The old saying: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the river" is so true. Very often I feel slightly envious over the abundance of material available to people who live in other, most often warmer, countries. Eventually I stopped looking into the distance and discovered right at my feet the most wonderful materials, a wealth of medicinal and dye plants and of course the precious eiderdown and now, my latest discovery: Icelandic wool.
It has always been there and we learn at an early age in school that it kept the nation alive through decades of misery, it has unique properties, yada, yada, yada... And I never really gave it any thought. I have been using it for dyeing for some time and I have always thought that I had full appreciation of it, but now I realize that I really didn't know what it was all about. I just started an evening class about how to prepare and spin and I just fell in love. The teacher, who happens to be a neighbor in the allotment garden, brought raw fleece, just the way it comes off the sheep, but washed. And we started from there.
But first a little bit about the Icelandic wool and it's unique properties (that's the yada-yada part). The thing is that, like other primitive sheep species, Icelandic sheep have two types of hairs. The outer coat, called "tog", is coarse and shiny, and the fibers are very long, 10-45 cm / 4-18 inches. It is water repellent and serves to keep the inner coat dry. The inner coat, "þel" (or thel) is only 5-10 cm / 2-4 inches long, but much finer and softer. Traditionally the two were separated and treated quite differently to produce completely different materials. And I had never, ever touched pure þel before I attended the class. The reason is that the two types of hairs can only be separated by hand. All attempts to make a machine to do that have failed. All the Icelandic wool that is produced commercially is a combination of the two and as a consequence it is quite coarse and scratchy. It's fine for Lopapeysa (the Icelandic sweater), but not for anything that one would like to have next to the skin. So þel wool can not be bought in stores here, it has to be made by hand, but no one is doing that. So I look forward to having a completely new material to work with.
Tog is combed, rather than carded, with viking combs and I haven't tried that yet. I understand that it is always spun as a worsted, which means that the fibers are all paralell. It is and is also a completely new material to me. Even if it is coarse, it has a lustre that makes it perfect for embroidery thread, warp thread in weaving and for strong and water repellent outer garments.
I've been separating tog from þel and carding the þel. It's wonderfully soft and completely different in feel from Lopi, the Icelandic wool that I've been dyeing. I just tried my hand at spinning some and it was quite fun. I got Abby Franquemont's book Respect the Spindle and highly recommend it. I have along way to go, but I really, really think this will be fun.