Shetland Breed Info and Terms

Shetland Breed Information

Shetland sheep are originally from the Shetland Islands, located north of Scotland.  They are an ancient breed known for their "extra fine and soft texture" wool as well as their sweet, delicious, high CLA meat.  Shetlands are a small, fine boned, fine wooled breed that come in a wide variety of colors and patterns.  The ewes range from 70-100 lbs and the rams are 90-125 lbs.  Fleeces are between 2-5/6" in length, and weigh between 2-5 lbs.  The average micron is between 20-30 and the fleece has a fine silky handle.  It is wavy/crimpy, dense fleece that can be easily hand spun or mill spun.  Almost all Shetland wool, except for the gossamer lace, was spun by mills in Scotland from the late 1800's forward.  In the handknitting era, the resulting yarn was then shipped back to Shetland, knitted into finished goods and then sold.

Shetlands have highly characteristic breed traits, such as a tiny fluke tail that has a hair tip and a refined, well shaped head that has wool on the cheeks, poll, and usually the forehead (though some are clean headed).  They can be either horned or polled, with most ewes being polled and most rams being horned.  A high quality, fine boned, fine crimpy fleeced Shetland sheep conforming to the 1927 breed standard is easily distinguished from other Northern Short-tailed sheep, and should never be confused with the much larger, bigger boned, long coarse wooled, double coated Icelandic sheep.

The Shetland breed has a standard that dates back to 1927 and it was designed to protect and preserve the Shetland sheep from disappearing from the Shetland Islands.  Breeds such as the Cheviot and especially the Scottish Blackface were imported continually and used extensively in crossing with the Shetland sheep to increase the carcass size and the amount of wool clip.  This was extremely detrimental to the breed since the fineness of the wool was being lost at a rapid rate.  The SBF is a very coarse, long wooled, dominant breed.  Since the woolen industry was one of two pillars of the Shetland Island economy, the Shetlanders could not afford the loss of the highly valued fine wool of the native Shetland sheep.  Therefore, the breed standard was drawn up and ram evaluations and incentives were made to preserve and protect the fine wooled, native Shetland sheep.

Shetland Wool Terms

In the Shetland sheep world, there are many terms that have been used over the centuries to describe fleece characteristics pertaining to Shetlands. In order to understand exactly what the terms historically refer to, a listing has been put together that has been gleaned from as much historical and current documentation as possible. It must be remembered that the standard was written to preserve the native sheep of Shetland that displayed the characteristics written in the standard. It was not written to preserve native sheep that were outside the standard's description. The economy of the Shetland Isles rested on
 fishing and the fine wool the sheep produced, therefore the standard was written to preserve the ancient, extra fine wooled native sheep as they were in danger of being lost forever to crossbreeding.

The Shetland breed standard describes the fleece as follows: Extra fine and soft texture, longish, wavy, and well closed.

Beaver - this is in reference to a type of fleece many sheep of Shetland had in ancient times and is described in literature starting around the late 1700's. The word invokes a picture of what the animal, the beaver, has for a fur coat. A real beaver has two coats, one very soft inner coat and a very coarse hairy outer coat. The underfur/undercoat has wavy crimp.  In making beaver fur coats or hats, the coarse outer coat was plucked out of the hides so that only the inner coat remained. 

Two different beaver (the rodent) pelts showing the outer coat

Two beaver pelts (the rodent) showing the inner fur with crimp

Beaver fleeces were present in native Shetland sheep alongside the kindly fleeces for hundreds of years.  There were possibly two main influences of the beaver fleeces.  The first being the influx of the Nordic sheep over hundreds of years and the second the influence with the crossing of the long tailed Roman breeds of sheep from the south.

A beaver coated Shetland historically meant that the sheep had a very soft inner wool coat and a coarse hairy outer coat.  Dr. Ryder classified this type of fleece in the 'hairy medium' category.  This type of fleece was being bred out, according to the literature, starting before 1850 as it was undesirable because it contained kemp or 'stichel' hairs.  

In the Northern areas of Europe where double coated native breeds of sheep existed, one of the main items the wool was used for was wadmal.  Wadmal was commonly made and used prior to 1750.  After that, the gradual switch was made to mainly knitting.  See wadmal.

Scadder is still seen in some of today's sheep by the hair that makes a frill or lion's mane around a sheep's neck and was and is normally found on double coated/beaver type sheep. It sometimes goes down the back of the sheep. It has been observed that if a sheep has scadder (see Scadder) that the scadder gets  more prevalent as the sheep gets older. Scadder can rarely be found in single coated Shetlands.

In the UK and Shetland Isles, beaver fleeces are used to describe what North Americans refer to as primitive/double coated fleeces so there is much confusion in terms.

Britch - this refers to the lower back leg fleece area. Typically, the britch fleece should be in the low to mid-30's micron count. Bad britch is a disqualification in the breed standard for Shetlands and refers to it as a very coarse britch. The best description used for the britch area is 'no more than a handful'.

Coarse - is considered to be over 31 microns by wool standards. Coarse wool is a disqualification in the Shetland breed standard. Very coarse wool, is defined as over 40 microns for wool, and is considered a disqualification if it is on the breeches (britch wool) and especially if it is on more than the britch area. See also Kemp for further description.

Crimpy - refers to the waviness of a staple or lock of wool. A crimpy Shetland fleece is usually composed of 8-12 crimps/inch. Crimp can be helical or wavy in type. Helical crimp is usually silkier than wave type of crimp because of the way the fiber grows, which affects the scales. Crimp is loosely correlated to the relative softness of a fleece, i.e. the crimpier the fleece usually the softer the fleece. See the book, Shetland's Native Domestic Animals, by Dr. Stanley Bowie, for a more complete description.

The following picture is a copy of part of the text found in the Appendix titled Abstract of an Account of Shetland Sheep, drawn up by John Tulloch, a Native of Shetland.  It is found in the book "Report to Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster . . . " by Andrew Kerr.  1791.   In this Appendix, Tulloch goes into great detail describing fine Shetland fleece.  After the words "waving thus", is a depiction of what Tulloch shows what the fine Shetland wool to be like.  More information can be found on the blog post from Feb. 15, 2013.  The fully transcribed Appendix is located here.

Crimp is measured in degrees/mm (CRV).  A higher CRV number (usually over 60) means a higher degree of curvature and more 'spring'.  Fine Merino fleece is generally over 90, with very fine Merino being over 120.  Shetland fleece is generally not as high in curvature as Merino due to the silkiness of the fibers (scale structure).  A single coated Shetland fleece normally ranges between 40-90.  
 The higher crimped Shetland fleeces generally range from 70-90 degrees.  Lower than 40 is an indication of poor crimp.

It must be realized that a typical, breed standard fleece of 3.5-4" with 12 crimps/" would actually stretch to a greater length, hence the ability to be spun either woolen or worsted.  Crimp gives bounce to knitted garments.  This is imperative for items such as socks, sweaters, hats, and gloves where spring back is required.  Shetland wool has, for hundreds of years, been famous for use in knitted goods.  Yarn spun from Shetland wool that is an average of 3.5-4" with 8-12 crimps/" has a bounce to the yarn regardless of woolen or worsted spinning.

                         Crimpy moorit fleece

Dense - refers to, when you grab a handful of wool on a Shetland, you feel a lot of fleece. There should be no skin seen on a sheep that is dense when the wind blows. Density in a fleece has nothing to do with fleece type (double coated, or single) but is the number of fibers per inch. A dense single coated Shetland sheep is quite warm and capable of surviving harsh conditions as fine, crimpy wool fibers are famous for holding warmth. A dense fleece is the opposite of an open fleece. Coarse fleeces can give the wrong impression of density though. A Shetland should have a dense, soft, finely crimped fleece. It should be a fleece composed of a lot of fine fibers. A Shetland fleece should not have coarse outer fibers with few soft inner fibers. This is considered a coarse, open fleece and is disqualifiable under the Shetland breed standard.

Dual/Double coat - wool that consists of an inner coat and an outer coat is referred to as a dual coat, with the micron counts of the two (or more) coats being significant enough to give a very broad peak or two or more distinct peaks on a histogram.   This range can be very great as in an inner coat of being an average of 20 microns and an outer coat being well over 30 microns. But an outer coat over 30 microns is deemed coarse and is non-standard. Or it can mean a very small range as an inner coat being an average of 22 microns and an outer coat being 25 microns. This would be nearly indistinguishable on a histogram, giving a broad peak, whereas the greater range will show two distinct peaks.   Standard deviations are normally high to very high in a dual/double coat as well as the Coarse Edge Mean.   Spin fineness (SF) of a dual/double coat is higher than the AFD.   Fine quality Shetland sheep wool is historically known for SF's lower than the AFD, not higher.

Extra fine - is a term used both for fine micron and the quality of the wool, of which Shetlands should be both. Shetland wool is classed by international wool standards to have a range of 20-30 microns. Over 31 microns is coarse in the world of wool terms. Shetlands should not be in the coarse range as that is non-standard.

Extra fine is also used to refer to the spinning quality of Shetland wool. Shetland wool is and was highly prized as a wool for spinning, both for hand spinning and mill spinning. In times past, the wool sometimes had the coarse, kempy "stichel" hairs.   Stichel hair in the fleeces made it useless for mill spinning. The stichel hairs had to be pulled out by hand since kemp is so coarse, prickly, and undyeable.  It would have made the yarn useless for knitting.  See stichel.

Over time, the native Shetland sheep was selected for the extra fine fleece that did not display the beaver coats.  The kindly, fine fleece native Shetland has been well known on the Island for hundreds of years.  The first recorded instance of the fine wool was in reference to stockings made in the 1200's.   In 1791, John Tulloch, a native of Shetland, wrote an extensive Appendix on Shetland sheep for a book for Sir John Sinclair on the state sheep farming.  In this Appendix, Tulloch described in great detail what the fine fleece of the native Shetland sheep looked like and going so far as to draw a picture of the extremely fine crimp possessed by the sheep and comparing it to the 'creasing of flax'.  Flax bends at very sharp angles and holds a crease.  
Shetland fleece has been millspun since before 1880, and much of the Shetland wool (excepting the gossamer lace yarn), was spun in mills by the 1920's, this meant that Shetland wool was of a good mill quality type by the time the standard was written.  See the well researched book, "Knitting By The Fireside And On The Hillside, A History Of The Shetland Hand Knitting Industry" by Linda Fryer.  The standard was then written for the sheep that displayed these extra fine wool qualities and to preserve them as the native sheep of Shetland.

Extra fine, in reference to the quality of the wool, could have also referred to the fact that good Shetland wool tends to spin finer than it actually feels. This would mean that the standard deviation was so low that the spin fineness was lower than the actual average fiber diameter, meaning a fleece that displayed single coatedness. See Single coat.

Intermediate - this term loosely describes fleece that ranges anywhere from 4-7+" and can be thought of as having a tip that is longer than an inch to differentiate between a single coat. It is basically a dual/double coat and therefore a nondescript term. See dual/double coat.

Kemp - is a short hair fiber around an inch in length, usually white though it can be a dark color, that is sometimes found in wool. A few breeds have kemp as either an exception or rule, most others, like Shetlands, should not have kemp. Kemp is also described by Yocum McColl fiber testing laboratory, as a fiber having over 60% medulation (hollowness). This would mean that the fiber is over 30 microns, and sometimes as great as 100 microns, and could be of any length.

True kemp is a brittle (snaps if you pull it) fiber that does not take dye.  It has been noted by dyers that coarse wool fibers with medullation take dye rather poorly, depending on the coarseness of the fiber.

John Sinclair, in his memos in the late 1700's, referred to these kemp hairs as "stickel/stichel" hairs. It is shed separately later in the year if a sheep naturally roos the wool.  It can be found in any fleece length or type.

Kindly - simply means soft. All Shetlands should be kindly according to the breed standard. In the late 1700's, this term was used to differentiate between sheep with only wool fibers and sheep that had beaver hair coats. The term has been wrongly promoted in the NASSA handbook as being only a very short, soft downy type coat. Kindly is what all Shetland fleece should be. If a Shetland does not have a kindly fleece it would have a coarse fleece or a hair coat, both of which are non-standard.

Lashy - this is a term that describes a long tip on a fleece. Oliver Henry, the Jamison and Smith Shetland wool classer, lumps these types of fleece in with the crossbred fleeces, like the Scottish Blackface. Lashy fleeces tend to be very coarse for the outer coat and should be not promoted in the breeding of Shetland sheep nor in the show ring. These fleeces can sometimes be silky soft and composed of fine fibers, but this is not a typical breed standard fleece as many are composed of straight outer fibers. Coarse, lashy fleeces should be highly discouraged in breeding.

Longish - this term should be taken in context as to the time when the standard was written.  The term longish then was made in comparison to the breeds located in the UK. Many breeds, such as the Lincoln and Merino, were there to compare to for fleece length. A long fleece indicated a fleece length typically found on a Lincoln and was over 6". A short fleece was more along the lines of a Down breed or a Merino and was usually around 2-3" or less.  Merino especially was considered to be a short wooled breed, usually less than 2".  Therefore the term longish was used to describe a Shetland fleece in the breed standard. This means, by the Appendix A clarification to the standard, a fleece length between 2-6" (A tighter range defined today by Appendix A would be 3-5").

Historically, in most documents, Shetland wool is described as "short".

Open - is a disqualification for fleece in the Shetland breed standard. It refers to a fleece that has few fibers per inch and when the wind blows and parts the fleece, skin is easily seen. It is an easily parted fleece.  There isn't much to the fleece when a handful is grabbed, though a coarse fleece might give a false impression of density. Any fleece type can be open and an open fleece can be either coarse or soft. See dense for more explanation.

Primitive - this term is used to describe two different things.  Primitive when used in the sheep world is indicative of thriftiness, hardiness, mothering ability, and many other characteristics as well. The Shetland is a primitive breed of sheep in that sense of the word, but still is a standardized breed (having a breed standard), and should therefore look more similar to each other instead of dissimilar. 

Primitive, in relation to the breed in general, refers to the state that Shetlands are in as to progress of genes. There are many different genes in even a small population of Shetland sheep as compared to a highly developed commercial sheep breed like a Suffolk, Hampshire, or Merino. These commercial breeds are developed to look like factory produced items - all the same or very similar in phenotype and genotype.  

Shetlands have a diverse genetic makeup with the colors and patterns.  There is a variety to the fleece but it should be wavy to very crimpy and between 2-6".  If the fleece or any other feature is highly divergent from Appendix A clarifications of the standard, then crossbreeding influence has been brought to the fore of the gene pool and the trait should be eliminated.

Primitive is also used to wrongly describe a certain fleece type.  It is usually referred to as a long tipped, long staple length fleece. This is a dual/double coated fleece, not a primitive fleece, as both single coats and double coats are "primitive", i.e. they are both fleeces that were indicative of the native sheep of Shetland several hundred years ago.  See dual/double coat and lashy.

Roo - is the natural wool break occurring in late winter to early summer in many Shetlands. Some fleeces roo with a clean enough break to be easily pulled off by hand. This is a primitive breed characteristic traditional of Shetlands and leaves both ends of the staple with a fine, smooth transition for spinning.

Scadder - this is referred to in beaver coated sheep and is the long, coarse, outer hair coat that sometimes forms a frill or mane around a sheep's head, usually double coated rams. It sometimes goes down the backline of a sheep.  Very rarely is scadder found in a single coat, but if so, it is usually a very small amount on the top of the head or under the chin of a mature Shetland ram.  

Silky - also refers to the handle or feel of a fleece. Silky obviously refers to silk, and invokes a smooth, slick, cool feeling fiber. Silkiness is due in part to how the scales on a fiber are made up. The scale height on a fiber can be tall or short and the scales can be large or small. A picture of a smooth tile floor (large tiles, low height) vs. a bumpy, brick cobblestone walk (small bricks, tall height) is the best picture to use to differentiate between a silky feeling fleece and a crisp feeling fleece. Good Shetland wool should be silky and fine.  It should not be too crisp (scaly, medium-large diameter fibers) as in a Cheviot fleece nor coarse feeling (smooth but large diameter fibers) as in a Lincoln.  Some finer Shetland has been historically described as cottony - fine feeling yet matte in appearance and a bit crisp.  This is perfectly acceptable.

Single coat - this term describes a fleece that is  between 2-6" in length. This fleece has a small tip on the end of their lock structures to shed water. The tip on a single coated Shetland is usually less than an inch with the best fleeces being between 1/8 - 1/2" long. The average length of fleece in the documentation is around 3 1/2". Single coats are usually wavy/crimpy to very crimpy and should be fine and silky soft. The fibers are usually closer together in micron count than a double coat fleece and the histogram will appear to be one sharp peak. The standard deviation is low, usually under 6, with a spin fineness count that is the same or finer than the average fiber diameter. This is the fleece that is described in the 1927 Shetland breed standard and clarified in Appendix A. Coarse, Cheviot-like wool or an open fleece should be discouraged in breeding and are not breed standard.
Dr. Stanley Bowie considers ideal Shetland wool to be 3 1/2" long with 8-12 crimps/inch with a mid-side micron of 23. 

Soft - refers to the handle or feel of a fleece. It is a subjective term but most consider this to mean a fleece that does not prickle bare skin (as in over 30 microns), nor does it feel coarse and crunchy (as in a fleece composed of small but tall scales - see silky). The softness of a Shetland fleece can range from a lamb's fleece or neck wool that feels almost like cashmere with a very fine micron and silkiness, to a fleece that is cushy, yet bouncy and a bit of silkiness and maybe crispness with a micron in the higher 20's. This range allows for what Shetland wool was historically used for, from fine cobweb lace shawls, to everyday hap shawls and sweaters (ladies wore wool sweater undergarments called spencers), to stockings fit for kings and socks for the commoner. Shetland fleece should never be so coarse though as to be considered composed of steel wool nor thought of as carpet wool. This is non-standard wool.

Tip - all Shetlands should display a tip on the end of their locks. The tip is where the differentiation comes between the inner and outer coats of a Shetland fleece. The tip in a dual coated breed is there to shed water. Blocky staples, locks that display a very uniform length of fleece, do not shed water as easily as a fleece with a small tip and are prone to fleece rot in fine wooled breeds in wet climates. This usually happens in breeds such as Merinos as their wool is very fine and extremely dense. The Shetland Isles are rainy and windy therefore the sheep that do the best there have a tip on the end of their locks to shed water.

On the other hand, a fleece with a very long tip and long fiber causes a sheep to be caught and tangled in the gorse and heath bushes, threatening the life of the sheep and therefore was not found in Shetland sheep originally.

Uniform - means two things when referring to wool. The most common definition is used to describe a fleece has similar or little variance in micron counts in the neck, mid-side, and rump area.

It is also used to describe the micron count along a staple length from the skin level to the tip end. Shetlands do not generally have complete uniformity in their fleece and historically have not been uniform.   There are Shetlands that are more uniform than others as certain lines have been bred for 50-100 years or more to produce more uniformity of fleece.  See Modern for more information.  It has been documented that Shetlands range from below 20 microns for the average for the neck, to around 23 microns for the mid-side, to the low 30's for the britch.  See Dr. Bowie's book.

Wavy - this term historically meant crimpy when the standard was written. A good example of wavy is seen in the Shetland Then and Now DVD where an early 1900's picture taken by Dr. Bowie of a wavy staple shows a highly crimped Merino fleece. Wavy is also used to describe fleece today that does not have many crimps per inch, usually less than 6/inch.

Wavy is also a term used by those in the SSS to describe a fleece that has 'waves' vs. one with 'crimps'.  A wavy fleece to them just means a broader crimp with a lower curvature.  See crimpy.

Mioget Gold fine fleeced Shetland wool
with wavy crimp

Emsket fine fleeced Shetland wool with fine wavy crimp
Well closed - refers to the denseness of the fleece with a closed staple. Well closed staples, with the fibers forming a tip, is a hallmark of the breed.  A dense fleece, tight and well closed to keep out the cold and wind, is also a breed character.  A fine, soft, crimpy, dense fleece forming small tips is what the breed is best known for historically and produces both woolen knitted goods the Shetland breed is known for as well as the fine worsted lace.  This duality of use is only found in this type of Shetland fleece.

 Terms Used to Describe Places of Origination

AI - Artifical Insemination.  This is used to describe sheep that have imported genetics straight from Shetland or the UK.  Imported genetics occurred in the 1990's through the 2000's.  A total of 17 different sires were imported, 2 of which went to Canada.  This does not include importation of Flett genetics from Canada to the US.  Many of the imported ram genetics are from top winning sires with fine quality fleeces and structure.

American - this is a term loosely used to describe Shetland sheep in the US that have one or more features that differ significantly from the 1927 Shetland breed standard, with the most prominent being a strong dual/double coat. 

Classic - this term was coined by Benedict to describe Shetlands that conform to the 1927 breed standard, "these marvelously fine-wooled sheep of crimped fleece".

Dailley - Shetland sheep were first imported by Col. Dailley to his Safari Park in Ontario, Canada in 1980.   A total of 28 ewes and 4 rams of various colors were selected by Benji Hunter of Shetland, and inspected by three inspectors to be good Shetlands.  The sheep were quarantined for 5 years before being allowed to be sold off the Safari Park's farm.  This was the foundation of the North American flock, with the exception of the Fletts.   AI importation of other bloodlines occurred in the later 1990's.  

Dailley Flock

Domestic - used to describe sheep solely of the Dailley bloodlines with no UK or Shetland AI genetics.  

Flockbook a book containing the records and pedigrees of breeds of sheep or of a particular flock of sheep.  
Flockbook Shetlands all derive from sheep that are inspected by very experienced and well trained Shetland sheep breeders on Shetland.  The sheep must meet the breed standard criteria. 

Flockbook Shetland ewes on Shetland 

Flett -  In 1948, 3 moorit Shetland ewes and a moorit Shetland ram were imported to Canada and kept in a closed flock for several decades.  They were approved to be registered in the North American Assn. in the 1990's.  

Foula - Is an island SW of Shetland.  Foula Shetlands have their own breed standard, which is different than the 1927 Shetland standard. It allows for double coating, describes the bone structure and other points like the head and colors to a greater degree.  The island does not allow for importation of sheep, and most sheep are bred indiscriminately (i.e. - rams and ewes are all allowed to intermingle on the hills and little to no controlled breedings are done).  Foula Shetlands can be inspected to determine if they conform to the 1927 Shetland standard. 

Modern - Another term coined by Benedict to refer to highly improved Flockbook lines of Shetland sheep found on Shetland.  Color to color breedings have been done for decades selecting the finest animals for excellent wool and carcass qualities.  

UK  - Short for United Kingdom - Great Britian, England and Scotand.  This term is used to distinguish Shetlands of UK descent (still originating from Shetland but one to many generations removed).  It is also used to describe a 'type',  meaning very characteristic of the breed standard.  Another term for 'classic'.

Copyrighted by Theresa Gygi.  May be used with permission.

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