Dreaming of Shetland

Updated in July 2013 to add a link here as the Dreaming of Shetland website goes live.


Ah, time. There just isn't enough of it. If there were, I'd complete a lot more blog posts. I have ten started in MarsEdit, the program I use for composing, and another few dozen that I've meant to start writing but haven't even gotten as far as jotting down titles and concepts for. Often those ideas sit uncompleted because I have other work that needs to be done instead. The quiet here on the blog never results from lack of enthusiasm or a scarcity of things to share: it's an indication that the days end too quickly.

Thus the conundrum that I presented to a group of fellow fiber artists and writers when we got together in February: How to do more of the sheep and wool research that I feel called to undertake, while also earning a living? Most of the work on sheep and wool involves a lot of time for what amounts to honoraria: payments that recognize the value of what has been produced without actually providing enough to buy groceries or pay the mortgage.

The ideas these creative folk came up with surprised and floored me. I'm still recovering, and while I don't know what the efforts that were launched that evening mean yet in practical terms, the support all on its own has been so affirming that I'm challenged to just take it in. One of the ideas was presented to me with the following introduction: "We have an idea. All you need to do is say 'yes' and have a PayPal account." I had to absorb the proposal that they presented to me for a few minutes, then said, "yes," along with "thank you," and "I do have a PayPal account. It's already part of my freelance business."


So there are two primary ideas afoot as a result of that gathering's attention to my sheepy obsessions. They both relate to an upcoming trip to the UK, which in turn has been instigated and is being facilitated by a small group of friends. The entire extended group of interested parties still hasn't resolved the visa issues involved in teaching, so this trip will be focused on research, although as the conversations have evolved other folks are stepping up and working on the paperwork part, and I may be able to teach on a future trip.

When the idea of a trip to the UK first began to be bandied about, the initial questions concerned when, and with what emphasis—which narrows down where. There are many ways to continue the research I did for The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, and it would be easy to run off in all directions and end up with scattered bits that don't pull together into substantial insights. There are about 1400 breeds of sheep throughout the world and there is no way I can cover them all. I'm working, slowly, on more of the breeds from continental Europe, mostly with the help and support of people on Ravelry. That's a long-term project and one that so far has no clear boundaries. It will need to perk along in the background until its shape becomes apparent. We all knew a trip to the UK would need to be very focused in order to produce useful results. There are just too many options.

Shetland Wool Week arose as the optimal event around which to plan the trip. Over the past six months or so, I've been pushed toward intensive research on Shetlands, for a lot of reasons. Resources for deepening this research have been dropping onto the path in front of me, one after another, confirming this as a good next organizing principle. I'll have more to say about that as time goes on.

But first here are the two projects that this group of folks came up with barely more than a month ago: the ones that have left me nearly speechless since.

The e-book project: Dreaming of Shetland

A small crew of volunteers is organizing an e-book of patterns, essays, and photographs to be called Dreaming of Shetland to be sold through Ravelry to support my research. While a small crew is putting this together, a large number of people are contributing to the project. It's quite astonishing.

Yes, it will support me, but it will also support the sheep (all sheep, not just Shetlands), and I've been convinced it will also generate a lot of good energy for the people who are helping out, in ways large and small. So I have, indeed, said "yes" and "thank you." (I had a little practice with this earlier, in relation to a different offer. That helped facilitate this opportunity.)

The plan is that the e-book will be available some time in the early summer. Here are some of the materials that the group has generated so far. I really don't have much to do with this. My job is to keep chipping away at the research and writing that I have been set on doing anyway. Knowing that other people are actually interested in this research is a huge plus for me all by itself.

Here's a flyer that they made up to be distributed at festivals and workshops:




The drawing is mine; I've slowly been doing images of sheep, and had not done a Shetland. I didn't have time to do one recently, either, because of an onslaught of deadlines, but it seemed like an essential element of what was happening (plus I really enjoy doing the sketches), so I ended up "stealing" about 20 minutes a day over a couple of weeks to put this ram together. Drawing a Shetland is as complex a task as researching the breed!

I've written a "Why Shetlands?" letter that will be included in the book, and if I can grab the time I will also put it up in the form of a blog post. Because it's actually written, that should be possible.

Donna Druchunas and Anne Berk are coordinating the e-book project, with the able help of Susan Santos, Sarah Jaworowicz, and others: as I said, I'm doing my best to focus on the research itself and not get distracted by the fact that I can't believe all of this is actually happening.

Here's Sarah's preliminary cover design:


Isn't it beautiful? I'm remembering that my job here is to admire and get back to studying sheep!  The sheep shown in that lower band of images, while they live on Shetland and produce perfectly fine fiber, are not the Shetland breed. I talked about this distinction between sheep-of-Shetland and Shetland-breed-sheep in The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook on page 189. I'll be looking at the whole context, with an emphasis on the breed. There will be at least one sheep of the Shetland breed in the final cover. (Truly: I have yet to meet a breed of sheep whose wool I didn't like. The second-from-right image there is almost certainly a Suffolk, and last week I taught a day's worth of workshop on Suffolk wool, which is one of the most overlooked treasures of our fiber array.)

Here's Donna's description of the project, from her latest Sheep to Shawl newsletter:

I’m excited to be able to introduce you to a new collaborative project I am working on, Dreaming of Shetland. This will be an ebook featuring a group of incredibly talented designers who are giving of their time and talents to help fund Deborah Robson’s research about Shetland sheep and wool. Over the next few months I will be featuring this project in my newsletter and on Facebook, with updates and information about pre-orders as soon as we are ready to accept payments. I hope you are as excited about this project as I am and I look forward to telling you more soon.

There will be a related website at dreamingofshetland.com (no link because as of this writing it does not yet exist).

The notebooks: And a proposed inside view of the Shetland research project

At the gathering in February, I passed around a notebook I'd used to collect my research for the article I wrote for the first issue of PLY Magazine. The reason was to show part of what I've been up to and how I'm going about it. For that article, I had to leave the computer systems behind and work by hand—a practice that I expect to need to continue while researching the Shetlands. The computer was invaluable for The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, and is also essential for the writing portions of other projects including the PLY article and certainly any summations I do of the Shetland research. However, where multiple small bits need to be comprehended and then pulled together, I found the visual and tactile approaches worked best.

Here's a page of the notes pertinent to the PLY article that I took from Juliet Clutton-Brock's A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals (1987):


It's essential to keep track of the publication dates of the research and commentary, because the state of knowledge is changing.

I also need to track dates within the material I'm reading. The timeline you see there is something I constructed to put observations in the appropriate sequence.

Here is one spread of notes from a later source, Tapio, et al., "Microsatellite-based Genetic Diversity and Population Structure of Domestic Sheep in Northern Eurasia" (2010):


The reaction to this was: "You need to share these." 

Me: "HUNH? They're just my notes."

Response: "You need to share your notes on the Shetland project while it is underway."

Not long after that, a member of the group offered to help me set up a subscription-based website on which I can post my thoughts and notes and other artifacts of the journey. We've had time to engage in preliminary conversations about this, but I haven't had time to do more than begin to consider what I might do with it.

Yes, high points of the quest will be on this blog. The subscription site will allow me to devote time to detailed coverage, which can't happen otherwise for the reasons noted at the start of this post. It will also provide interested readers with a central place to find more in-depth information about my research process, along with what I'm learning about the sheep and their wool.

In sum. . . . 

There are lots of fantastic ideas bouncing around, and what I need to do now is (1) get on top of mail and finances again, following my recent return from a teaching trip; (2) see whether I can get my taxes for 2012 done without having to file an extension (haven't had time to finish up the data—mileage, inventory, and so on); (3) proof pages for The Field Guide to Fleece; (4) continue organizing all the details (and fiber acquisition) for the remainder of the year's teaching events; and (5) keep up with the freelance editing work.

At the same time, tomorrow night I will, as usual for Tuesday nights when I'm at home in Colorado, go to a coffeeshop for three or four hours. While there, I hope to be able to read and take notes on one Shetland article (maybe two? hope springs eternal). I know which one I will turn to as soon as I get my cup of tea (perhaps Ti Kuan Yin) and bowl of vegetarian soup. That article has been printed out and has been riding around in my backpack, along with the notebook, the highlighters, and the pens, awaiting the moment when I can devote my attention to it.


I can't wait to find out what piece of the puzzle that particular article will fill in. And to make a list of further sources, another task that I have been looking for time to enjoy.


12 thoughts on “Dreaming of Shetland”

  1. I got tears in my eyes reading about the Dreaming of Shetland eBook project, Deb. I’m thrilled that you have this innovative and dedicated support-group, and that they’re helping make it possible for you to pursue your passion, which of course will benefit all of us. Yay! And what a treat it is to see your art peeking out from around the words. Those research notebooks are like any artist’s illustrated sketchbooks, and would make intriguing eBooks themselves, just to show others how to present information graphically. (Yes, I can see the influence of Tufte, but you’ve developed your own systems for conveying number data visually and they’re very compelling as images.) I’m excited for you and the work ahead.

  2. This sounds so exciting Deborah! I can’t wait to hear how it progresses.

    It is such a balance doing what you and I do. We need to eat and pay the mortgage and the choices usually help to make that happen. I was talking about this yesterday with two professional friends – about how it is so sad that so much of what we doesn’t pay.

    Good luck and I will follow along!

  3. Susan, you have been a fellow traveler and supporter through much of what has led to this, and yes, when I think about it I get a bit tear-y–and, Clara, goosebumps, too!

    (Susan: Have a *wonderful* time teaching your Write and Retreat workshop this weekend. I have a lucky friend who will be there. Clara: Your Great White Bale is one of the treats in my life. I’m an armchair traveler with your adventure, and enjoying it enormously. So glad you survived the “wool-freeing” episode unscathed. And that you had protective gear.)

    Kristin, nobody gets into any of this fiber stuff at the vocational level for the money or the security. We do it because we have to: in my case, I interpret my work as what Quakers call a very strong leading–that this is what I’m on the planet to accomplish, even if I don’t understand why or, often, what the big picture looks like: only the next step I need to take. I’ve been working for almost forty years on the preparation for what appears to be coming together now. I thought The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook might be a culmination. Apparently it’s a phase in a bigger project.

    Earlier in my life everything that’s going on right now might have thrown me off balance. Now it is just ever-more-grounding.

  4. I got chills reading this post, Deb. I am so thrilled for you that you have the support and interest of such a great list of designers who are willing to help support you in your research.

    I suspect, as word gets out, that more designers may well step up. This ebook could have several volumes. I know I’ll be signing up for it asap.


  5. Yes, yes, yes! I love the synchronicity, the cooperative spirit, the vision, and of course I am always dreaming of Shetland … thank you for the opportunity to share some of your work in progress.

  6. This is all going to be great! especially for people that can’t actually be in all your workshops and classes. I’m looking forward to all of it. See what happens when you ask a bunch of smart people how they’d solve a problem??

  7. Your notes, in and of themselves, are a beautiful work of art! I hope you decide to scan them in and publish them as either an e-book or somesuch. I know, more work for you, but they give another aspect of beauty to your fascinating subject!

  8. This is truly exciting!! I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of the ebook and will reread your previous posts about the Shetlands.

  9. Ah, now I understand more – I saw Donna’s post on G+ and didn’t grok it very well…
    What a great idea!
    PS you just spent a week with one of my Seattle buddies – Marjorie. I meant to get her to say Hi for me but I forgot…

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