Icelandic Sheep for Premium Fleece

Kind Horn Farm - General Info

The Icelandic sheep produces a premium fleece. The fleece is dual coated, with a fine, soft undercoat called thel and a longer, coarser outer coat called tog. The tog fiber with a spinning count of 56-60 and a micron count of 27-30, grows to a length of 6-8" in six months. It is lustrous, strong, water- and wear-resistant, and sheds off the rain and weather.  Thel is the soft downy undercoat, with a spinning count of 64-70 and a micron count of 19-22, growing to a length of 2-4". The thel provides the loft for the outer coat and insulation for the sheep. Tog grows from the primary hair follicles and the thel from the secondary follicles. Tog is a true wool, and is not a kemp or guard hair. The combination of the two fibers on the sheep gives superb protection from the cold and wet.

Icelandic fleeces are open and low in lanolin. The weight loss when washed is significantly less than many other breeds.


The average adult yearly fleece total weighs 4-7 lbs. Producers often shear their Icelandics twice a year. This is due, in part, to the fact that Icelandics have a natural wool break in late winter for the rams generally, and in spring for the pregnant or lactating ewes. Shearing at or around the time of the natural break is recommended to remove the "old" coat before the "new" coat grows in. The sheep are sheared again in the fall to harvest the fleeces before the animals go on hay for the winter. These fall-shorn fleeces are very soft and clean and can bring a premium price per pound.

The two coats can be separated by hand for special projects, or they may be processed together. The traditional lopi is a lightly spun blend of tog and thel. Thel is very soft and downy, with an irregular crimp and can be used for baby garments, and for the fine shawls in the style of the Wedding Shawl. The tog is similar to mohair; wavy or corkscrewed rather than crimped and is wonderful in worsted spinning.

The versatility of the wool, the ease of spinning and the wide variation of tones and colors are a true delight to handspinners, and put Icelandic wool into the exotic or premium category. It is also known as one of the best fleeces for felting, which is fast gaining popularity in the craft community.

The Icelandic Fleece - a Fibre for all Reasons

by Betb Abbott
Reprinted with permission from Beth Abbott. This article can be seen in the Winter 199O; Volume 33; Number 4 issue of the Bulletin, Magazine of the Ontario Handweavers & Spinners.

What types of yarns can be spun from a fleece with fibres which vary from 3" to 18" in length and from 50's to 70's in count? I was about to find out.
I chose the Icelandic Fleece as a topic for my in-depth study because the first North American flock of these unusual sheep is located just fifteen minutes from my home. Stefania Sveinbjarnardottir-Dignum, owner of the flock, was willing to supply me with fleece and help me with research, as much of the information is in Icelandic.  It was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.

Traditionally, the Icelandic sheep provided for almost all of the Icelanders' needs for meat and fibre, as well as small tools and toys. The fleece, an ancient two-coated style, which comes in a wide variety of colours, has a fine soft undercoat (thel), about 3" long and 65's to 70's count; and a coarser outer coat (tog), up to 18" long and 5O's to 53's count. The long outer coat sheds rain well and the thick soft thel protects the animal from the constant winds of Iceland. The fibre varies over the fleece, from very curly but shorter locks on the back, to very long locks with wavy tog and very Pine soft thel, on the shoulders and sides.
The sheep sheds its fleece and shearing takes place about the time shedding begins. In early July, we saw shearing with the traditional short- bladed knife as well as with the more common electric clippers.
This sheep, quite isolated for centuries from crossbreeding, has remained much as it was when Iceland was being settled in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It survives on rugged volcanic terrain with scattered vegetation. As a result, it is rare to see flocks of sheep on the Icelandic uplands; it is much more common to see a ewe and her lambs, quite alone for some distance.
The sheep are kept close to the farm buildings during the winter and spring months, but in early summer, after shearing, they are put out on the mountain pastures to forage for themselves. They wander and mingle with sheep from other area farms for about three months. In early fall the farmers, on horseback, go out into the mountains to round them up and bring them back to the lowlands. They are identified by their ear cuts and taken back to the their own farm for winter.
I used the Canadian Icelandic fleece for much of my experimenting but did get some fleece from Iceland as well. Stefania also produced some Icelandic/Canadian cross fleeces which were very pleasant to spin.
I prefer to wash the fleece before spinning as this makes separation of the two coats easier. The most successful washing method is to fill the laundry tub with fairly warm water and Ivory liquid, lay the fleece in a single layer to cover the surface and push down with flat hands. The fleece, after soaking for one to two hours, is drained, squeezed, and rinsed. After blotting with a towel, or spinning in washer, the fleece is laid on a fresh towel to dry.
Because the two coats of the Icelandic fleece were traditionally spun and used separately, I tried separating the coats using a variety of methods. A basic separation is possible by simply holding each end of the lock in the hands and gently pulling. The longest tog fibres separate readily from the thel and can be kept aligned for further processing. The thel will still have a considerable amount of shorter tog hairs which must be removed if a fine, soft yarn is desired. The best method, slow process, is to hold the bundle over a contrasting background and pull out the tog hairs individually, similar to separating guard hairs from musk ox. This was traditionally done by the children in the Icelandic home. The soft thel remaining can be hand carded and pulled from the bottom of the card into a roving which can be spun into a very fine yarn. This was the yarn Icelanders used for intricately patterned mittens, undergarments and other special projects.
The tog hairs, if kept in lock formation) can be prepared and spun using worsted or semi-worsted techniques into strong yarns of varying diameters. The finest and smoothest make good yarns for needlework and the National Museum of Iceland and many small museums around the country have excellent examples. The coarser and buyer yarns were historically used in tough fabrics for wrapping goods as well as sails, ropes and saddle blankets. Today, they would make excellent woven rugs.
Today in Iceland all the yarn spun conunercially is made from the combined coats of the fleece. The commercial yarns, frequently singles, range from very fine 'eingirni', to quite bulky ‘lopi’ style yarn. True ‘lopi’ in Iceland is the unspun roving before it is drawn and twisted into yarn. With the development of woolen mills, farmers sent their fleece to be prepared. It came back as 'lopi', ready for spinning. Icelandic knitters use two or three strands of this roving to knit the bulky patterned-yokc sweaters we now associate with Iceland. Actually these sweaters are a relatively new "tradition", dating back only to the 1920's when an enterprising knitter used the lopi on her knitting machine and later for handknitting. The lopi style yarns exported from Iceland have a small amount of twist (about I twist per inch) added for strength and are somewhat more dense than the true lopi.
I have found that to spin an even diameter lopi-style yarn it is necessary to prepare the fleece very well. This is difficult because of the range in length and diameter of the fibres; the thel fibres tend to produce soft lumps which move to the outside of the yarn and have to be picked off. A drum carder with long teeth works most successfully to distribute the fibres. The batt can be pulled into a roving and wrapped around the hand into a soft ball. A slight twist is easier to insert using a low ratio wheel. It is necessary to work slowly and carefully to get an even yarn. Although this yarn contains the coarse tog fibres, it is relatively soft because of the soft twist.
A standard two-ply knitting worsted weight yarn is also possible from the Icelandic fleece. The longest tog hairs can be removed and the remaining thel/tog combination hand or drum carded and spun into a medium weight two-ply yarn. My sample had a twist angle of about 21degrees and a diameter of 9-10 wraps per inch. Three-ply yarns were also very successful using a mostly thel combination of fibres.
Felt made from the Icelandic fleece ranged from very firm to quite soft but in all cases worked up quickly. Historically, most woven and knitted items in Iceland were felted after construction.
The Icelandic study grew into a much more involved and interesting project than I originally anticipated. The connection between the Icelandic sheep and the history and people of Iceland is fascinating, and having an opportunity to visit the country and see the sheep in their natural environment has increased my understanding of their evolution, and my appreciation of the Icelanders' innovative use of the sheep and its fleece.
The Icelandic fleece offers the Canadian spinner Many opportunities to spin a range of fibre types, using a wide menu of spinning techniques to produce yarns For a variety of projects. I generally prefer to spin the separated coats and would usually take out the longest tog fibres even when spinning a bulky singles or two-ply combination yarn.
I made several samples using these separated yarns in traditional projects as well as some projects more suited to the lifestyle of today's spinners. The fine thel yarns produced mittens knitted in the traditional multi-coloured patterns, resembling the beautiful mittens we saw in the museums in Iceland, though at 10 stitches per inch, mine were not quite as fine as the 16 or more stitches per inch in the museum samples. A baby hat and mitts in a mostly thel yarn from a lamb fleece were successful, but not as soft as Canadians would usually like for infant clothes. While in Iceland we saw many children sporting handknit woolen outfits. Perhaps in a cooler climate the wool does not seem as prickly, and a more thorough separation of the fibres would alleviate this problem. Also, the softer the twist, the softer the yarn, because the tog fibres do not stick out as bristly ends in a softly twisted yarn.
I experimented with the "glit" inlay weaving technique used in the wonderfully elaborate women's saddle blankets in Iceland. A fine two-ply black lamb tog yarn was used in the warp and a softly spun combination singles yarn from the same fleece made the tabby weft. The inlay yarns were fine, dyed, two-ply tog yarns. The lamb tog also made a sucessful needlework yarn for embroidery.
Rug samples in Krokbragd, a weft faced Scandinavian weave, were thick and strong, and, although I probably would not spin the warp for a large rug project, the tog yarn used for the warp was very strong, withstanding the beating and abrasion without a break. A sample of Vadmal woven with a medium weight two-ply yarn produced a thick firm felted cloth after a ten minute machine wash. It would be suitable for a heavy coat or jacket.
Indeed, the Icelandic fleece was an interesting fibre to study and the samples inspired a wide variety of projects. It is easy to see how the Icelanders came to rely on this sheep and its fleece to fill their daily needs of food and clothing.


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