There are reminders of the importance of sheep to the island’s economy everywhere you look on Gotland; a sheep adorns the national flag, the bollards are concrete rams and ewes, and you will regularly spot flocks grazing the fields as you travel along the roads.
The beautiful silver-grey fleeces range from light to dark with every shade in between and the animals themselves are fairly friendly and curious, or do they just presume they are about to get fed?!
Yarn shopping was obviously one of my priorities whilst visiting Gotland and I am not disappointed. In the marketplace at Visby, we find a lady selling hand-knit garments and accessories alongside sheepskins and yarn spun from her flock. The yarn is in two different qualities; single ply and 2-ply in both lace weight and sock weight thicknesses, with natural shades and examples hand-dyed by herself. The subtle shades of the differences in the fleeces is clear to see in both the sheepskins and the sorted and spun yarn itself.
Knitters intuition guides us in the right direction of the yarn stores in Visby. Boel Olaison sells locally manufactured knitwear alongside a small selection of kits and naturally coloured wool spun on Gotland. Here we find that the fleece of the Gotland sheep is blended with a small amount of Blue Faced Leicester before being spun into a 2-ply yarn in various different weights.
Opposite Boel Olaison is Yllet, a lovely store selling various bits and bobs with a yarn section through in the second room.
The owner tells us how they have to have the Gotland wool spun and dyed in Denmark as the local spinneries on the island didn’t have the facilities or knowledge they were looking for to produce different blends, thicknesses and shades of yarn. The Gotland fleece is spun with a small quantity of Falklands merino to bring softness to the yarn and the grey shades of the Gotland fleece produce a beautiful natural melange effect through the skeins.
The owner of Yllet points us in the direction of the Gotlands Museum where a permanent display of ‘traditional’ Gotlandic knitting is on show:
You may be familiar with The Mitten Book by local knitters Inger and Ingrid Gottfridsson, which features a collection of traditional Swedish colourwork patterns for creating mittens.
A sample of each mitten from the book is on display alongside other local knitwear of interest including this curious two-thumbed mitten…
Ann tells me that they were traditionally made from handspun yarn and knitted for fishermen who could quickly and easily put the mitten on without and then turn the mitten around to the drier side whilst working, which in turn also prolongs the life of the mitten itself.
We also discover that the bond between knitters and their cats isn’t just a modern-day phenomenon…
On our trip to Fårö, Ann spots a handpainted sign pointing down a farm track which reads, ‘potatoes, strawberries and wool’. Of course we need to go and see what this wondrous farm shop has in stock.
The Gotland sheep are grazing alongside what the farmer tells us are ‘Leicester’ sheep (presumably Blue Faced Leicester but I’m not entirely sure) which they interbreed with the Gotland sheep to produce a higher quality meat for market. This is quite common practice in the sheep world in order to get the most out of the flock.
The shearling skins she has for sale are incredibly soft and lustrous and again you can see the subtle variations in the colours:
What I really like about the farmers of Gotland and Fårö is that the fleeces are not just seen as a by-product, they are an additional source of income for the farmers. You will regularly see the beautiful sheepskins for sale alongside the meat in local butchers shops and the vast majority of farmers send the shorn fleece to one of the islands spinners for processing. Whilst this costs them a lot of money (we are told 100 Swedish Krone on a 100g skein retailing at 150 Krone, which equates to approximately £8.50 out of £13.00), it is so wonderful to see the fleeces realising a good price especially when compared to the paltry amount many UK farmers receive and the return on having the fleece spun is pretty good for the farmer.
Wouldn’t it be great to pop to your local farm shop or farmer’s market and find skeins of wool alongside the potatoes? I think so and I know I would stop for a look if spied when passing.
As to whether or not I brought any yarn home? Well, maybe just one or two skeins but what happens in the yarn shop stays in the yarn shop.