Friday, November 2, 2007

The Quest for Tolkien Yarn

(Fjola, an Icelandic sheep we met on Saltspring Island. I have a pound of her gorgeous fleece just waiting to be spun)

The idea of spinning and knitting a Tolkien inspired garment has been playing in the back of my head for a few seasons. I did knit a Hobbit inspired jacket, Fiddlehead, last spring which has gotten much use.
Stansborough Farm, the New Zealand company that sourced the wool for the LoTR elven cloaks has made the same wool available for spinners, knitters and weavers. Though, I applaud them for taking the effort and energy in breeding such a special flock of sheep, the fleece is no more intrinsically elvish than many other breeds of sheep. The Stansborough yarn itself is a blend of the 80% wool and 20% angora.
I scoured the internet to see what other knitters thought about this yarn. A bit hearty and rough for some, others had issues with the loose 4-ply, some just didn't think it anything much special other than it was used in the Lord of the Rings.
The Stansborough site touts this fleece as being 'the rarest in the world. True. There are only 1000 of these sheep that have been bred to make this particular shading of grey without any brown tips. The farm breeds and controls this flock. In other words, they have the monopoly in specific lineage of sheep. They're flock is simply intensively bred Gotland sheep which is originally from Sweden.
Gotland (also known as Palssau) sheep are direct descendants of the Gute breed and also include Shetland, Icelandic, Finnsheep and Romanov (some of which also have very 'elvish'qualities). It also believed that Karakuls, Romanov, Leicester and Rya may be lurking in the genetic history of the modern Gotland.
The fleece itself is prized for it's high lustre, well-defined crimp, soft but hardwearing. It staple ranges from 3-5 inches. The fleece colours ranges from almost black to a full range of greys to silver. There is no true white Gotland.
There are Gotland sheep farms throughout North America and Europe. Just Google 'Gotland sheep farms' if you want to find a farm near you. I bet you it'll cost way less than shipping it from New Zealand.
Now that I've bored you to tears with babbling about Gotland fleece, I'll admit that I'm not going to use much if any Gotland fleece in my Tolkien yarn.
Ptthhbbbbbbbb :P
(Newly shorn fleece from a Saltspring Island sheep farm. So fresh it still has a pulse.)

(Streaker Sheep)

Why would I look specifically for Gotland when I have Shetland, Icelandic, Cottswold, Border Leicester, Alpaca and Romeny being raised within spitting distance from me? All these breeds offer many of the elements that make an elvish cloak.

Tolkien described the elvish cloaks that were gifted to the fellowhip in Lord of the Rings as,"...of the light but warm silken stuff that Galadhrim wove. It was hard to say of what colour they were: grey with the hue of twilight under the trees they seemed to be; and yet if they moved, or set in another light, they were green as shadowed leaves, or brown as fallow fields by night, dusk silver as water under the stars....Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make...they are light to wear, and warm enough or cool enough at need."

-p481, Lord of the Rings, Farwell to Lórien

There is another source of inspiration for my Tolkien elvish yarn from the great stories of The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin : Thingol the High King of the Sindar. For crying out loud, his name is derived from ancient words meaning "Grey Cloak". What a perfect source of inspiration for my elvish yarn!

Dark Elves, or as most LoTR fans would know them as, Grey Elves, are the highest of the Elven kind. The term 'Grey' also is suggested to have a second meaning related to 'Twilight"

Thingol is also the great- great-great-great grandpappy of Arwen and Aragorn. Yep, much like most royal families, this one skinny dips in it's own gene pool. They're not directly related, more half second cousins twice removed or something like that.

The Grey Elves themselves are noted for wearing dark robes of purple and blue of twilight.
I can't remember off the top of my head much about Thingol's wardrobe. I guess I'm going to have to reread the Children of Hurin :)
(Pretty pair of Border Leicesters. Their fleece has a lustrous sheen and long staple. Definitely elvish yarn worthy.)

The basic fleece qualities I'm shooting for is:
-good drape
-hard wearing

I'll have to do a bit more musing and scheming to decide how I will capture the chameleon nature of the elvish cape's colouring.

So far, I have some gorgeous Icelandic, Cottswold, Alpaca and Border Leicester fleece to blend and play with. All of them from the Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands.

Tolkien himself was a great supporter and lover of the land and the people who worked it. The Hobbits themselves are a great example of this.
Tolkien's concern for nature echoes throughout The Lord of the Rings. Much is made of how those of greed, arrogance, lust for power, and filled with evil dominate nature and abuse it to bolster their own agenda. Whereas elves live in harmony with the natural environment and many of their races of named to reflect nature, like the Woodland Elves.
I cannot think of a better way to pay homage to Tolkien, support local farmers and still do my part to help the environment than to make a Elven cape with locally raised fleeces.

I'll be continually blogging about this quest and I would enthusiastically encourage other Tolkien and LoTR fans to also look into using locally raised fibres to make their Tolkien inspired projects.



Francesca said...

I'm thinking that there must be some sheep farmers in PA. Mmm. Maybe.

Franna said...

Oh! Another Tolkein fan. :-)
I've been planning an elven cloak for several years now. My sheep "Hortense" is providing the wool for just such a cloak. She's a Blue Faced Leicester x Border Leicester cross, and could double as a Gotland cross (except for her very Roman nose!) I only have a 4 harness loom, but have in mind an undulating twill 4 harness pattern. Oh, and I have to learn to weave. I'd love to follow your progress!
btw, there are Gotland cross sheep in Washington state, and one in 100 Mile House, BC. Are they within 100 miles of you?
- Franna of EverRanch Farm in Auburn, Washington
ps. There are a lot of sheep farms in Pennsylvania, too.

Anonymous said...

As the person who started doing LAI work in 2003 to bring these amazing creatures to the US, I'm sorry to say that there are no true Gotland sheep in North America. I'm working on it though. Laurie's Lambs