29 January 1999

Japanese have a yen for Shetland wool…

A GROUP of small-scale British sheepkeepers is breaking new ground in wool exports. It has just supplied its second order of Shetland wool to Japan to meet the growing demand among hand-spinners.

The Shetland Sheep Breeders Group represents breeders of Shetland sheep outside the Shetland Islands. So far it has supplied two orders of fine-woolled fleeces to Yoko Yoshioka who runs the Kin No Hitsuji (Golden Fleece) hand spinning workshop in Kyoto.

Shetland sheep breeder Elizabeth Brown, who runs a small flock at Hethersgill, near Carlisle, is secretary of the breeders group and has been co-ordinating the wool orders from Japan.

&#42 Huge market

"There is a huge market in Japan for fine wool. Unfortun-ately the term Shetland is now used for any wool produced on the islands but not all is from the Shetland breed.

"The pure-bred Shetland is still a minority breed and has rare breed status. Since the group was set up 14 years ago we have been striving to maintain the superb wool quality of the pure-bred Shetland sheep and now our members produce some of the highest quality wool in Britain.

"Mrs Yoshioka saw a copy of the groups newsletter and contacted us. She was looking for exceptionally fine wool for her hand spinners," said Mrs Brown.

The first order was for 30 kilos of wool – about 20 fleeces. Now a second order of 30 fleeces weighing around 43kg has been exported.

But another reason why Mrs Yoshioka and her hand spinners have become fascinated with Shetland wool is the huge variety of natural colours. No other British breed carries such a variety of wool colours and markings.

"There are more than 30 different fleece colour variations within the breed. Many have unusual names such as bersugget, kraiget and katmoget tracing back to the origins of the breed on the Shetland Isles," says Mrs Brown.

The latest consignment for Japan included a variety of colours including a rare Shaela fleece. "This is one of the most attractive of the Shetland fleeces. Its a dark grey-beige colour which, when turned into garments, is often described as looking like black frost," says Mrs Brown. Jeremy Hunt