By now, absolutely everyone knows that I'm obsessed with Icelandic ...... things. Especially the wool, but the interest has expanded way beyond just the sheep at this point. This post is about the wool.
I promised, months ago, a post about dual-coated Icelandic wool. Given the sad fact that I've been too busy to knit much (I'm spinning, but without having gotten to a whole whack of plying that needs to get done, there isn't too much to show). So I'm going to give a go at a quick post on Icelandic fleece.
Icelandic sheep are descended directly from the sheep that the Viking settlers brought to Iceland over a thousand years ago. The breed is considered a "primitive" breed, and the relative isolation of Icelandic culture resulted in lack of cross-breeding that occurred in most other places to produce finer, softer wools (think Merino, Cormo, etc).
The Icelandic fleece is dual-coated. There are coarse, longer, more wiry hairs (the outer coat, called tog), and the softer, finer undercoat called thel. The combination of these two qualities in a fleece produces wool that at first glance looks almost nothing like most of the other fleeces you'll see. It also creates an extremely versatile source for a variety of fiber types that can be mixed, separated or combined to take advantage of the different qualities.
Here's a whole lock of Icelandic wool. The length is about 8", and in this particular lock you can clearly see the difference (both in color and texture) of the two main parts of the fleece. The tog is the dark, coarse, long hair at the right, while the thel is the cream colored fluff at the left.
The two coats can be separated fairly easily by grabbing the fluffy thel with one hand, and the wiry tog in the other and pulling them apart.
In this particular fleece, the difference in color between the tog and thel is striking, which not only makes it easy to separate them, but also gives you two totally different colors as well as textures.
I've found (and I've heard from people who know a lot more than I do) that you can further separate Icelandic fleece - a bit of a step beyond the basic removal of the coarse tog from the finer thel. I've found that its fairly simple to separate a lock into three parts - the coarsest tog, the finest thel, and then the hairs that kind of fall in between. Still a bit wiry, but finer than the longest part of the lock, the medium level (I'd love a word for this in Icelandic, people) lacks the subtle crimp of the finest part of the thel.
I had a quick go at the lock above this morning, and that's what I came up with. The finest fiber (thel) is on the left, the medium is in the middle, and the coarse tog is on the right.
Here's a picture of a lock of thel, prior to having the medium grade fiber removed:
You can see at the right (click on the picture for a bigger view) the white, but slightly straighter and more wiry ends sticking out of the end of the lock. The fiber at the far left of the photo has a subtle crimp to it, which the medium grade fiber doesn't have.
The lock can be further separated to leave only the finest thel (something that an obsessive compulsive could have a field day with - just saying). Traditionally in Iceland, the separation of tog and thel was a job for children - child labor laws not being what they are today, I suppose.
Here's a bit of thel, with most if not all of the coarse fibers removed:
You can see that the fiber is very fine, with a subtle crimp to it. The fineness (micron count) of thel can be quite fine, rivaling some of the wool breeds traditionally thought of as fine or soft. Of course, there's a lot of work to get to that bit of fine fiber.
The "lopi" yarn that's spun in Iceland and available here from Álafoss/Ístex or Reynolds uses (to my understanding) most if not all of the fiber available in a fleece. Hence, you'll have the fine undercoat (thel) mixed with the longer tog. This gives an airy, lightweight, but strong yarn, that also has a tendency towards a wee bit itchy. I'd blame that on the coarser fibers sticking out a bit and being a little prickly. To my knowlede, there isn't a commercial yarn that separates the two fibers.
Which is probably why I've become obsessed with collecting Icelandic fleeces and playing with them at home. So many possibilites, so much room for obsession.
[The absolute best reference for information about Icelandic wool is a book called The Icelandic Fleece A Fibre for All Reasons, by Elizabeth Abbot, ISBN 0-9688761-0-2. A lot of what I've said is directly .... paraphrased (ahem) from that book.]