The Icelandic Sheep

Icelandic Wool from Finnagain of Long Rifle Farm

Icelandic sheep are well known for being a primitive dual-coated breed that is mostly unchanged by time. This breed is shorn twice a year as they have retained the ability to shed their wool. Most sheep breeds have had this ability bred out of them for the purpose of retaining the fiber for human uses. Rooing is the process of plucking the old fleece off as it naturally sheds from the sheep and is a practice that can be done with Icelandic. They are a wonderful and very hardy All-Purpose breed; excellent for milk production, meat, and wool. The fleece itself can come in a large wealth of colors and consists of the long, protective outer coat, the Tog, and a soft, downy undercoat, the Thel. The Thel can even be broken down into more than one length as shown below. Their fleece has less lanolin than your average sheep, too! Icelandic fleece can be seperated by fiber type or spun with the fibers together. Locks are very easy to seperate by hand by gripping them at various lengths and pulling the bottom out. While carding both coats, it is recommended to do many passes to properly blend the picked fibers together, though drafting will still need to be done rather carefully for a consistent spin. Personally, I’d love to see more projects that involve keeping the entire lock intact and using it as accents or statement pieces.

Lopi is a form of yarn spun from Icelandic wool that utilizes the dual coat. It is a lightly twisted yarn with plenty of loft from trapping the shorter fibers inside of the longer fibers. Ply Magazine has a nice article about it here.

Micron CountDual Coat
Tog: 27-31
Thel: 19-22
Staple LengthTog: 4-18″
Thel: 2-4″
Project Expectations-A wealth of uses from a single fleece. Fibers can be spun separated of together.
-Tog is historically used for rope, embroidery thread, or used to weave sails. Hard wearing fiber indeed! Think of rugs and other homewares.
-Thel is typically used for next-to-skin items.
-The fiber traps a lot of air when spun together and is great for outwear items when you want a lot of warmth.
-Excellent felting fiber!
A full lock and then one broken into the Tog and some of the lengths of the Thel

What you might not expect from the Icelandic is their deep history. This breed was brought onto Iceland with the Vikings when they settled the land in the ninth and tenth century and have remained largely unchanged as there is a strict ban on importing more sheep to the island. Attempts have been made to improve the breed and diversify its genetic pool, but those attempts to import sheep always resulted in catastrophic spread of new disease to the isolated flocks. To keep up with genetic diversity in their flocks, artificial insemination and detailed breeding records needed to be utilized and you can read about the history of the Southram Breeding Center here. The export of the breed was not something that really occurred until 1915, starting with Greenland. In the 1970s North America would receive it’s first Icelandic sheep, imported to Canada by a lovely woman named Stefania. You can read an article about that importation and see those original sheep here.

Icelandic sheep make up a significant amount of Iceland’s economy. Farming them is an entire way of life for the people on the island and the sheep outnumber the people. It might surprise you that one factory on the island is responsible for the vast majority of the wool processing that happens there. The Ístex factory is largely owned by the farmers that raise the sheep. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Álafoss, the original company, lost a large amount of the demand for its product and folded. The farmers bought most of the shares of what was left and Ístex now processes a massive portion of the nearly 1,000 tons of wool shorn on the island a year.

You might also be interested in Leadersheep that are exclusive to the Icelandic breed. Leadersheep are known for their genetically based behavioral ability to lead their flock. They were instrumental in keeping flocks alive and well in extreme weather, seeming to have a sense of sudden and unexpected change in conditions. This strain of Icelandic has been chosen purely to be bred for higher intelligence and as a result, differ from normal Icelandics physically. Modern farming practices lessen the opportunities for their skills to shine, but there are associations dedicated to keeping this strain alive.

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