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Icelandic Wool – a story from a land of fire and ice

Icelandic sheepYou may think me strange, but I love dual coated breeds.  I love their possibilities, their diversity, their color range – and yes, their textural range.  I also love that I can make so many different yarns from a single fleece; there’s outer coat, inner coat, both coats together; yarns from singles to multiple plies for each of those.  

Wool Characteristics

So let’s talk about the Icelandic breed characteristics.  The most eye-catching aspect of the breed is the variation of colors and patterns. Genetically, Icelandics have one of two base colors, either black or moorit (brown). On this base, they add one of 5 pattern combinations: white, gray, badgerface, mouflon and solid. Individual sheep may also display various shades of these colors/patterns, ranging from white, cream, light gray, tan, caramel, milk chocolate, silver, dark chocolate, dark gray, to jet black. A spotting gene adds even more combinations with many recognized and named patterns of white markings.  Icelandic sheep are a color cornucopia!

They’re small sheep, so an average fleece is only about 5 pounds (2.25 kg), and many are smaller.  BUT because the standard includes “a lot of wool” – basically a dense undercoat and thick outer coat – there’s a lot of wool volume in one of their fleeces.  Generally speaking, there’s probably 30% loss, but good care and treatment of the different fiber types on a fleece helps.  

The shepherds I work with prefer to raise their flocks in an Icelandic style, with minimal barn time if not entirely outdoors and on browse.  I find this method has produced fleeces and sheep that most closely resemble their Icelandic forebears in Iceland. Don’t fear for the sheep though – Icelandic sheep are known to build little igloos and snuggle up, browsing UNDER the snow!  These are *tough* little sheep, bred for a challenging climate and their fleece reflects it.

Icelandic sheep fleeceThe outer coat (known as tog)  is generally coarse and straight and you’ll find it averages about 27 microns.  Some sheep produce a slight wave in their outer coat, but this is the coat that makes Icelandic feel “coarse”. The length of the outer coat can be anywhere from 3” to 15” depending on the sheep, growing conditions, and fleece type.  It’s purpose is to shed water and keep snow off the under coat.  The inner or under coat (known as thel) though, that is super fine and insulating.  It’s the part of the fleece designed for warmth.  Thel of an Icelandic fleece averages around 20 microns (similar to fine merino). 

Uses for the wool

Oh – everything!  These sheep are descended from the sheep the Vikings used to make sails, ropes, blankets, shawls, hats, foot wraps and tunics.  The modern wool lover can make all the same things plus sweaters and coats!  The classic Icelandic color work sweater is just the beginning!  

Icelandic wool products on displayAlafoss, the Icelandic wool cooperative (credit goes to them for the textiles shown here as well, as I was neither a spinner nor a knitter when I first fell in love with Icelandic wool), lists 6 yarn weights they make regularly ranging from laceweight to a bulky weight, some combine the coats, others are made only from the under coat, while cordage yarns are made from just the outer coat.  So you can see how versatile a single breed is!  SO EXCITING!!!

Now that you know how great this breed is, I can’t wait for you to explore it!  

PS.  You know what else Icelandic does?  EVERYTHING!  Milk, cheese, yogurt (Skyr!!!!), meat, triplets…… 

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