I had been in contact with Lena Persson for months when I finally meet her. Prior to my trip, she had given me a list of farmers with Jämtlands sheep, and shared much of her knowledge about the usage of wool and the history of the merino over the phone.
With my sister Emma, we visit her in the small factory Ullforum in Torsta, Jämtland county. She greets us as we come in, and removes the earmuffs that protect her ears from the noise of the machines. She is wearing a light pink knitted sweater—made of wool, of course.
Lena has been working on the Jämtlands sheep project since 2004 when she was contacted to test the wool of the new breed.
As Sweden’s sheep industry is small, especially compared to that of the United States, China and Australia, the Jämtlands project was intended to create a versatile breed which was to be as good for its wool as it was for its meat.
To achieve this, a Svea ewe was crossed with a merino stud with an embryo transfer in Denmark.
It was Lena’s expertise in wool handicrafts that lead to her involvement in the Jämtlands sheep project. Now she takes care of spinning in the mini-mill, which is
a mill that spins on a small scale. The one that Lena is showing was bought and shipped from Canada, and can spin yarn down to NM14.
Lena explains to us that NM is a unit of measurement that stands for metric yarn number. It indicates yarn length in metres per gram. A higher number of NM means a thinner yarn. To give you an idea of what this means, a cotton t-shirt might have a yarn count from NM40 to NM60.
She takes us through the spinning process of the mini-mill, from the arrival of the raw wool to finished yarn.
Yarn-making starts with the washing of the wool. At Ullforum they can wash 12kg wool at the time. They use a new detergent that is all natural, made out of byproducts from the local diary.
After washing and drying, there are five machines that the wool needs to go through to become a yarn.
On top of this, there are three additional steps that not all yarn requires.
Lena tells us that they get a lot of different wool-types and requests for them. They have a waiting list of one year to spin a yarn.
After seeing the spinning process we step into a small laboratory. This is where we can test the wool quality, Lena says. With a computer-controlled microscope she takes pieces of wool fleece that I brought from a farm, and puts it under the microscope. Scanning the wool for a couple of minutes, the computer analyzes the thickness of the fiber in microns (micrometres). The lower the number, the finer the wool.
Wool from Jämtlands sheep has a micron from 17 to 23. Lambswool has a lower micron count, and this increases as the sheep get older. Although the Jämtlands sheep has merino stock, merino wool can have a micron as low as 10 up to over 25.
In addition to the genetics of the sheep, the fineness of the wool also depends on the nutrition and health of the sheep.
When analyzing the wool, it is not only the micron that is important, but also the "comfort factor". This measures the percentage of the fibers that has a micron over 30. Even sheep with very fine fleece can have thicker fibres. Ideally less than 5% of the wool has over 30 microns. This ensures the wool won't be itchy against the skin when worn.
After a tasty lunch in a greenhouse restaurant not far away, both my brain and notepad are full of information.
While I learnt a lot from Lena over the phone, meeting her and seeing her factory has increased my knowledge tenfold. Lena has a huge knowledge of wool and knows many skilled people that she thinks I should talk to. As we sit down in the car to go to our next visit, I immediately start looking up the people and other factories and spinning mills Lena mentioned.