Foula Wool

shetland-wool-week-image

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, it is Shetland Wool Week! I’m very sad not to be there in person this year, but I’ve kept up the tradition I started three years ago of designing a hat in woolly celebration! In 2011, it was Sheep Heid (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Supreme) ; in 2012 it was the Sixareen Kep (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage) and in 2013 it’s . . . well, you’ll have to wait till the end of the week to find out. I can tell you, though, that this year’s hat uses Foula Wool, a lovely DK (or sport) weight Shetland yarn produced in seven tasty natural shades. Foula Wool is grown by Magnus and Justyna Holburn on the island of Foula, and I was able to catch up with Magnus earlier this week to hear more about their fantastic woolly venture.

foula
(The island of Foula).

Where is Foula?
Foula (pronounced “foo-laa”) is the most isolated of the Shetland Islands which themselves are the most northerly outpost of the UK. Cut off from the main island group by a formidable sea crossing, Foula lies out to the west of Shetland, approximately 20 miles offshore. The striking silhouette is hard to miss but also equally hard to get to.


Can you tell me a little about Foula sheep? What makes them so different?

Once all sheep in Shetland would have been like the Foula sheep, they are the unmodernised strain of the native Shetland sheep breed. Raised in isolation on our remote island for generations without the external influence of crossbreeding or the flock book they are simply Shetland sheep as nature intended them to be. This strong natural heritage embodies the Foula sheep with their unmistakable character and appearance.

foulasheep3

And do you feel that the distinctive landscape of Foula matches and suits the character of your sheep?
Absolutely so. Foula is a wild and rugged landscape with its own unique natural untamed charm and the sheep are as much a part of this as the dramatic scenery itself. In fact it would be fair to say that the Foula sheep actually are a part of the island landscape and without them the hills would look decidedly empty and forlorn. We are really hoping that some of this natural character will find its way into our yarn and onto the knitting needles of the people who choose to work with it.

foulasheep1


Coloured sheep were once declining in Shetland (and elsewhere) generally. What is now being done to retain and encourage diversity of fleece colour? Is the situation improving?

Foula has always been an important genetic resource for anyone who is looking for coloured Shetland sheep. By and large the crofters on the island have tended to take it upon themselves to ensure that this diversity of natural fleece colour continues. The system is subject to individual preferences and the sustainability of each persons flock. What we are trying to introduce with Foula Wool is something that will help improve a sheep flock’s sustainability whilst also seeking out the natural balance of fleece colours by virtue of what the market is asking for. This in turn is going to depend on the knitters out there making their own choices to knit with these natural wool colours.

The case in point would be our current stock of black yarn. There is a tendency not to keep a lot of black sheep as they are seen as being genetically dominant. Crofters worry about ending up with too many black sheep, so we then actually end up with hardly any at all. Black yarn sells well, so we have now almost sold out of what we had spun. We then put the word out that we are looking for more black fleeces and people then start to keep back more black lambs. Which is exactly what has happened this year.

foulasheep4

I know that pure white is actually the least common fleece colour for a Foula sheep, but are there certain fleece shades, or combinations of shades, that are particularly prized? Do you have a favorite natural shade?

My father had a personal preference for dark grey sheep as he felt that their numbers were getting low and he liked their fine wool. He started to keep back dark grey rams from the mothers with the best wool, some of these sheep were really fantastic and they looked almost blue. I grew up working with these animals so I do like to make sure that I have a few in my own flock. I am also very keen on the mioget yarn, which we spin from the white/fawn flekit fleeces. This blend of different coloured fibers ends up with a lovely warm honey like tone that I think is very appealing.

mioget
(Mioget)

Foula Wool is a relatively new venture. Can you tell us a little about how you came to develop a yarn for hand-knitters?

It was a combination of a desire to help support our native island sheep and the traditional crofting culture that surrounds them along with finding a solution about what to do with all the wool from our own sheep flock. We decided to send off some samples to a spinning mill and then waited eagerly to see what we would get back, whatever it was it had to be better than just burning the fleeces. When we got those first hanks of Foula Wool back we were really thrilled, it was a much better yarn than we had dared hope for.

I think we knew very quickly that this was going to be a yarn for hand knitters. These were the people who would be able to appreciate all the care and effort that goes into creating something. We also knew the yarn would have to remain undyed as the natural colours were already there and they just simply looked great. We opted for a DK weight for our first production run as it seemed to be a gap in the Shetland Wool market. We thought it would be nice for folk to have something that knitted up quickly but still offered all the colour work options they had come to expect from a traditional Shetland knitting yarn. The feedback we started getting from people in the knitting world all helped to confirm that Foula Wool was going to be a yarn for hand knitters.

lightgrey
(Light Grey Foula Wool)

Developing a yarn directly from the sheep can be tricky for small producers. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of the process?

The most challenging thing so far was the initial step to accept that it was going to be possible and that we would give it a go. You have to commit a lot of time and effort to something like this. Certainly running any business from such a remote location throws up challenges, not least when your going to have wait a whole year for your sheep to grow more wool if something doesn’t work out. However these are just problems that you will have to find solutions for, the same way you find solutions for any of life’s other problems. Making the decision that you want to go out and pin your wool colours to the mast that’s the hard part.

grey
(Grey Foula Wool)

Are you or Justyna knitters yourself? Do you enjoy working with your wool?

We love working with the wool and Justyna is well-bitten by the knitting bug! I find it really rewarding to hear back from people who buy our yarn as it has started to make some sense out of the decision I made years ago when I inherited my own sheep from my father, that I would do my best to keep them going.

foulasheep2


Finally, what’s your favourite hand-knitted garment?

The first thing ever knitted from our Foula Wool, a jumper that Justyna knitted for our eldest son, it doesn’t fit him anymore but his younger brother wears it now. I am always impressed by the natural qualities of pure wool, whether is on the back of a sheep or a little lad out helping his dad with the lambing, you just can’t beat it.

foulawoolposter

Thanks so much, Magnus!

If there was ever anything that made me want to own my own small starter flock, it is Magnus’s lovely photographs of his sheep (all of which are reproduced courtesy of Foula Wool). In closing, I have to mention that it was in fact Magnus’s favourite Mioget shade that, when I first got my hands on some Foula Wool, immediately gave me the idea for my new hat design. More of that shortly. In the meantime, you can find out more about Foula Wool here, or meet Magnus for yourself at the Shetland Wool Week Maker’s Mart at Lerwick town hall on Saturday.

54 responses

  1. Gorgeous Foula sheep and a really interesting post – thank you!! I can patiently wait for the hat pattern (which will obviously be as gorgeous as the sheep) because I’m engrossed in a fug of shepherd-hoodie-knitting. This is indeed a very good thing!!

  2. Oh goodness, I love the Foula sheep mum and lamb in the first photo! What characters! The grey Foula yarn looks especially inviting to me! And the island itself looks like a mirage at the edge of the world…

  3. I saw a programme on the BBC iPlayer recently that featured Foula (it’s still there, called ‘Grand Tours of Scottish Islands) and it looked fascinating. Looking forward to trying out the yarn at some point! Love the expression on the face of the sheep at the front of the fourth photo down…

  4. I, too, think photo four is funny, and charming. What a fabulous post! ( as usual, Dr. Kate). I love the look of the Mioget ball of wool. Gosh, Shetland, in DK ! I will have to get some.
    I wish Magnus and Justyna the very best of luck. However, they probably don’t need it, as they have the perfect product.

  5. “It had to be better than just burning the fleeces”… Oh god, yes. Just the thought of burning fleeces fills me with horror. Like burning books! Unspeakable.

    So glad they are making yarn. Can’t wait to see your pattern and order me some of the yarn. Xxx

  6. One of my favorite of all your posts. I feel a kindred spirit with Magnus as I am also on the journey to develop a line of yarn from my flock of Shetlands. And one of my goals is to develop a flock with lots of natural colors. My favorite is a light fawn. Your pictures are art themselves. Thanks for an inspiring post.

  7. Kate, thank you for introducing me to such an interesting and historical breed of sheep! I can tell Magnus is very proud of them, which is fantastic. :) Hope his boys grow up with the same love of their land and sheep as their dad.
    Can’t wait to see your design! Hope it spurs a flurry of sales for both you and Foula sheep wool!

    ~Nin

    • The best planning is planning ahead for a long time. I was there last year, and am planning to go again in 2014. How is it in summer? We had great weather for October but in summer it must be bliss.

      • Yes Monique it was really beautiful. We had a walk around St Ninian’s isle and the weather changed constantly from misty and atmospheric to brilliant sunshine while we sat and ate our lunch! One day was dramatically stormy and rainy, but mostly fine and pleasant. Loads of nesting birds around the cliffs.

  8. A lot of those Foula sheep were imported to Canada back in the 80’s & the herds are still going strong with many of the Shetland sheep owners making & selling yarns from their beautiful natural coloured fleece. Very nice post, Shetland sheep are the cutest !

  9. i cannot stop giggling at the sheep’s expression in pic #4. he’s like, “i’m happy!” i just wanna hug him!

    wonderful post. thank you.

  10. Those sheep aren’t just smiling, they’re grinning. What handsome sheep. Might you and Magnus collaborate with kits of your hat design using Foula wool? That would be in my cart so fast….
    Thanks for the introduction to Foula Wool.
    Marilyn

  11. Thanks so much for the post and I can’t wait to see your newest hat! Looks like my pennies will be saved for Foula Wool!

  12. This is fascinating. Thankyou for sharing. I can’t find an email of yours anywhere, but could you contact me? I need some wool and yarn advice for a magazine. Thanks

  13. I can’t wait to see the hat you have designed for Foula wool. I am sure it will be a delight. I ordered a ball of each color of Foula wool as soon as I heard about it. It is beautiful. I haven’t even swatched yet–I am so enamored of the lovely colored balls. The sheep in their landscape are a wonderful sight. Since I probably won’t be visiting Foula and collecting my own wool anytime soon, I am glad that there is a way to experience the wool. Foula Wool gives us an opportunity to buy yarn that was produced by the people who care for the sheep and are willing to take the trouble to sort for color and preserve the natural quality of the wool.

  14. What an interesting post! I really enjoyed reading about the Foula Sheep and the back ground history. I think the grey is my favorite color as well.

  15. I have been to the Orkney Islands which are also covered in lovely sheep, but never to the Shetlands! What a glorious place to be inspired!
    Looking forward to seeing your next creation.

  16. Most excellent ! I just want to get my hands going on this blue-dark-grey Foula wool after reading this post! I am in fact, charmed off of my pants, at your ability to present natural colors of British wool so well, as a result, I feel a total knitterly reform (in yarn) beginning to gestate within. I have you to thank , but also my own beginnings in craft, spinning more than knitting, my own dark brown Lincoln-Coriedale ewe’s fleece, still I have pounds of her wool crammed in the furthest recesses of my closet, forgotten. Your post has inspired me to do a big grand project with it , then, after some yarn sense has been knocked into me, I will begin purchasing the lovely Shetland & British wools and begin to learn from the hand. Thank you again !

  17. Beautiful post – I just ordered some of their yarn, which I’m planning on using for your Deco pattern. Thanks for the inspiration!

  18. I am a bit happy that you’re not at Shetland Wool Week this year, that way I don’t feel like I’m the only one who isn’t going either.

    I’ve seen Foula in the distance, last year, in Hamnavoe. A shape on the horizon.

    The colours of the wool are amazing (indeed; LOVE the grey)

    Can’t wait for your new design!

  19. Wow what a beautiful post. I’ve recently taken some interest in the different wools in the UK, looking closely at what is available more locally, as I know the label of yarn I used recently says “Made in Romania”. I don’t know if that usually means that the wool has been gathered from different places and then spun there or whether it originates from there. It’s just lovely to see the rise of small producers within the UK, and with the Internet, it appears to be easier to access these wools if I’m not able to get to the farm personally.
    What is the texture of this wool like? It’s so interesting to have coloured fibres rather than dyed fibres too. Something else that I love the idea of!

  20. More wonderful photographs! – and another destination on my “someday” list. Shetland yarn in dk weight, and in natural greys to boot (I’d love to see that blue-grey fleece): a knitter’s dream.

  21. Thank you so much for such an informative post, and for your sterling support of traditional wool suppliers. And also for bringing them to our attention! The wool looks scrummy, the sheep look so happy – what’s not to like?

  22. “However these are just problems that you will have to find solutions for, the same way you find solutions for any of life’s other problems.”–I love that little glimpse of personality, both because it’s true and because it’s something you’d never get from a big corporation. Best of luck to them

  23. Many years ago I read a book written by a Foula woman. She described a summer day when after some hours climbing hills looking for sheep she got so warm she took her jumper off. As an Australian I was amazed by a summer which would require a jumper at all. Those Foula sheep are tough!

  24. What a great story! I read a while ago that here in Norway some farmers have stopped shearing the sheep because the pay is so low it’s not worth the effort. How tragic. I hope that with the growing interest in knitting more knitters will be willing to pay a fair price for their local yarn.

  25. I hope that Foula Wool’s website is prepared to be innundated with orders as soon as your hat pattern is out! I have bookmarked their site & am poised with my finger above the order key. Thanks, Kate, for yet another educational but enjoyable post. It’s so nice to know the product all the way back to its source & the people behind it.

  26. Really interesting post. I think we should be trying our best to support breeders who are maintaining diversity through their dedication. We could so easily lose rare breeds. And in this case it looks as if the yarn has a real quality. I’ll certainly be trying it out.

    Sheep in picture 4 seems to be developing a little fan club here! He is a charmer for sure.

    Lovely to meet you last week.

  27. Hello all,
    My husband and I live in Colorado, US & have been raising Shetlands for 7 yrs. I focus on primitive, dual coated & colored sheep. I was thrilled to get the information about your site. Thank you for keeping Shetlands Shetlands! Someday we will get to Shetland Island and I hope to see you when we do.
    Dawn Driskill Thistledown Farm Delta CO

  28. Mioget! What a colour, my favourite for sure and another hat coming up…woo hoo
    Loved the history, that is so important to me. I also ‘know’ the names of the sheep whose wool I am spinning….yeah crazy :)

  29. Excellent peerie interview. :)
    I am on Foula myself with 50-60 of our beautiful Foula sheep.

    The grey sneedled ewe that everyone is falling in love with is such a darling lass, one of my personal favourites in Magnus’s flock.

    I hope you all love Foula Wool as much as I do. I’m currently working on a little project with the lovely black wool.

  30. Thanks for the post, Kate. Oh, I fell in love with the Foula wool already. The Foula Sheeps are so beautifully and… happy! Look at their smiles…

  31. I really enjoyed reading your post Kate and it has made me even more determined to visit the Shetland Islands one day.

  32. This post warms my heart. Our family raise Shetland sheep (a small flock) in America. We love them for their hardiness, friendliness, and beautiful fleeces in so many colours. The most fascinating thing about them, to me, is that the quality of their fleece seems to be inversely proportionate to the “quality” of their feed. Most farmers would say that livestock should be fed on lovely grain feeds and lush grass. Not so with our Shetlands or Icelandics. They thrive on the scrubby stuff, along with the goats. Leave the tender green bits to the cows. Wonderful!

  33. Do you think Malcolm will mind if I leave him and go to live on Foula, with those amazing sheep?! I’m looking forward to seeing you latest pattern. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered my knitting mojo – even if I have started with a rather strange project!

  34. Such an inspiring story, and thank you for continuing to highlight Shetland wool. It is so important to maintain the ‘real wool’ industry as I like to think of it. Natural coloured yarns are my favourite to work with. Despite having so much dyed yarn to choose from, it’s the naturals I go back to, time and again.

  35. What a great post!! I must find some of this wool. I only purchase natural colored fleeces for spinning and would sure love to have some Foula.

  36. I really appreciate posts like these which take us back to the sheep and farmers and remind us that yarn doesn’t grown online! Thank you.

  37. A lovely post – so good to see someone really valuing coloured fleeces, too, and seeing that the hand-knitting market is worthwhile. Round me in Snowdonia, there seem to be fewer and fewer coloured sheep every year; some of our local farmers are trying to breed them out of the mixed flocks. I shall pass this post on!

  38. Lovely, lovely, lovely!! Can you give a hint as to how much wool we need for the hat??? I just went to their web site and they are running low, which is not a surprise since you reach a lot of folks!!! Otherwise, will have to wait till the next shearing (or the current to be processed!!) Thanks for showing us this wonderful breed of sheep!!

  39. You mean, Bruce hasn’t learned how to take a photograph?
    Thank you for the wonderful history lesson. The details on the photographs are so crisp.

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