This is another post about my trip to mainland Scotland, Orkney, and Shetland, although it's also another digression from the chronological/topical sequence. It's about fleeces.
And because my blog posts are never long enough, I'll add that the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has just released its 2014 Watchlist of at-risk breeds. New to the list is Devon Closewool, previously geographically but not numerically endangered; new to last year's list was Border Leicester. Moving to improved categories are North Ronaldsay, Leicester Longwool, and Hill Radnor. Let's keep on using these special wools and supporting the shepherds and their flocks! And now, on a very closely related topic. . . .
We hear about terroir with regard to foods, for the most part: the concept began, I think, with wine, and refers to "the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate." The dictionary most easily accessed from my place in the coffee shop this morning goes on to discuss goût de terroir, which means "the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced" (the quotes are from the quick-reference dictionary on my Mac computer).
The borrowing of concepts from one area of interest to another can lead to meaning-drift in the terms. That can be beneficial—in the way that it sheds light on the new topic by viewing it through an established lens from elsewhere—or it can be detrimental, because the way the concept applied in the first case needs to be tweaked (and thus its meaning shifted) in order to apply to the second.
An example is the terms tog and thel (þel), which refer, respectively, to the outer and inner coats of Icelandic fleeces. I hear these words used with reference to other breeds, and even other species, but I personally think they need to stay with the Icelandic wools because while they mostly apply to the others reasonably well, there are other words that work for the non-Icelandics and in my experience there seem to be related characteristics of the Icelandic wools that don't always show up in the other contexts.
So while I'm not ready to abscond with the word terroir to describe wools, I can easily trace its root back to the Latin terra, meaning earth, and note that there are longstanding connections between specific types (and breeds) of sheep and the landscapes within which they thrive, and I'll show you a little of why I am thinking about those things this week.
I didn't intend to buy any fleeces while I was on my trip.
Okay, now that you've stopped laughing, there are reasons. I was there to study the sheep and the wool, not to acquire fiber. And I wasn't at all sure about how I could get a bunch of stuff back to the States: there were major matters of logistics and cost and I wasn't at all confident that I would have time or resources to deal with them.
I left the Scottish Smallholder and Grower Festival with two Ryeland fleeces, thinking ahead to the Explore 4 Retreat in Friday Harbor, Washington, in March, and that if the fleeces turned out to be suitable I thought the people who come to the retreat might really enjoy them. I should say that I don't announce the breeds ahead of time, because I need to know that I have appropriate fibers in hand—both quality and quantity—before I commit to covering a breed in Explore 4. As you'll see, that's something that takes time and can involve cliffhangers.
In any case, friends offered to help with the logistics of getting the fleeces back. And as time went on, it became clear that their offer was, indeed, serious, so I got the Ryelands.
As those who read the last post noted, I then bought a few fleeces on North Ronaldsay.
And by the time I reached Shetland, it seemed inappropriate not to bring back samples of the wool that is central to my current research. Especially when I reached the room of the Jamieson & Smith building in Lerwick where they put fleeces that have been pulled aside for handspinners to explore. "Samples" in this case involved whole fleeces.
I wanted a range of types, and so I picked out fleeces with varied characteristics and colors.
Jeni Reid took that photo. I really was that happy, and I'd been very reserved about what I bought in comparison with what I wanted to buy. And in comparison to what some other folks bought—! Well, I hardly bought anything at all.
Back at the self-catering unit I was sharing with friends, those friends who were egging me on in all this, we all evaluated our acquisitions (another photo by Jeni).
As it turned out, most of my fleeces were significantly wetter than I anticipated or than they'd felt in the cooler wool room. I think the warmth of the apartment may have begun the physical process involved in wool releasing water. Wool can absorb approximately 30 percent of its weight in liquid without feeling wet—one of the fiber's magical qualities, with the exact amount varying by the individual configurations of the structural components of the fibers. (That was a mouthful. Wool fibers are all "built" the same way, but the sizes and relationships of the building blocks vary, and so, therefore, do the precise behaviors.)
Of the eight Shetland fleeces that I bought, I was only comfortable sending three back home directly from Shetland (which was the most cost-effective and easiest transportation option). The others needed drying-out.
Along with the two Ryeland fleeces and the three North Ronaldsay fleeces, five of the Shetlands went back to mainland Scotland with me and spent time losing some of their moisture. The friends I was staying with had a guest room with a wire-frame mattress support, so once we set the mattress aside we could get good air circulation around the wool, and they also handily own a dehumidifier.
So of the total thirteen fleeces (! how did that happen?), eight spent time in the closed room with the water being coaxed out of them. Yes, there was a lot of water. I have weight numbers and at some point will calculate how much water. Occasional canine supervision was required.
It took a while to figure out how to ship this array to the States as economically as possible. The method finally chosen wasn't cheap, but it worked well. The three boxes arrived a few days ago—after one of our recent snowstorms.
I don't expect the customs agents to have memorized the entire bulky complicated mess of import regulations, and I am willing to bet that most haven't seen raw wool before, and that when faced with it they might be likely to err on the conservative side and reject a perfectly legal shipment. Thus each box carried a copy of the appropriate page from the US Department of Agriculture's regulations pertaining to incoming shipments of raw fibers, with the appropriate bits highlighted. (There's a PDF of that page here.)
The three boxes—about 18 kg (40 pounds) in all (part of that was books)—came through without a hitch. Except for that one ripped spot on the end of one of the boxes. Nothing was lost.
I'd continued to consider featuring Ryeland at the upcoming Explore 4 Fiber Retreat in March, but until the wool was actually here, that wasn't something I could count on or announce. (Some of the fibers I'm planning to use for that retreat are still on the sheep's backs, fortunately here in the U.S. I do have backup plans if the timing for shearing, or washing, ends up going off-schedule.)
So I was especially happy to see the two Ryeland fleeces, one dark and one white, come out of the box.
Isn't this one pretty? That's it's identifying number tied on. Kind of fun to have. Nice typography. This fleece had to go first in the line-up for washing because I envisioned it having a job to do in the near future at that workshop. (I had washed the white fleece while in Scotland. It dried while I was off in Orkney and Shetland.)
I love watching the scouring liquid (in this case, Unicorn Power Scour) do its work, removing the grease with very little intervention from me.
I did run into a slight problem. That particular Ryeland fleece, with its shades of dark and light grays and browns, washed up so beautifully that I began to think I needed to keep part of it for myself—at least enough so I could make a hat or mittens. (Friends suggested what I know, which is that these items become teaching samples that become extremely useful in helping people understand how to use different types of fleeces.) To keep some fiber, even a little bit, I'd need to find, and have shipped, yet another Ryeland fleece in time for the workshop. And this time of year is not ideal for acquiring fleece: last year's clip is gone, and this year's clip is still keeping the sheep warm.
So I wrote hopeful, inquiring e-mails and turned to washing one of the Shetlands. This was the one I'd called #4 and written down as being light gray in color. It's what Oliver Henry, the wool buyer and classer at Jamieson and Smith in Shetland, called "toppy." (I bought Shetlands with several fleece configurations, for use in a fall workshop.) And a truly beautiful gray.
So I began to set up the washing trays.
Here's the first rinse, and the darkness of the water surprised me, because I usually only see that much color when there's been obvious dirt or mud on a fleece.
Well, this is interesting. Second soaking:
Wool is full of surprises. About this time, I woke up. PEAT!
Shetland is full of peat, and the sheep spend their time among it. It colors the streams and rivers a deep coffee color.
And now its fine, fine particles were washing off the fleece in my tub.
And the wool was growing lighter in tone.
Here's a picture I took of cut stacks of peat, which is used for fuel.
And a close-up.
Peat is a topic for consideration in its own right, forming amazingly slowly and deserving of conservation. It saturates the landscape.
As do sheep.
As it turns out, both traveled home with me, the peat so fine that it simply appeared to color the fiber, and because of its fineness to color the fleece gray rather than peat-brown, and not to be obvious at all. What I ended up with was a beautiful, gleaming white fleece.
It's common for spinners to buy what they think is a lovely light brown fleece at a festival and to be disappointed, when they get it home and wash it, to discover that it's actually light gray. This always seems sad to me, not because it wasn't what they expected but because it usually is a gorgeous gray, suddenly not appreciated for being itself.
In this case, yes, I did think I had a lovely gray and I got a white.
In a way, this single fleece reminds me of two of the moods I enjoyed in Shetland: the muted. . . .
. . . and the sparkling.
If that isn't a fine thing, I don't know what is.
Terroir at its most basic and pragmatic, and at its most fleeting and suggestive.
Left: unwashed. Right: clean and ready to go.
P.S. on the additional Ryeland fleece: Good news to come in another post. It's already here. I'll wash it soon.