After many hours of planning and excitement, my mom and I found ourselves in Lerwick for the 2022 Casting On Shetland Wool Week. Admittedly, of all the hours of research I did, the only prep I did for our “Introduction to Organic Native Shetland Sheep and Wool Production” at Uradale Farm was click “buy ticket” at checkout. I knew we wanted to see sheep in action, but put little thought into what a crash course in organic farming might look like. The only thing I checked was Google Maps then hopped a taxi for the 15 minute ride across the island from Lerwick to Scalloway admiring the hills and crofthooses out the window.
Nestled on a side road somewhere in the hills is Uradale Farm, complete with a big barn with red doors, farmhouse, all kinds of equipment, and, of course, sheep. Whereas I was expecting a lecture style set up, we instead were invited into their home, offered refreshments, and sat down like neighbors who had come over to ask for a cup of sugar and catch up. While enjoying the beautiful window view and warm orange cake, we chatted about our lives in our respective communities: my mom chatting about her dogs in Texas, me talking about the struggles of learning German. My small comment trailed into a conversation with Viveka, a linguist whose language project I Hear Dee provides Shaetlan language films, readers, and even a Shetlandic wirdle game inspired by the NYT hit game, on the importance of language.
I think it’s appropriate we started our Uradale visit with a conversation on the significance of words. For much of my life, “organic” was nothing more than a label created to incentivize customers to buy. However after just a few minutes chatting with Ronnie over Uradale’s transition to organic farming, it became clear to me that this was so much more than printing a new word on a yarn band. It involves investment in different technology, thinking historically about the land you’re on, and constant check-ins with authorities at every level of production to ensure maintenance of Organic standards. I could try summarizing every twist and turn of their transition to organic Shetland farming, but instead I’d recommend checking out Ronnie’s interview with Corinne where he spins that yarn far better than I could.
What stuck out most to me during our conversation was Ronnie’s comment on his mission to “farm in a way that’s meaningful”: using farming methods that honor the land and history around them. For Ronnie, a big part of this is having a flock of Shetland breed sheep: the island’s indigenous breed that struggled in the 19th to 20th century when modern agricultural demands for whiter wool and larger amounts of meat pushed crofters and farmers towards bigger breeds such as Texel and Merino. Uradale is home to 500 Shetland sheep in the base colors of moorit, grey, black, and white. What struck me first about Ronnie’s flock was the sheer beauty of their coats - each one is a different pattern or color shade so that they resemble the Shetland Sheep Society’s color census poster (a woolly chart I love so much that it now hangs above my knitting lounge).
While the furry stars of the show were the sheep, we could not help but fall in love with Jack and Pip — Uradale Farm’s sheepdogs. We first met them leaping up to us as we approached the farm house, and later were able to see them in action herding part of the flock in a fenced off area for us to admire the sheep. I had to ask Ronnie what kind of time it takes to get them to work so well? He chuckled pointing to the older of the two, saying they train each other better than he ever could. The real struggle, he added, is to get them to stop working. I’ve included some video of how Jack and Pip work because it’s amazing the effortlessness with which they corral dozens of sheep into a small fenced off area when just five minutes before they were asking for belly rubs.
There is no greater joy in this life than watching people who love what they do, and Ronnie is brimming with that kind of magnetic energy. The next part of our introductory tour was the fleece sorting portion. We went down to the big barn where a table of various fleeces, about one kilogram or 2.2 pounds per shorn sheep, were laid out. Ronnie pointed out how the fiber can tell us something about the sheep’s life: those who are younger with less pressures tend to have longer hair (known as staple length). The sheep who had a shorter staple length experienced more stress including, much to the amusement of my mom and I, motherhood. But no matter the staple length or color, each fleece is separated out for various weights (shorter staple length for jumper weight, longer staple for Aran & Bulky yarns) as well as the three base colors of cream, moorit, and black (which is more akin to a very deep chocolate brown).
Seeing the forethought that goes into the sorting made our yarn shopping experience all the more special (read spendthrifty). Uradale fleeces, like the ones we stroked in the barn, remain unbleached and undyed as they go through the Organic scouring process where things such as vegetable matter, dirt, and other sheep ‘products’ are scrubbed out – leaving nothing but pure Shetland wool and a healthy dose of lanolin. Having just witnessed a baahing woolly rainbow, I was first drawn to the natural shades on the shelves. Viveka was kind enough to lay out a gradient on the table so we could appreciate just how many shades the Uradale herd grew…
After stocking several jumper weight skeins of Graeff (Shetland black), Beremeal (a fawn brown), and Moorit (a darker brown) as well as several Aran weight skeins of Flukkra (a creamy white) into my basket, we turned our attention to the dyed skeins on the wall. Each color of Uradale’s dyed yarn is inspired by one of Shetland’s native vegetation such as lichen, tormentil, sundew and roanberries. Each color comes in three varieties using the same dye on three different bases: white, a light brown (which they call meal) and a light moorit brown (called heath). This process produces a beautiful gradient that had me dreaming of all kinds of “faded” projects.
Gradient of colors shown in Bluebell (top row) and Tormentil (middle) above the three naturally colored bases
I’d like to say our bags were full of Uradale wool on our ride home to the airport, but that’d be a lie – we bought so much yarn that Ronnie and Viveka offered to ship it for us from their farm.
However, our minds were brimming with what we learned. Our day with Ronnie transformed how we viewed the rest of our time in Shetland: the peat fields that supplied energy, the lanolin that rubbed off on our fingers, even the sheep peppering the landscape all had a new much deeper meaning for us. It is my hope Uradale Farm’s approach to organic farming is one of learning from and responding to the land, a lesson that holds weight far beyond the 60 degrees north.