Friday, January 23, 2015

Double Coated Fleeces: Gotland?

Back in the day, several millennia ago, sheep had a double coat. They had an outer, coarser, hairy fiber, and a softer, shorter, undercoat. The outer coat had micron counts in the 40+ range, and the inner coat had micron counts in the 15-25 micron range. And they shed naturally. Likely through selective breeding, sheep came to possess an all-over woolly coat which needed to be sheared. Archaeologists have discovered that this undercoat was significantly softer than the later woolly versions.

When wool became an important commodity for the family, we see a dramatic change in their attitude towards sheep...and one result is a sheep coat with a more consistent micron count. An unfortunate side effect of a woolly sheep is a coarser lowest micron count for the whole fleece. For example, if a sheep has an 18 micron undercoat and a 30 micron outer coat and is bred for a uniform fleece, the overall micron count might only get as fine as 23 microns. This is an oversimplification of a complex breeding process, but the result allows for a family to quickly shear and process wool for their needs, as well as allowing for intensification for surplus. Which brings me to the idea of 'primitive sheep.' These sheep still exhibit the double coat which sheds naturally, and breeds include Icelandic, Soay, and Shetland.

A fan of Expertly Dyed, Annbritt, came to visit her son in Korea. With her, she brought a full two pounds of Swedish Gotland wool for me to have! I began removing the coarser outer coat hairs from the softer undercoat. Here is the softer lock:

And the hairy outer coat (you can really see how wiry it is!):

Today, I flipped open my Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook to read about Gotland, and was a little surprised. Gotland sheep is a twentieth century breed, though it has roots in primitive sheep breeds like the Goth and Gute. But it isn't marked here as a double coated sheep. My Gotland has a very distinct hairy coat. More investigation was needed!

I had trouble finding information about the Goth, but the Gute is listed in the F&F book as a double coated sheep, as well as two other sheep used to create the Gotland sheep: Karakul and Romanov. So, it would appear that though the Gotland breed is meant to have a uniform coat, occasionally their primitive ancestry is expressed. I believe that my Gotland was from a sheep (perhaps an older sheep?) which possessed a dual coat. It doesn't bother me since I've processed Soay and Icelandic from the raw lock, but in general, you shouldn't need to process Gotland as a dual fleece.

I've been trying to get my hands on the Stansborough Gotlands, raised in New Zealand, but their wool is particularly sought after. One day I'll finally get some. Their wool is extremely fine, lustrous, and lightweight while still having drape, which is why it was chosen for the elven cloaks in Lord of the Rings. The Swedish Gotland I have will be exceptionally close in fineness and drape, so I'm looking forward to making a woven scarf with it once it's spun. I'm very grateful to Annbritt for bringing me this lovely wool, and I hope that other spinners give these interesting breeds a chance. Our purchases encourage small farms to continue raising rare sheep.