The background and dress on this project were stitched using Shetland, a hand-dyed thin wool from Elemental Affects. Before I cover this yarn and its use in needlepoint, let’s take some time to talk about Shetland yarns in general and then about some knitting terms that will help you understand this thread.
The Shetland Islands are in the Northern part of Scotland and the major industry there is raising sheep. It’s referred to as “Shetland Wool.”
The Shetlands are not the only Scottish Islands associated with fiber. If you have ever seen a Harris tweed jacket, it too is named for an island. In fact Harris tweed clothing has labels in it attesting to its origins.
Shetland Wool comes from the particular breed of sheep raised on the island. Typical of sheep raised in northern regions their fleece is rather shaggy and rough. This is one factor that gives this thread its distinctive look.
The other factor is that Shetland wool isn’t processed very much before it is spun or dyed. The resulting yarn has variation in color, making “heathered” tones. If you are old enough, or preppy enough, you have probably seen Shetland sweaters. These sweaters show very clearly the heathered quality of the wool.
These two qualities, rough texture and heathered colors, are fundamental to this yarn. They are what gives it a unique look. Elemental Affects preserves these qualities by only dyeing over unbleached and untreated yarn.
Understanding Knitting Terms
When you enter into the world of using knitting yarns for needlepoint you will encounter a few familiar terms and many that are not familiar.
Shetland is a two-ply single strand yarn with a loose twist. We can contrast that with Pearl Cotton, which is also a two-ply single strand yarn but with a tight twist. With Shetland you can often see light between the plies.
The weights, or thicknesses, of knitting yarns are standardized, unlike those of needlepoint threads. There are 8 weight classes, numbered from 0 to 7, that have both names and numbers. All yarns with a certain number will be about the same thickness, no matter what fiber is used to make them. For knitters this means the gauge in any yarn of this group will be about the same size and that you can use the same size of needles for any yarn in the group.
If you think about it, this makes sense, knitting makes garments and garments are sized. If there was no standardization you could use a different yarn and the same pattern and get something that would fit a doll instead of a person.
Shetland is a fingering weight yarn. It is class #1 and is the second-thinnest grouping of yarns. It is also often called sock-weight or baby-weight yarn after two common uses of these yarns.
Although you do not find it on these yarns, knitting yarns are often packaged by weight rather than by yardage. Because making garments can take hundreds of yards of yarn, usually skeins of knitting yarns are in quantities we can only dream about. In fact to a knitter our typical 10-yard skeins are just samples.
Because there are trends in knitting to use many yarns in a project or to make smaller items, there is a demand for small quantities of yarns. These are called mini-skeins. They are excellent skein sizes for needlepoint. I tested Shetland’s mini-skein which had 28+ yards (25.5 meters) in it.
Using Shetland in Needlepoint
Fingering-weight yarn is too thick to work well in Tent Stitch on 18, although it’s excellent for Straight Stitches on this mesh. I found that one strand of Shetland was perfect for Diagonal and Tent Stitches on the dress. A single strand was too thin for the Bargello background, allowing too much canvas to show through. Doubling the strand solved this problem but resulted in a thicker layer of needlepoint.
Because the thread is loosely twisted, it is more fragile. If you use stitching lengths that are too long, over 24″, the thread may shred and come apart. This happened to me at least once.
In general I found this thread easy to use. I loved the rustic texture I got in my stitching, which is very difficult to find in needlepoint threads. While the texture is unusual and attracts attention, it does play well with other threads.
I was delighted with the heathered colors: I had not expected them. They were like a little surprise as I stitched. Shetland comes in over 200 colors, most in color families with 3-5 shades. The colors include many rich shades and are weighted heavily to blues and reds. There are no bright colors and very few pastels. There are only three greens, one family of yellows (Old Gold tones) and one of orange (rust). The limited range means this cannot be your “go to” wool, but can be an effective addition when the colors are right.
By using unprocessed yarn, there will be more variation between dyelots and within skeins than you may find in other threads. That’s because this yarn is affected by the supply and colors of the fleeces at any given time. Every effort is made to keep colors consistent and dyelots should coordinate with each other.
This thread is not carried by many shops yet, but it is worth seeking out. You can look at their website to find shops and learn more about their other yarns .