Guest Post from Zara Tuulikki Rooke
As a felter and sheep-owner, I am intrigued by the variety of wool from different sheep breeds. As I live in Sweden, I have mostly felted wool from Swedish breeds, which are divided into three different basic types:
1) Finull, which literately means “fine wool”. We have a breed of sheep with the same name, which produce a soft, silky and fine-fibred wool (often 20-30 microns), with little difference between the undercoat and outer coat (i.e. it all, more or less, looks like undercoat). The fibres are quite short and have a fine crimp. Finull sheep can be white, black or brown.
2. Gobelängull, which can be translated into “tapestry wool”, and Gotland wool are our equivalents to “long-wool”. This is a slightly coarser, but lustrous wool (from 30 microns and upwards), with fewer crimps (“waves”) per cm. Coarser wool from Finull sheep, with no more than 5 crimps per 3 cm, is classified as Gobeläng. Gotland sheep have been bred for meat and pelts, and the latter has steered the selection towards long, lustrous, medium to large curls in the outer coat, with an undercoat of similar length and thickness. A fine-fibred undercoat would only lead to the pelts becoming fuzzy. Gotland fleeces can vary quite a lot, both in colour (very light to very dark grey) and in the shape of the locks. As a general rule, finer fibres have finer curls/crimp, and coarser fibres have a larger curl.
3) Ryaull, which can be translated into “carpet wool” (“rya” is a type of hooked wool carpet). Sheep of the breed Rya have a short, fine undercoat and a long, lustrous, wavy to straight and rather coarse outer coat. Ideally, the undercoat makes up 40-60% of the volume of the fleece on an adult sheep. Rya sheep are either white or black.
Below is a sketch showing the general difference between the three types of wool, and photos of wool from Finull, Gotland and Rya sheep to illustrate the difference.
Thanks to rather recent conservation programmes, we also have a number of smaller native landrace breeds. These are small breeds, which have been locally isolated and are now named after the region or village where they were rediscovered. They are generally quite small and hardy, with good mothering instincts and easy lambing, and can vary in colour and type of wool even within an individual fleece. Below are photos of wool from two such breeds, Åsen and Klövsjö, which to me both look like finer versions of Rya.
Below are also three photos of white wool from cross-breeds. “Svea” is a collective name used for native breeds crossed with imported meat breeds (such as Texel or any of the British Downs). As expected, the wool on a Svea sheep can vary a lot depending on its ancestry. The photo furthest to the left (“Svea”) shows a fuzzy type of wool, which is typical for the meat breeds. The photo in the middle (“Svea x Finull”) shows wool with a crimp of Finull type. And the photo furthest to the right shows wool from an interesting new breed called Jämtland (named after the county I live in), which originates from a cross between Svea, Finull and Merino. This breed has been developed to produce fine fibre wool as a complement to lamb meat production.
Now that we have looked at the different types of wool, it´s time to do some felting! Swedish native breeds are known to have wool that felts easily, but I wanted to compare their felting characteristics to these cross-breeds and to merino. Wool properties can vary between individual animals, and even within the same fleece, and this is not a strict scientific set-up with replicates. But I did try to standardize as much as possible. The wool was washed and carded, and I used 10g of each wool. I laid out the wool in 4 layers to cover a 20cm x 20 cm square, and on top of that, I laid out a piece of red cotton gause, a piece of wool yarn and a piece of cotton yarn. Then I felted each piece – wetted, added soap, rubbed, rolled and finally fulled it by more rubbing and tossing with hot water.
As expected, the Finull, Gotland and Rya wool was easy to felt and full. I measured the width and height of each piece and compared that area (in cm2) to the original size (20 cm x 20 cm = 400 cm2). The finer Finull shrunk to about 50% of the original size, while the coarser Gotland and Rya shrunk down to 42%. The latter two also result in a very thick, sturdy and rather hairy piece, where the fabric and yarn have become enclosed in the wool. These coarser wools are good for things that need to be sturdy and robust, such as slippers or rugs. They are perhaps not the best choice for nuno-felting, but a little shave would bring out the fabric again. The Finull is much softer, although densely fulled, which must be ideal for e.g. a hat or anything you would wear close to your skin.
The Åsen and Klövsjö behaved pretty much like the Rya, with the Åsen actually shrinking a little more (to 39%), but felt a little less hairy. That makes sense, as they looked like a finer type of Rya, and consist of a mix of finer fibres and some coarser fibres (as opposed to the Gotland that more or less consists of only one type of medium coarse fibres). That the Åsen shrunk the most did not surprize me either. The wool comes from my previous ram, and his fleece often felted before I had a chance to shear it. The Klövsjö wool is from my new ram, who is still a lamb, which explains why it still feels quite soft. His fleece will probably develop into a coarser Rya-type fleece with time.
Apparently, all the Swedish native sheep breeds, and the British long-wool breeds, have a different type of scales on their wool fibres, compared to other breeds. Their scales are smoother and laid out edge to edge. This reflects more light, making them look more shiny/lustrous, and provides less friction, making them feel softer and facilitating the fibres to slide into each other and felt together. Other breeds have rougher scales, overlapping like roofing tiles, which makes them more difficult to felt. Wool from meat breeds is described as fluffy wool, that wants to return to its previous state when squeezed, and therefore good to use as pillow stuffing, but not for felting. This difference becomes quite obvious if you try to stuff a bag with wool from a Swedish native breed versus a meat breed. The latter just feathers back and takes up space no matter how much you try to squash it down.
Below are photos of my felted samples of cross-breeds. The cross-breed with meat-type wool (Svea) did felt, but was difficult to full and only shrunk to 77% of the original size. The resulting piece also felt quite loose and spongy. The cross-breed with Finull-type wool felted a lot easier and shrunk down to 52.5 % in size when fulled (which is close to the pure Finull). The finer Jämtland (a cross between Svea, Finull and Merino) took a little convincing and careful handling to start felting, and couldn´t be fulled down to less than 72% of the original size. However, this piece felt very flat and dense, and very soft. In my opinion, an excellent choice for felting anything where softness is important.
Lastly, I felted some merino (dyed and of unknown micron value) and some wool from a cross of dairy breeds (East Friesian Dairy Sheep x Lacaune Lait). The merino wool is, of course, unbelievably soft, but being used to the coarser and more easily felted Swedish breeds, I do find it a bit trickier to felt. The initial wetting down and start of the felting requires much more patience and caution than I am used to. I guess the fine fibres have a lot of air in between them, and it takes a while to convince the fibres to latch on to each other. I couldn´t full the merino down to less than 68% of its original size either, which is similar to the Jämtland wool. Compared to Jämtland, the merino does feel slightly more spongy, but much denser than the Svea meat-type wool, and yes, very soft. The dairy wool felt very fluffy to begin with (I have only seen it in a carded state), but felted very nicely and evenly and shrunk to 52.5% (the same as the Svea Finull-type wool). It´s a bit spongy too, but also denser than the Svea meat-type wool, and very soft. A nice wool for felting things that do not need to be so sturdy.
If you have managed to read this far, you must be a fibre nerd… The differences I have described above may seem small to some, but to a felter, the felting-capability of a wool, and the difference between shrinking to 39% or 77% of the original size, can make quite a difference in the finished piece. All the samples I tried could be felted, but they acted differently, especially during fulling, and produced different results. From smooth to hairy, soft to sturdy and dense to spongy. Different types of wool are better used for felting different things. Is softness or strength and lustre more important for what you want to make? Knowing your wool helps, because even if felting is fun, you don´t really want to wear through your slippers too quickly, or wear a hairy and itchy hat, do you…?
Thanks Zara for this wonderful guide to Swedish sheep and their wool.