Wool and the idea of terroir

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).

11-Fleece-Jeni 28-05-2012 04 31 24

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.


11 thoughts on “Wool and the idea of terroir”

  1. Beautiful photos and BEAUTIFUL fleeces! I had to laugh at the wet fleece…Here in the midwest I encounter that a lot- the fleece soaks up the humidity and then when I bring it home into the air conditioning it dries out considerably. Looks like the folks at your workshops will have some choice materials! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you thank you for this vicarious fleece acquisition experience! I am grateful. Even your photos came at the right moment…we have no sewer line at present (more on my blog) and I have never needed to pretend it was me washing the fleece more than I do today!

  3. Your poaching of terroir for fleeceis both pertinent and profound. It highlights similarities between the way food products are thought about within the Slowfood movement and how fibre is thought of in the Fair Fibre movement. It captures both the effect of the environment and culture on the development of particular fleece characteristics and potentially the effects of sheepon the landscape. It places the fleece firmly on the back on an animal on the earth. I am thinking particularly here of Australian breeds, specialised merinos producing superfine fibres on our impoverished, fragile soils and Polworths, bred specially for the higher rainfall of the Otways. Terroir is a marvellously rich term that will bear more exploration. Needleandspindle.com

  4. Incredible – love the white fleece. And what is “toppy”? It sounds intriguing.

    You know – I just love all the grades of Shetland fleeces and recently crocheted and fulled some of the primitive handspun into baskets. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do that.

    Wait. I expect you might have a small idea. 🙂

  5. Deb, I don’t think you are poaching the use of terroir – it seemed natural to me and so I went to wikipedia :


    “Un terroir désigne une région naturelle considérée comme homogène à travers les ressources et productions qu’il est susceptible d’apporter, notamment – mais pas uniquement – par sa spécialisation agricole.”

    Roughly (and badly). A ‘terroir’ is a geographic [not political] region which is is considered to produce a homogenous type of resource, notably – but not uniquely – agrictural resource.

    So wool fits squarely into that. The wine brigade have adopted the term for wine and moved it into American, but I think its reasonable and correct to extend it to its original use.

    The whole of that article in fr.wikipedia, although a little bit pompous, feels very relevant (IMO) to landrace breeds. Google doesn’t translate it all that well, but it gives you a feel for it. Of particular interest to me the importance of cultural input as well as the physical geography.

    Doesn’t that almost define a landrace breed and its output?

  6. Thanks to everyone for the comments! I’m traveling, and have been able to read them through e-mail but not easily respond (internet connections are patchy).

    “Toppy” is what I heard Oliver Henry call fleeces where, I think, the tips of the locks become noticeable both on the sheep and in the fleece. As far as I can determine–and I look forward to having an opportunity to talk more about this with Oliver–it’s a visual assessment that corresponds to the structure of the locks. Once I’m sure of what it means, I’ll see if I can remember to put up a post about it.

    I was hoping I hadn’t “poached” the word terroir for this application, but simply used it as a lens for perceiving a little differently! Yes, Australia and New Zealand have been particularly noted for developing breeds and strains exceptionally suited for the available climate regions. That’s a huge part of why those countries are so noted for their wools on the global market.

    Rod, thanks for going back to the French origins of the word, which I didn’t take time to do. Yes, it does seem to pretty much define a landrace and its output. (Landraces can be breeds or not: it’s a fine point whether a locally distinct population ends up being called a breed or not, and a discussion for another time–although I suspect Carol and I mentioned it in Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook.)

  7. I recently heard an interview with someone in Iceland who claims that the wool of Icelandic sheep in the U.S. is markedly different from wool from the same breed at home in Iceland. I’m sure that has to do with the land/climate/conditions, right? I wonder how the fleeces of my Gulf Coasts in the mountains of NC are different from those in their home territories in the Gulf states. Intriguing.

  8. I’m with Rod and others: I think terroir is a perfectly appropriate word for landraces and fleece. Thanks for appropriating it and for the discussion. I chuckled with you about the peat, since I’ve spent some time in peat bogs as a botanist (yes, they’re very mucky, especially at certain times of year) and those fine organic particulates are very familiar. (And very interesting under a microscope, should one choose to collect them and look!)

  9. I’m all for borrowing a term from another domaine, just need to define what we mean with its new usage… but yes I agree that doing so can dilute the meaning of the term. Not in terroir’s case though, I see terroir being used all the time as a general term to mean “local,” even to describe people. (I live in France.)

    I discovered your blog this morning thanks to my mother, who was at Madrona and won a copy of Fleece & Fiber, and when she got home she emailed me to give me the reference. I’m not into spinning (…yet … I’m only a new crocheter) but rather all things slow, artisanal production, collaborative and sustainable economies etc.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that, and hi, and great blog – I’m now a follower!


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