There are many ways to describe and categorize wool. Many countries have their own way of describing wool, probably in a way that is suitable for the sheep breeds that are most common in that particular country. The traditional way to describe wool in Sweden is by wool type.
The traditional way to describe wool in Sweden is with wool types. These describe the shape and constitution of the staples. Through that it also describes the composition of undercoat and outercoat fibers in the staples.
We use four wool types that cover the most common breeds in Sweden – finull, rya, pälsull and vadmal type wool. The names (which I will explain in the post) are not always logical, but once you know what they mean the types are quite straightforward and easy to use. A wool type can have the same name as a sheep breed. That doesn’t mean that all the fleeces from the breed have that particular wool type. Neither does it mean that only that breed have that wool type. As you will see, there can be several wool types in a breed or indeed in a individual fleece.
The use of wool types is an accessible way to describe wool. Once you have the keys to the types you will understand some of the character of the wool and what you can expect from it. In my experience it is not an exact science, but rather a way to understand and approach the wool with a simple tool.
Soft finull type wool
As I have described in the historical sections of rya wool and finull wool, there was once a Swedish landrace. It had both soft, warm undercoat and strong, shiny outercoat. These different kinds of wool were used for different purposes. The wool type with mostly undercoat fibers was called finull (finewool) type wool. Later the landrace breed finull sheep was established. Not all finull sheep have finull type wool. Sheep of other breeds can also have finull wool type staples in their fleeces.
Balanced Rya type wool
When textile researchers were puzzled about where the long and shiny wool in the old rya textiles came from, they started a search for the rya type wool. The wool that had been used in the pre-industrialization rya textiles had long and shiny outercoat fibers and soft and warm undercoat fibers. They were found in the Dalapäls sheep which was later used to breed rya sheep. Thus, the breed standards for rya sheep aim for rya type wool. Other breeds like Klövsjö sheep can also have rya type wool on all or part of the fleece.
Shiny pälsull type wool
When Gute sheep were saved from extinction about 100 years ago, some sheep were used to start the pälsfår sheep breed, the fur sheep. Sheep skins with locks shining like silver were in high demand. To sell better abroad the breed later changed names to Gotland sheep. The aim for the Gotland fleece is to be strong, shiny and have dense, three dimensional locks to make pretty skins. The term pälsull (fur wool) is still used to describe the wool type.
Another breed that typically has pälsull type wool is Swedish Leicester. The first Leicester longwool sheep were imported in the 18th century so the breed today is indeed a Swedish Leicester sheep adapted to the Swedish climate. During the 1980’s the breed was further bred to be a white pälsull type sister to the Gotland sheep and make pretty skins.
Vadmal type wool
A fourth type is the vadmal (wadmal, or broadcloth) wool. This wool type was thought to be extra fitting for fulling fabric into thick wadmal or broadcloth that would withstand the wind and the cold in the Swedish winters. Many breeds can have vadmal type wool in their fleeces.
The difference between the wool types
So, what distinguishes these wool types? Well, I would say the undercoat to outercoat ratio in the staples, which manifests itself in shape and constitution of the staples. Also to some extent the difference between the undercoat and outercoat fibers. This is not absolute in any way, but it is a way to roughly categorize staples into wool types. In the description below I have pulled the fiber types apart in the staples to find a rough outercoat to undercoat ratio.
Almost only undercoat
Finull type wool consists, as the name suggest, of mostly or only undercoat fibers. The staple is usually short and crimpy with very fine tips. Finull wool usually has finewool type wool, as does Jämtland wool (which is a new Swedish crossbred).
As you can see in the images above the finull type staples are usually quite short and have soft and crimpy staples. They consist of mostly or only undercoat fibers. To the right you see the fluffy undercoat and just a few strands of what I think are outercoat fibers.
Mostly undercoat fibers
Vadmal type wool still has mostly undercoat fibers but also some outercoat fibers. The shape is usually triangular with a very narrow tip of the outercoat fibers. The staple is usually wavy. I would say that the vadmal type wool is quite unusual. I have seen vadmal type wool as one of the wool types in heterogeneous fleeces of several Swedish heritage breeds. So far I have only seen one fleece – of Åsen wool – with predominantly vadmal type wool. I used it in a course I taught and it was by far the most popular wool to work with.
The vadmal type wool has a characteristic look in its triangular shape with the wide undercoat base and the pointy tip of a few strands of outercoat fibers, hugging each other for support. Vadmal wool is soft but will still have some strength due to the outercoat content. It is a very versatile wool and I jump at any opportunity to get my hands on and in a vadmal type fleece. In the right picture above you can see the distribution of fibers in the staple I divided – mostly airy undercoat and some longer outercoat fibers.
Rya type wool typically has an outercoat to undercoat ratio of 60/40 or 50/50. The staple is long and wavy to straight. The staples are long with a conical shape. Rya sheep typically has rya type wool. Many breeds can have partly or predominantly rya type wool, like Dalapäls sheep, Klövsjö sheep and Värmland sheep.
Rya type wool is quite versatile since you can divide it and use it in so many ways. Use both fiber types together, divide into outercoat and undercoat or make an even larger buffet using lamb’s or ewe’s wool.
Pälsull wool has only outercoat fibers. Or, there can be some undercoat fibers, but all fibers are typically quite coarse. The staple is thin, dense and wavy. A pälsull type staple usually has lots of shine. Gotland sheep is an example of a breed that produces almost only pälsull type wool, as is Swedish Leicester sheep. Sometimes you can find pälsull type wool in finewool sheep.
With a pälsull type wool you are not likely to get a soft yarn. I prefer to use pälsull type wool for project that require strength like socks, warp or embroidery.
All in one
Through this post I have presented examples of the different wool types I have talked about. You have seen that a wool type can exist in different breeds. Now, take another look at the pictures with staples on a waulking board. All the staples on the waulking board come from the same Värmland fleece. Yes. One fleece with all the wool types represented.
A versatile Värmland fleece
The Swedish heritage breeds are rare and some even threatened. The genetic base is too small to breed for specific characteristics and the sheep farmers with gene banks are not allowed to single out characteristics to breed on. Therefore the fleeces can be, and usually are, very heterogenous. Like this Värmland fleece.
This lamb’s fleece got a bronze medal in the 2019 Swedish fleece championships. I realized its potential when I bought it at the auction that followed the event.
From a quick investigation of the fleece I can tell that the most common wool type in this particular fleece is rya type wool and the least common is the pälsull type wool. With that information I also know that the fleece has lots of soft and warm undercoat and some strong outercoat. I can choose to divide the fleece into wool types, fiber types or keep it all together. The possibilities with a fleece like this are endless.
I am sure a sheep farmer with a fleece like this will know where the wool types will typically be found on the body of the sheep. My guess is that a lot of the finull wool type can be found around the neck and the rya type wool on the sides.
Systems to describe wool
Back to the Swedish landrace. When the textile experts realized that the wool in the pre-industrial rya textiles were different from the wool in the post-industrial rya textiles a search began for the wool type that was used in the earlier rya textiles. Would this have been the first mention of wool types in Sweden? I want to think so. Either case, the use of wool types in Sweden would be based on the wool types that traditionally have been grazing Swedish pastures.
At the time of the industrial revolution lots of breeds were imported to Sweden to provide wool to the spinning mills that the mills could actually work with. Traces of these imported breeds are still in the landrace and heritage breeds in Sweden today. The imported breed that seems to have had the most success is the Swedish Leicester sheep that is used for its own sake and to cross with other breeds.
I am curious of any systems to describe wool in your countries:
- Are there systems to describe wool where you live?
- Do you have a system of your own to describe wool?
- Do you see any pros and cons of using a system to describe wool?
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