Tog and þel

In October I bought an Icelandic fleece from Hulda at Uppspuni mini mill in Iceland. I decided to separate the coats – tog and þel – by hand, just to see what I could learn. And I did indeed learn.

If you are a patron (or want to become one) you can see how I separate tog and þel by hand on the darker fleece in my December 2022 video postcard.

I asked Hulda to pick out a couple of ewe fleeces for me, with an interesting colour range somewhere along the grey scale. She found two beautiful fleeces, one lighter and one darker grey. I chose the lighter one and as much of the darker one that would work in a 2 kilo package. A few weeks later it landed at my doorstep – 1500 grams of the lighter grey and 500 grams of the darker.

Tog and þel

Icelandic wool has a dual coat with long and strong outercoat fibers and shorter, finer and softer undercoat fibers. Tog is Icelandic for the outercoat of Icelandic fleeces. I believe the word has the same origin as the Swedish word tagel (horse hair). The Icelandic undercoat is called þel [thel].


Usually when I want to separate undercoat and outercoat to spin separately I use a pair of combs. But I like to work close to the wool and I thought I’d try separating the two fiber types by hand on these beautiful Icelandic fleeces. An Icelandic spinner told me that her way of separating the fiber types was by hand.

So, this is how I separate the coats by hand:

  • The first step is easy – I pick a few locks by the tip ends. I bundle them up with the tip ends in one direction and the cut ends in the other.
  • On some parts of the darker fleece the cut ends are a little bundled up, so I lightly open up the cut ends to make the separation smoother.
  • I keep a firm grip in the tip ends and by lightly pulling and wiggling the cut ends, separate the two fiber types. I place the tog carefully in a paper bag with the tip end facing one direction and the cut ends another. I place the þel in another bag.
Lovely and freshly picked staples of Icelandic wool.

The fleeces Hulda has sent to me are of excellent quality. For that reason I knew that these were perfect candidates for separating by hand. In the beginning I had no particular reason for doing it this way, other than to explore and learn. But after having separated the whole 2 kilos of fleece by hand I now know the benefits of it and I will walk you through what I have learned.

Hello Wool

Usually I start a fleece exploration of a fleece by picking it, the whole fleece before I do anything else with it. With this Icelandic fleece I pick a few staples and separate them before I pick another few staples. Same steps but in a little different order. Regardless of the order of the steps. this is my first opportunity to get to know the fleece, and in its most natural form: From the washed fleece I pick out staple by staple and continue from there.

Let’s stop right there for a minute. As I pick the tip end of a staple and gently pull it out of the mass of staples, free at the tip ends and holding on at the cut ends, I get the opportunity to get to know the wool from the very start. I get to see how long the fibers are, both outercoat and undercoat. I see crimp, colour and staple type. When I dig my hands into the fleece I feel the bounce and when I draft some fibers out of the cut end of a staple I get a feeling of how it will spin.

Picking and separating the locks by hand gives me a unique opportunity to make an inventory of the entire fleece and sort according to any parameter I fancy.


I knew there were different colours in the fleeces, but it wasn’t until I picked and separated the staples I saw where the colours really were. The lighter fleece was quite homogenous – light grey þel and about the same colour in the tog.

Soft þel from the darker fleece. The basket is a Ullkränku, a Gotland wool basket.

The darker fleece, however hid a whole range of grey from very light to pitch black that was revealed when I separated the coats. All the þel was silvery grey while the colour range was in the tog. So, my original plan to separate the tog and the þel had to be revised – I added a second dimension – colour – to my separation and sorted my bundles of tog into a range from light to dark.

The range of colours in the outercoat/tog fibers, with the largest quantity in the medium to dark grey range.

Had I separated the coats with combs from the start I may have ended up with a variegated top of outercoat fibers, but I wouldn’t have discovered the treasure of the actual colour range and the opportunity I would have had in sorting according to colour.


As I pull the individual staple out of the carpet of staples I feel, right there between my hands, how the fibers relate to each other. But what does that mean, how the fibers relate to each other? Well, I’m talking about how the fibers separate from each other – do they let go of the grip easily and smoothly or do I have to struggle? Do the fibers agree with me or do they fight me? The way the fibers separate from each other is an indication of how they will behave later when I spin them.

As I hold one end of the staple in one hand and the other end in the other hand and gently pull I feel the response from the fiber types between my hands. Even if I might not always have words to describe what it is I feel in the response, it is definitely information that my muscles remember and bring back to me as I prepare and spin the wool later on. So, to summarize:

  • As I separate the coats my hands get a feeling of how easily the fibers separate from each other. Is it smooth or do I need to struggle? After ten, fifteen, umpteen coat separations my hands know what to expect and how to behave to respond to the information from the wool
  • My hands also get to know the length of the fibers and the coats. After a number of separations they know how long the fibers are. As I later comb or card and then spin my hands already know by feel how long the fibers are and how to work with the wool. My hands also know what distance to keep from each other for a smooth spin.

Every time the fibers go through my hands I get the chance to learn from them, to allow my hands to navigate in the responses I get from the wool. My hands store the information and get a better understanding of how to work with the wool in the upcoming steps o the process.

Þel weft

I have separated both of the fleeces into tog, þel and colour and stored them in my wool storage. They will now have to wait their turn in the fleece queue. When that day comes I will card the þel and spin woolen. This way I will get a light, soft and warm yarn that I will use as weft yarn. If the almost white and the light grey have enough contrast I may play with the colours.

As I test card the þel I feel how long the fibers are, I’m not used to undercoat fibers of that length. But it cards sweetly and smoothly into a lovely rolag that is a joy to spin. The fibers aren’t as well separated as if I would have teased them, so I’ll have to figure something out when I get to that stage. Perhaps just willowing them is enough. And fun too!

Tog warp

I will comb the tog and spin worsted into a strong warp yarn. This yarn will be strong and shiny and I will use it as a warp yarn. With the tog I have an opportunity to use the colour range to make stripes.

The tog fibers are very long! This means that I need to be very dramatic as I comb, making the movements large and bold to prevent the combed fibers to loop back on themselves and create tangles. I believe this warp will be a strong one.

Test spin

Of course I test spun the preparations too. Nothing fancy, just a quick go with suspended spindles. I spun them in different directions – the tog clockwise and the þel counter-clockwise. I have learned that the threads marry each other in a weave this way. And I get to practice spinning in both directions.

Combed tog spun worsted and clockwise. Carded þel spun woolen and counter-clockwise.

The tog and the þel with their unique characteristics that were so closely intertwined on the hoof have been torn apart and put together in a new fashion to be useful for a new wearer. I hope I can create a textile that makes the fleece justice.

Sometimes I get all giddy thinking about all the treasures I have in my wool storage, all picked and ready to be recreated into something completely new. A treasure chest in my sofa bed. Who knew!

If you are a patron (or want to become one) you can see how I separate tog and þel by hand on the darker fleece in my December 2022 video postcard.

Happy spinning!

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4 Replies to “Tog and þel”

  1. I lived in Iceland for 2 years and stayed w family who had sheep for Christmas weekend. But you are first I met that took the wool and worked w it. I saw many old spinners in the old village near Reykjavik. And purchased many sweaters, hats , etc. You left out one important part I was looking for- comparison to other wool. Did u find it rough on your skin or hands? Was it more difficult? I was pleased to see you split the colors. I’m imagining you will create wonderful items. Lastly, do u think it is so intensive that slight arthritis would mean a no go for spinning? Thank you, I love the way you communicate w your writing. Informative and fun.

    1. It sounds like a lovely time in Iceland! The Icelandic fleeces I have worked with have had wonderfully soft and silky undercoat and strong and shiny outercoat. I can’t compare it much to other breeds since the four Icelandic fleeces I have worked with have been hand picked by the sheep farmer. So I can’t say anything about other fleeces than these four from one breeder. There is a wide range of qualities that would be suitable for a wide range of purposes. But these fleeces have not been rough on my hands. They were all wonderfully open in the staples and easy to work with, both in the grease and washed.

      Your question about arthritis is an important one. I thought about straining as I separated the coats by hand. It could be an issue if one is not mindful. But for spinning I don’t think an Icelandic fleece would be more intensive than other breeds.

  2. Thanks so much for the quick update. I thought about you ever since reading your article. I don’t know if I’m up to try but I may in a year or so. By the way – love that you talk to your wool – lol. So fun.

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