I’ve actually been a spinner for a lot longer than I’ve been interested in all things Icelandic. Up until now, however, I’ve never worked with the fleece of an Icelandic sheep. I started planning this particular project before I decided to focus on Iceland and have an Icelandic persona, so it’s a bit of a happy coincidence that this project fits in quite nicely with my overall goal here. I decided a few years ago that I wanted to do a sheep to dress project – going from raw fleeces, straight off the sheep, and do every single step along the way myself, by hand, as close to the way it would have been done in the Viking age, and ultimately end up with an apron dress for myself. The first step in this project was to research breeds of sheep to find the right one, and as I did have a Viking era persona at that point, even if it wasn’t Icelandic at the time, I came to the conclusion that the Icelandic sheep was probably the closest to what would have been available in the Viking era. There are a few other breeds that would also have worked – the Soay, the Norwegian Spaelsau, and the Jacob, for example – but for some reason I decided on Icelandics. As it turned out, that was a good choice for me since a few years later I decided to narrow my focus to Viking-era Iceland! Icelandic sheep are directly descended from the sheep brought to Iceland by the people who settled it.
The Icelandic sheep is a Northern European short-tailed sheep which has a double coat. They have a soft inner coat called the thel, and a coarser, longer outer coat called the tog. When the two are mixed together during carding and spinning, they can make a yarn which is very stable while still being able to be spun fairly thin, called Lopi. This yarn is best used for outerwear, though, as it’s not super soft and fine like Merino or wools like that. Alternately, the tog and the thel can be separated with wool combs (or by hand) and spun separately. The tog spun by itself will produce a softer yarn, and the thel will make a coarser (and I suspect more waterproof) yarn. I will be doing some experiments with a small portion of the fleeces I get, to decide whether to separate the tog and thel, or to spin it together.
My project got put on hold for a while over the past couple of years, because I was struggling to get my hands on some Icelandic fleeces, for a few different reasons – but the main one being finances. I have not been able to find anyone in my immediate area who keeps Icelandic sheep, which meant either having the fleeces shipped to me, or going out of area to get them. While fleece is too heavy, unless you’re getting a lot of it, it is quite bulky, and would not be cheap to ship. Fortunately, I realized that the site for June Coronation is only a couple of hours from Biggs Ranch, a farm in central Alberta that raises just about Icelandic everything… sheep, horses, chickens, and dogs. They’ll be shearing their sheep sometime between now and the end of June, and I’ve made arrangements to make a stop there on my way to Coronation to pick up some fleeces. I’m hoping to get going early enough in the morning that I’ll have time to meet their dogs (they have new puppies that were born in the past few weeks too!) and take some photos for my project as well.
So now that I FINALLY have fleeces coming, it’s time to get going on researching, building, and documenting the fibre prep tools I’ll be using! First up: wool combs based on the Oseberg ship find.
Photograph of Icelandic sheep by Andrea Schaffer, used with permission under a Creative Commons license, and found posted on Flickr here.