Icelandic sheep are stunning to look at, both for their spectacular fleeces and their equally impressive horns, which are on both the rams and the ewes (although some Icelandic sheep, whether rams or ewes, are polled).
The rams’ horns develop a wide double curl, whereas the ewes’ horns sweep backwards in a half circle. They have clean, dished faces with slightly prominent eyes, and their lustrous fleeces come in a huge variety of colours and patterns, making them one of the most attractive of all sheep breeds.
Icelandic sheep fleece is usually about 2 kgs; it is unique in that it has two types of fibres, the longer, outer fibres called ‘Tog’ and the shorter, finer fibres called ‘Thel’.
The tog is a medium thickness fibre, about 26-29 microns in diameter and approximately 20 cm long (6-8”). It is wavy, with minimal crimp, and hangs in ringlets or corkscrews. It provides the sheep fleece with it’s water resistance.
The thel is a very soft and downy fibre, about 19-22 microns in diameter (the finest fibres may be only 10 microns) and around 8 cm long (2-4”). This compares with the average thickness of Shetland fleece (our finest native breed) of 23 microns. It has a light and irregular crimp. The fine thel fibres give the fleece loft and make it warm and insulating.
The fleece can be spun with the two types of fibre together. Traditionally this is done in Iceland to create a loosely spun, single ply yarn called lopi. Garments made from this are extremely light, warm and naturally water resistant. It is used for sweaters, socks and hats, and other outer garments.
The two types of fibres can also be spun separately to obtain yarns of very different characteristics. The tog fibres are excellent for worsted spinning and produce very durable items. It was traditionally used for sails, rope, sewing thread, belts, rugs, wall hangings, saddle cloths, lace shawls and embroidery yarns.
The thel produces fine yarn which is comfortable worn next to the skin and can be used for undergarments, fine socks and mittens, baby garments or wedding ring shawls.
Icelandic sheep wool felts readily, to produce soft, strong products, such as hats, vests, slippers and boots. Traditionally, garments were knitted 3 sizes too large, and then shrunk down to fit to make waterproof clothing.