A couple of weeks ago I sent samples of all my sheep’s wool off to a lab in Texas to be evaluated. There are a number of different ways that wool is graded in the industry, but most flocks are moving towards micron thickness since its a standardized, objective way to measure wool fineness. Basically, a sample of wool is taken from the side of the sheep and the individual fibers are measured; the thinner the fiber, the finer the fleece is considered and the softer it will feel. So a low micron count = soft, fine fleece. A higher micron count means the wool will feel coarser but because its thicker it will be stronger. Like most things in life, there is always a trade off– soft wool tends to be weaker, strong wool tends to be scratchier. So all types of wool have a use, the important thing is using the right type of wool for your project.
Some breeds of sheep are known for having very fine fleeces, others for having strong, coarse wool. Shetlands tend to be somewhere in the middle and, because they are a landrace breed that hasn’t been commercially developed to the same extent as other breeds and due to their unique history of importation in the US, there is a lot of variation within the breed. Generally speaking, Shetland fleeces can range from as low as 20 micron up to the mid 30s but most people think of an ideal Shetland fleece as being somewhere between 22 and 28 microns. Keep in mind that when a fleece is micron tested a sample from the side is used and that tends to be an average of the whole fleece- that particular sheep will usually have much finer wool on its neck and much coarser wool on its britch (backside and thighs). If you really want to get into the details of the report, this site has some good information.
While there is a use for every type of fleece and I like having a variety in my flock, I find that my customers prefer finer wools since they tend to knit things that are worn against the skin like scarves and shawls rather than rugged outerwear or rugs. Because of that, I am focusing my breeding on producing lambs with finer fleeces, i.e. a low micron count, but only breeding ewes with fine fleeces and picking rams with fine fleeces. To help make my choices for next year’s breeding I sent all my fleece samples to be tested. This way I’ll be able to say for certain that certain ewes will be included in breeding and other excluded. I also had my wethers tested, even though they won’t be used for breeding, because their fleeces give me an indication of the type of babies that I can expect from their mothers. In other words, since Elizabeth gave birth to Larry last spring and Larry has a very fine fleece I will know to breed Elizabeth again since she is likely to produce more babies (and hopefully a girl next time) with fine fleeces.
I already knew which ewes I probably was and wasn’t going to breed again based on how their wool feels to my hand, but its nice to have my subjective judging backed up by cold hard facts. Based on my experiences with the fleeces and the micron report, I plan to breed the following ewes this fall:
Elizabeth (28.2), Kaylee (26.7), Kelly (28.4), Liisu (25.1) and will try to find a ram with a micron count in the mid 20s or lower to continue to improve the fineness.
p.s. just a warning before you find yourself in an argument with a Shetland breeder about what a “good” Shetland fleece is “supposed” to be like– there are conflicting opinions about this. Some people think that a “traditional” fleece is dual coated with a broad range of fineness from neck to brich. Some people think that a “traditional” fleece is fine all over and that the more varied fleece is the result of a limited gene pool being imported into the US. Others don’t care what Shetland sheep were in the past and are focused on what the fleece can be like in the future and want to “improve” the fleece by focusing on increasing the fineness. And I’m sure there are many other opinions as well. I personally don’t have the experience or knowledge to judge the truth of the situation, I just know what I like working with and what my customers like to buy. Just be aware that if you investigate this more you are likely to find lots of different opinions, some of them quite heated!