Continuing my journey with wool & yarns and quoting from the directory of Alistair McDonald which is highlighted in bold print. I have also added in my images of places we have visited over the years.
Staple.” A lock or tuft of fibres.” From the staple of the sheep’s fleece one can tell many facts regarding the life and well- being of the animal. The outer part of the wool staple is similar to a thatched roof its layers helps repel the weather especially rain sleet and snow while the lower part of the wool staple provides warmth to the skin of the animal. I was told that in a really cold frosty winter the sheep would produce more soft inner wool for warmth.
The staple is made up of tightly packed fibres which vary in thickness and style depending on the breed of sheep. As I am discussing my subject primarily Shetland wool I shall endeavour to pass on some of the facts I have discovered in my time with Shetland wool. My first instruction in 1967 on how to gauge Shetland wool was on the look of the wool staple, the fineness of the fibres plus the staple must be of a uniform length, a certain amount of crimp even and well defined, the staple had to be sound a tender weak staple was a sign of the animal having had some health issues most likely around lambing, not to be confused with the break closer to the base of the staple caused by the rise of the new wool growth. I learned from one crofter in particular to look out for a “bird’s beak” effect at the tip of the staple where the wool turned inward and downward on itself, I was told this was how to identify a younger animal most likely a first shear, an older animal shorn a few times tended to have a flatter staple, also he said look for slightly more open fleece. “Pink staple” the points of the staple have a pink appearance to it and the actual staples are tender and brittle with a distinct tearing noise when you break it. I asked a vet about this who tested a sample I sent to him and the result came back that it was a cobalt deficiency, however just lately a shearer told me this pinkness was caused by really wet weather leading up to shearing. This wool season has been the worst cases I have ever seen and considering our exceptional wet summer could add substance to the latter explanation.
Staple length. “The average length of fibre in a particular sample”. When I started out as a wool grader and sorter I was told an extremely important part of determining the grade of wool, was not only by the fineness of the staple but also the uniformity of length throughout the whole fleece. I was to discover that it was possible to have the finest fibre staple throughout parts of the fleece however a coarser longer guard hair could appear hence the need to hand sort the fleece separating the different qualities. This lack of uniformity was probably because of the introduction of Scandinavian breeds brought over by the Vikings who settled here beginning in the 9/10th century. That is the popular theory however I personally would like to think before the Vikings arrival there was a smaller native sheep with fine wool and with the introduction of the foreign blood the original Shetland had lost its identity to some degree. When first judging wool on the hoof in 1995 I was told if the britch on the sheep or fleece could not be covered in the palm of your hand then it was excessive and a reason to down grade the sheep or fleece. However there is another theory which has merit that a ewe needs a heavy britch to protect its udder when lying on the heather. Yet another belief that if a ewe has too much wool around the udder area it prevents the lamb from suckling I know some crofters shear the belly wool prior to lambing.
Tweed. “ Term sometimes used for knop or fleck yarns, now synonymous with Donegal. The derivation of the term has been attributed to the area around the River Tweed in the Scottish borders once renowned for the production of woollen textiles, and also, more credibly, the miss-reading of the term twill on a hand written note”. When we first became involved with knitting yarns we had several of these knop yarns spun for us by Hunters of Brora.My personal knowledge of the term tweed is quite different, in past years we had close contact with Hunters of Brora and TM.Aidie of Voe and their products woven from wool we supplied them apparel such as jackets, waistcoats and kilt lengths.
Twist. “It is the twist that holds the fibres together in spun yarns. Measured in turns per unit length. A tightly twisted yarn will be stronger and harder than a yarn with less twist. Twist is either described as a either “S” or”Z” depending on the direction of the twist. Excess and irregular twist is used in the production of fancy yarns. This can lead to difficulty in controlling the yarn in the knitting process”. My only experience of twist was in the “ wirsit” worsted lace yarn in 2008 when we recreated a 100% Shetland 1ply yarn for the museum lace collection it took some time to master this.
Washing. It is quite amazing how many garments end up looking like used dishcloths when every item sold have washing recommendations attached. What is going wrong? There are two reasons the washing has not been carried out properly or the garment has not been made properly. As to the first, rigid adherence to the instructions is essential and I would suggest that most people were washing correctly they do not take the same care with drying. Most instructions say “dry flat” and this is the instruction which is the most disregarded perhaps because of lack of space. If a garment which is hung up to dry the weight of water in the fabric will pull down on the fabric and it will stretch. Even in yarns with a high degree of elasticity the stretched material may not recover its previous shape. With cottons and some synthetics, especially if they have been hand knitted at a loose tension, recovery may be possible. Washed garments keep their shape when dried on a jumper board.