bags full! Gunvor’s first and second longitudinal study fleeces ride safely home with me. The saddle cover was once part of a Gotland sheep that belonged to my husband’s late aunt.

Whenever I ride my bike with the bags full of wool I giggle on the bike path. No one would even think that I had raw fleece in those bike bags. I secretly imagine the fleeces enjoying the rush of the wind through a beautiful Stockholm along the shore of Lake Mälaren.

First and second fleeces: A first look

I haven’t come very far with the fleeces yet, but I did notice a few things as I unpacked them. I soaked both fleeces in warm water and rinsed in three waters. Nothing added, just water and love.

First shearing

The first shearing (Claudia always hires professional shearers for her sheep) was very loose and the staples didn’t hold together. Therefore I don’t know where the staples were shorn off Gunvor’s body. They are black and white, a little more white wool than black. Most of the staples are of rya type – around 50 percent undercoat and 50 percent outercoat, long, quite straight and cone shaped. You can read about the Swedish wool types here. The lamb’s lock ends each staple with a sweet curl.

The fleece feels light and airy. Most of the staples feel like medium in their fineness, but some feel very fine and soft while others are coarser.

The staples are quite long, some around 20 centimeters. I can see some white kemp but not very much. The black fibers feel softer than the white.

Second shearing

When I emptied the bag with the second shearing the staples kept together. I could just about map out the fleece to see what went where. I could define the tight mid back staples, the coarser leg staples and the soft neck curls.

I also noticed a lighter colour. Claudia tells me that many Gestrike lambs are born black or spotted but that the fleece usually turns lighter during their first year or so. The staples are also generally shorter than the first fleece. This seems fully logical since the main growth period is during the summer. The second shearing is a bit coarser than the first, but not significantly. At the same time the staples seem airier, puffier. Perhaps this is a winter thing to keep the sheep warmer.

This fleece also has some vegetable matter in it. Claudia tells me that her sheep can choose to be outdoors or indoors during the winter. That way they don’t stand or lie in straw all the time. Usually they shake off straw, but some of it will of course stay in the fleece. By being outdoors snow and rain will clean the fleeces. The vegetable matter is quite easy to remove and I don’t worry about it. I find some Timothy grass here and there. Even if I know they are a nuisance I still smile. They are a reminder that the fleece in my hands comes from a grazing sheep with all that it brings with it.

Shearing timing

When it comes to the Swedish heritage breeds the spring shearing is best done in February or May. Through the energy from the grass (that starts growing in May in many parts of Sweden) the lanolin production will decrease and the wool will be easier to shear. Gunvor was shorn in April, though. The shearer told Claudia that the sheep took hard work to shear because of the high amount of lanolin and the stubborn staples. Therefore there are more second cuts than the shearer had wished for. The second cuts are easy to remove, though. A lot of them also came out with the soaking water.

If you look at the staple picture from the spring shearing you will notice little yellow spots towards the cut end. That is accumulated lanolin. Claudia tells me that this shearing was unusually greasy and the shearer needed to clean the shears several times during the shearing. It will be interesting to see how much difference this high amount of lanolin will make in preparing and spinning the wool.

These were my first observations of the first and second fleeces of Gunvor. There will be more! My longitudinal study of Gunvor’s fleece has officially started and it will continue during Gunvor’s lifetime. I hope I can go see Gunvor and Claudia soon.

Happy spinning!

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