I am telling you two stories today and they are intricately connected: the first one about a fantastic Icelandic wool sheep called “Feldfé”, the second will be about the women and sheep breeders around me called the “Spinning Sisters” and their cooperation to increase the value of the local raw material wool.
Small island, one old breed: the Icelandic sheep
Our sheep’s ancestors came over with the Vikings about 1000 years ago. Icelandic sheep have relatives all across the North Atlantic, the so called North Atlantic short tail sheep breeds. Just a few examples of the roughly 30 surviving old breeds are Shetland, Manx Loaghtan, Hebridean, Finnsheep, Romanov, Heidschnucke and the seaweed eating North Ronaldsay.
The Icelandic sheep has a lesser known and rather rare and unique sister, the Leadersheep, only recently acknowledged as its own breed – they belong to the above group but are different in conformation, wool quality and most of all in their intelligence and leading characteristics. There are only 1200 purebred Leadersheep ewes compared to approx. 500,000 Icelandic sheep in total. (And just for kicks: we humans count about 385,000 on Iceland.)
But today’s post is about an even rarer subgroup of Icelandic sheep: the Feldfé.
It is all about grey and curly wool: these sheep are called Feldfé (pelt sheep) and we count 300 ewes today in total. They have not yet been acknowledged as a special breed, but they should and probably will be in the future.
About 40 years ago a few sheep farmers in the South of Iceland decided to diversify, to not solely rely on the meat production of their flock, but to improve the wool quality and breed for a very specific goal: a uniform, grey, high quality fleece that would suit for making sheepskin coats. The goal was to produce a pelt as close as possible to the grey Gotland pelt, a famous and sought after Swedish commodity.
When one of the main breeders retired only a few years ago, his carefully selected flock of Feldfé ewes was bound for slaughter. One of my Spinning Sisters heard about the sheep and instantly decided to buy them and thus preserve their unique genetics for high wool quality. She saved 40 years of focused wool breeding that would otherwise have been lost.
Who are the Spinning Sisters?
We are a group of around 15 women, and most of us are farming shepherdesses – all of us are hand spinners. Together the sheep count of the Spinning Sisters and their families is around 1000 ewes. After learning how to spin – and weave and dye and felt – the breeding criteria changed on the Spinning Sisters’ farms. Sheep farming in Iceland is focused on meat production, while the wool is very much a side product. But a deep understanding and passion for wool makes wool quality automatically a more important breeding criteria. In the past 10 years the number of coloured sheep in the area has increased, as well as the wool quality on the whole.
A few years ago the Spinning Sisters started breeding some of their Icelandic ewes to Feldfé rams, and the results are stunning: even the first generation shows an amazing improvement in wool quality. Now these fleeces are highly sought after by hand spinners.
Meanwhile, thanks to the Spinning Sisters’ efforts, the purebred Feldfé stock has doubled in recent years
to 300 ewes.
Last year it was possible for the first time to collect 350 kilo of Feldfé lamb´s wool – the minimum amount to be processed by the big Icelandic woolen mill Istex. The Spinning Sisters pooled all their Feldfé wool together and had it carded into “plötulopi”. Plötulopi is an unspun pencil roving, you could call it pre- yarn. It is the traditional material for the Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa).
What is so unique about the Feldfé wool?
The Feldfé fleece originally bred for pelts means that the quality of wool is equally outstanding across the whole fleece. A traditional Icelandic fleece is dual coated and has
different wool qualities across the sheep´s body.
For example there are areas with lots of fine and easily felted undercoat (called thel), and there are areas like the hind legs with an extremely long and often coarse outer coat (called tog). The Feldfé is bred to have little and evenly distributed thel and the tog… the tog makes feldfé a legendary “golden fleece”: it is soft, shiny and wavy, curly even like a corkscrew – and equally soft, luscious and lovely over the entire body of the sheep. It is an outstanding fleece, soft to the touch throughout and with good density.
This makes Feldfé plötulopi very special in its rich and lively colour of greys, ranging from white to black fibers, as well as in its wool quality. The silky tog means stronger and more durable fibers and makes it easier to knit, especially as a single strand. It has a sheen to it and more stitch definition than regular plötulopi, while still grabbing onto itself to make a
strong fabric once it is knitted up.
The spinning shepherdesses
In 2017 one of our Spinning Sisters started her own mini mill called Uppspuni, at that time the first of its kind on Iceland. She is producing yarn from her own sheep and on her own farm. Uppspuni mini mill also allows other Spinning Sisters to have small amounts of yarn spun, even the fleece of just one particular sheep.
Today a number of Spinning Sisters have their own studios, some with regular opening hours and some open by appointment. They sell handmade items from their own wool. This cooperation of women has resulted in several new products like felted saddle blankets and tablet woven dog leads. And of course tanned sheep skins, great yarns from a particular Feldfé lamb or a Leadersheep weather, the
amazing Feldfé plötulopi and knitting patterns for Icelandic wool.
At the recent South Iceland Woolweek/Ullarvikan the Spinning Sisters opened their studios to the public and demonstrated their skills and creations. We are passionate about raising awareness and appreciation for the amazing raw material that our local wool is.
Maja Siska is a Spinning Sister, a trained architect, a textiler and a maker. A knittoholic since her early teens as well as a hand spinner, she has mostly worked with wool in the last 10 years. Besides writing and teaching for PLY, she organises classes, workshops for the Spinning Sisters and for South Iceland Woolweek/Ullarvikan. Her knitting patterns can be found on Ravelry. When not working with wool or riding horses she rents out guest cottages on her farm with a view onto Mount Hekla: www.skinnhufa.is Find Maja on Instagram as @majasiska