Last month we talked about sampling in general. My favorite reason to sample – and it includes gauge swatches – is for a large project. We spin to make fabric after all, and we should use our handspun for big projects! In this case, I wanted a chemise to wear under garb that would breathe well, have amazing color, be a bit lacy, and just be fun and unique.
Sampling for a garment means sampling a yarn AND sampling for gauge. The key is keeping a “fresh” singles of the final yarn wrapped around a card nearby while you spin, as well as a ply back sample of the same yarn matching the number of plies with which you intend to knit.
Taking careful notes and keeping a sample card from start to finish is the best way for me to make sure I use the right yarns throughout the process, so I tend to take a sample from wheel to blocked swatch before moving on to my next attempt.
I like to make sure I have 4-6 oz available just for sampling if I am familiar with how a certain breed and put up behaves; if I’m not, I’ll go with a solid pound so I can play with prep, singles weights, number of plies, finishing methods, and swatching on different needle gauges.
I had a pattern in mind already (The Hush Chemise (from the book Needles and Artifice), which you can purchase on Ravelry), but I had to get gauge and I did not want to buy yarn when I could spin my perfect yarn for my perfect chemise. I’ve been sampling breeds for a long time so I have a decent understanding of what breeds I wanted to consider and ultimately decided that a Southern Cross Fiber club offering in the Cavern colorway in a 50/25/25 Falkland/Mulberry Silk/Royal Alpaca blend that I had gone crazy over and ordered tons of extras of, was the best choice for drape, as well as the thinner lace to fingering weight needed for the chemise. It needed to be a fiber that I could spin finely enough to be a light 2-ply.
Then I just had to work out the best singles weight for the best ply back sample, that finished to the best finished yarn weight, and the best gauge swatch! Easy!
I know, you’re all laughing, “right, sounds easy; she’s crazy!” But I’m not really. See, all that breed sampling pays off. I already knew my default yarn was nearly perfect because I have spun and knit with it so much. I knew I had to aim just a bit thicker, but not by much, because of the Falklands and the alpaca getting fluffier in finishing. A few ply back samples and singles wrapped around cards later and I knew I had candidate. I plied up a few dozen yards, finished it, and knitted a gauge swatch on the called for needle size, one up and one down, then washed and blocked the swatches. And there it was! As I suspected. I tend to need to go down a needle size and that tendency held true.
I took that sample card, the whorl notes – which in this case was an RPM note because I spun the yarn on my Device of Questionable Origin, and the gauge swatch with needles noted, and set forth on spinning up my four pounds. I saved a half pound or so back in the event I run low and need to spin some more. Once spun, plied, and finished, I cast on my sweater and started knitting!
The fabric drapes just as I wanted it to, and my sampling paid off – my piece measurements are right on track. The color is perfect and it’s fabulous under my garb!
What to do with all those samples? Also – why do I sample?
There are many reasons to sample – the most important of them is so we get gauge. This is also important in lace knitting. We want to make sure that once that item we took so much care to make is finished, it does what we intended it to without surprises. It’s important to knit enough of a swatch – I like a 4”x4” size – to get several full repeats of any pattern both horizontally and vertically if you are knitting lace or cables. If you are not, you want to make sure you have enough fabric for your tension to have leveled out. If you don’t get gauge, go up, or down (or both!) a needle size and check again. Make sure you wash and block before you measure. Swatching and sampling will also help you determine if you got the right drape.
It matters for spinning too – is my yarn thin or thick enough? Do I prefer a two or 3 ply for that stitch pattern? Keep a control card with an in process singles wrapped around it, and a ply back sample, so you can spot check as you go.
But sometimes we have multiple samples for an item. Or, maybe we sample different colorways or breeds of sheep. What do I do with all those samples and leftover yarns?
And here’s another use for those samples: What if you develop a hole that you need to darn? AND YOU ARE OUT OF YARN? Or maybe you misjudged your order and need just enough to finish the row and bind off? We’ve all been there. IF you have your swatches you are stress free, unlike your friend who has to match a dye lot and order another ball. You just pop over to your swatches and unravel that perfectly matching yarn and continue on your way.!
My friends, so many reasons to swatch and so many options!!!!
I touched on sampling briefly in my Breed Study blog post back in April 2016. I’m still working on that stole by the way. I think it’s a lap blanket now. But I promised you a blog post about what to do with the samples and it’s time.
Summer is a great time to sample. It’s hot, we’re distracted by summer activities at the beach, ball field or vacation rides. Small items are more manageable. And remember, like it or not, fall is not far off and we need to start planning our fall and winter knitting projects. We even run into significant temperature fluctuations for air conditioning vs outdoors. Brrr, I can hear my coworkers’ teeth chattering away.
Here are a few ways to use your samples:
A breed sampler stole, lap blanket, or picnic blanket. Hey – wool is actually easily cleaned, bacteria resistant and insulating against dewy earth at summertime band concerts. What’s not to love? Here are a few patterns which are easy to add on various samples to get you in the mood:
This Sampler pattern from Leisure arts uses larger scale samples to create a lovely throw.
You didn’t think I’d forget those adorable little hexipuffs did you? The Beekeeper’s Quilt let’s you make all sorts of little puffs to assemble any way you want – stuff them for extra warmth – and using up some less than spinning desirable wool you may have acquired on a whim, or from a wonderful non-spinning friend who loves you, found it for free, and had no idea that you just aren’t ready for that right now.
The pattern I use for my sampler stole is Feather & Fan, which I picked up out of a stitch dictionary, but is also available online. Pick a number of repeats to get your preferred width, stick a simple garter stitch border on it to keep it from curling, and go!
Want something a bit more color oriented? Or maybe something more garment like? Oh yeah, we got that too.
Less is More by Spunky Eclectic’s Amy King is an awesome use for different weight yarns in different colorways. Choose your own adventure!
Rams and Yowes comes in hats, scarves, blankets, and even sweaters. And don’t be afraid of color in those sheep!
Anything Fair Isle! Watch your tension and keep those carries shorter, but Fair Isle is great. Tams, mitts, cowls. Small projects are great!
But wait, I weave – or want to. Oh my friends, we love you too! Aside from just throwing everything on the loom in a rave of color and yarn use (no really, go to town, it’s your cloth) you can do something more color coordinated like these:
Pin Loom weaving let’s you make woven ‘granny squares’ and assemble them anyway you want! Some inspiration can be found in Pin Loom Weaving and we do carry Zoom Looms.
Just put on a warp and go to town with whatever color coordinated yarns, as I did, or non coordinated ones you wish!
Don’t stop here – use these as launch points to do your own inspiring combinations! Sampling is awesome – and educational!
Not on Ravelry? Links to the Ravely patterns also available on public sites are listed below, in order of appearance in the article:
I make a point to overhaul my spinning wheel(s) once a year. To keep track and make sure I do it each year, I do all my overhauls around the time of Maryland Sheep & Wool. Of course, I clean up the moving parts throughout the year after I spin a pound or two of fiber and replace drive bands as they go, but this is a different thing – my annual overhaul involves disassembling the main parts, cleaning them, oiling all the wood, checking drive bands for fraying and replacing them, checking all my spokes, etc.
It’s important to maintain them so they last another hundred years or more and to keep them in spinning condition. No Spinning Wheel Shaped Objects here! And it’s not complicated. The first time I did it I was nervous – what if I messed something up? But of course, I made it harder in my head than it was in reality. It’s really a very simple process.
I keep several rags, my favorite wood oil, a trusted and gentle all purpose cleaner, cotton swabs, toothpicks, drive band and footmen connector materials (appropriate to the wheel), and wheel oil handy as I do this. For these photos, I overhauled my Watson Marie, which remains in fine trim and did not require the toothpicks.
My first step is to disassemble the wheel – take the flyer off, pull the maidens, mother of all, and the drive wheel, inspecting each part as I go. Then I flip the table, inspect the treadles, table, footmen, and legs, removing them if applicable. Most treadles are attached to the wheel – I don’t remove those, but I will disconnect footmen to inspect and replace the connectors.
I will clean and oil the table, legs, footmen, and connectors. This is an ideal time to replace the connectors and make sure that all the screws for the treadles are secure.
Next up I inspect, clean and oil the drive wheel and return it to its customary position, setting the drive band – which I replaced if needed – in place.
Now we process the mother of all. Clean and oil the mother and maidens, inspecting them carefully looking for any questionable wear on the leathers, felts, etc. While you are unlikely to find a need to replace these, now is the time to replace them if they are failing.
Next up – the flyer assembly. You got it: clean it, oil it and reassemble, inspecting the hooks and the flyer arms as you go.
Finally, reseat the drive band and make sure the wheel is properly aligned. This is normally an issue in antique wheels, but some modern wheels can be easily knocked. Stand behind the drive wheel and watch the drive band as you move the treadle with your hands, if it bobbles, adjust the position of the drive wheel (this may require some toothpicks on the uprights or legs for antique wheels).
That’s all there is to it! Go forth and spin all the woolz for another year!
…Or Welcome to the Wonderful Word of Processing Fleece!
In honor of our new sampler, we decided to cover the processing of raw fleece into a finished yarn this month. While there are certainly numerous other posts on the topic (you can find links to some of our favorites at the end of the blog post) we often get questions and we like to share tips when we can. Here goes!
I never thought I would enjoy dealing with raw wool. It’s greasy, smelly, has … things … in it and my hands are gross when I finish handling it. And the buckets of scour water – it’s like there’s a mud puddle in there sometimes! Right? Are you with me? Well, that’s what I felt about it anyway; I was not a fan.
The raw fleece to finished object process is wonderful; you control all the steps and create exactly the textile you want (with some practice and sampling of course). For a control freak, it’s ideal. For someone who wants to maximize their expense to enjoyment ratio, it’s heaven. For a person who wants to explore, it’s perfect.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s still grease and grime, and things, but you pretty soon realize that wool has different smells by the breed and place of origin (for you wine lovers out there, pour a glass and enjoy your wool’s terroir!) and those fumes soon become a source of stress relief and comfort. I should really consider starting a “Baaa day” – wool fumes and a facial or mani/pedi!
It all begins with scouring the raw fleece you acquired. Lots of people are intimidated by this process but it’s really quite simple. In fact, it’s fundamentally identical to a thing we all do every day: bathing. Scouring wool is literally the process of immersing something dirty in hot water, cleaning it with soap, in this case scour, and rinsing all the grime away.
Select a fiber you wish to try. Open its bag and set the bag aside – you will want to keep the label. Shake the fiber out gently over a trash can to loosen the locks and shake out larger bits of vegetable matter (“VM”), dirt and debris. You don’t need to get TOO crazy here, but a good shake does make a difference. VM will not scour away, but it can be difficult to get the fleece to let it go until the grease is gone. This is also a good time to open up some of the dirty tips with a comb if there are any particularly clumpy ones.
Those happen – sheep like to frolic in muddy pastures and barns, and while the shepherds work really hard to rotate flocks away from such things, they are sheep. They live outdoors and they get rained on. They tromp around in grass, they lay on it, even in the rain. And coating is often not practical or healthy for sheep, and always more expensive for a wool buyer.
Just remain calm, this is after all dirty fleece. Shearers skirt at the time of shearing. Shepherds skirt again when they inspect the fleeces. 98% of anything you might see in your bag is VM or dust and debris. 1.5% is tarry tips (which are oxidized lanolin and I highly recommend a cold soak for those). Only very rarely might a dag (yes, that is a dob of sheep poop) sneak through. But look, they’re vegetarians and we all clean ourselves, so let’s not panic ok? Wash your hands afterwards. Wear rubber gloves if you want. This is not cause for alarm, let alone the destruction of a shepherd’s reputation or someone’s business by attacking them online and decrying how unacceptable and poor you find their wool. These things are often subjective.
Gently place the fiber in the mesh bag. You don’t want to stuff the bag so tight, or fill the tray so much that the water has no room to work. Leave lots of room for the water to get in and do its magic and a solid couple of inches underneath the fiber when it’s wet for the grime to fall away. If over packed, the grime stays in and you have to rinse and scour more.
If the fiber looks very grimy – give it a cold soak for an hour or so. I frequently do this with particularly high grease fleeces such as merino and cormo as well. I’ve even left them overnight by accident. I try to limit it to overnight as I am not personally a fan of the fermented suent method of fleece scouring. Periodically take a look and if there are muddy tips, you can gently rub them between your fingers to loosen the dirt.
You can actually stop here if you want. A cold soak is actually sufficient for cleaning if you want to retain the lanolin for a more water resistant garment (say for mittens, hats, or even heavy fisherman sweaters).
If you want to scour the wool, now is where we get into the nitty gritty. Put a dollop of scouring fluid in a container. And fill that container with piping hot tap water (hot enough to scald your hand should you attempt to leave it in the water for more than a second or two after the water has been sitting for 10-15 minutes). I don’t use a boiling kettle to supplement my tap water because I use a scour designed to be used at home hot water temperatures. This saves me time and costs because my hot water is already hot for home use and I am not adding time and electricity or gas for getting the kettle up, let alone carrying a boiling kettle to wherever my scour bucket is.
I can tell you that I find the water best suited to this purpose in my laundry sink which is located about 5’ from my hot water heater and in between the heater and my washing machine. While that means I have to go to my basement to deal with my scouring, it also means I tend to scour wool on laundry day.
Immerse the wool in the hot scoury tap water. Remember, there should be plenty of room for water to penetrate the wool and for the grimy bits to fall out. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t think you have enough room for the water to get in and do it’s magic, or if you are finding that it takes more than 2 scours after you’ve done a cold soak, you might consider less fiber in your water. Let the wool soak for 18-20 minutes, I’ve even done 15 minutes for less grease wools like shetland.
Remove the wool from the grimy water, either by lifting the bag or the colander, and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water. Your water no doubt looks something like below. Like I said, a muddy river has camped in your bucket. Dump that in your garden, I assure you the plants love that stuff. I had roses blooming under my bathroom window in January once because I scoured wool in the bathtub into mid January and they kept getting dumped on. Hydrangeas like it too. If you are concerned about any chemicals that may have gotten into the wool from sheep dips or the like, simply don’t pour it on edibles. The wool scour I prefer is environmentally friendly so I am not concerned about that.
You’ll repeat those steps one more time then rinse the container out – it probably has silt in the bottom. Refill the container with piping hot clear water – no scour. Immerse the bag in the water and let soak 18-20 minutes. This is your rinse. It’ll get out any remaining scour and dirty water that may not have been squeezed out after the second scour. You MAY need a second rinse – err on the side of the rinse. In this second rinse you may choose to add some Fiber rinse to condition the fiber. Rinse is particularly welcome in the case of down breeds which tend to feel “crispy” after scouring. The rinse will also restore some of the lanolin we scoured out alongside the grime.
If I have a particularly low grease, clean, fleece I might top off the 2nd rinse water to bring the temp back up to scalding, add some scour and reuse the water for the first rinse of my next batch of wool. But I only suggest this on particularly clean, low grease fleeces.
Once you‘ve completed your rinse cycle, remove the bag from the water and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water. If using the colander method – press the water out. Your fiber should look something like this-
At this point lots of people will try the whole thing again – thinking the fleece is still dirty. Maybe it’s not bleach white like they wanted. Fleece comes in a wide range of white from buttery to pearl. Nothing you do will change that white color, it’s part of the protein and collagen the sheep made. Embrace the array of natural whites. If you want bleach white, you’ll need commercially bleached fiber – and yes, I do mean bleached. Sparkling white has been bleached in industrial vats with strong chemicals and then treated with optical brighteners. By processing our wool we avoid all these industrial chemicals; it’s part of the allure. If you hate that your white is buttery, you’re only option is dyeing – or giving away/selling your hard won processed wool.
Or maybe they think those tips are still filthy. They are not still filthy. Remember that cold soak I suggested earlier? The one before which I combed open the tips, or wherein I massaged the tips to help loosen them up? Both of those actions help solve tips such as these. Whatever you do, do not scour again. Further scouring may actually damage the fiber. Turn the fiber very gently out onto a towel or mesh sweater drying rack and let it dry. Maybe turn it over onto a drier section or a fresh towel half way through. Generally I walk away for a day.
Once the fiber is dry, it’s ready to flick, comb, card or lock spin into yarn. If those high grease fleeces still feel greasy, it’s ok to get another scour and rinse WITH fiber rinse in, but I wouldn’t worry about it unless it’s hard to process or spin. You still have to set your yarn AND wash and block your finished object. Over processing now will only augment damage to the fiber later. And remember, those finished objects have a long career ahead of them.
If you are still worried about your tips and want to make sure you don’t need another round, go ahead and flick them open to release the dirt (experience will generally have you do this as part of your pre spinning preparation instead). If the tips were damaged, they’ll come off in the flicker and there’s no cause for alarm. You may achieve this by tapping or by twisting the lock in the center and brushing the ends. Tapping opens the fiber into a cloud, brushing retains lock structure. Tapping is a woolen preparation and creates a lofty airy yarn, brushing is worsted and creates a smooth, dense yarn.
Congratulations! Your fiber is ready to spin. Wasn’t that easy?
Frequently Asked Questions
What is this black stuff?
Most likely it’s tar – oxidized lanolin and grease. Let it soak a while and it will come out when you flick. It is not a cause for concern, but a cold soak would be helpful as they tend to be stubborn.
Why is it so grimy?
Sheep live outside and some like lounging in mud. Some even snuggle into compost heaps. They don’t shower and even though they may get rained on, it doesn’t help them much unless they walk through a moving stream or river, thanks to all that grease. That’s why we use hot water and scour.
My wool isn’t white!?
White comes in many shades from almost bleach to creamy butter. Wool runs the gamut. If you want bleach white – well, wool is probably the wrong fiber for you. If you try bleaching it, it’s likely to be damaged. Take a page out of Beth Smith’s book and love all the shades of white!
The tips aren’t completely clean, do I scour it again?
If you scoured as instructed, then no. Those tips have some staining from the grease or still contain trapped dirt. The fleece is clean; flicking it will open the tips and release the dirt. Once it’s dry – is it still really greasy? Then the water temp may not have been high enough. This sometimes happens with very fine wools like merino. Do a “second scour’ again this time adding a kettle of boiling water and re-rinse and dry. It should solve your problem.
Now those links to my favorite wool scouring posts:
I’m often asked why we don’t do more shows. My wooly ones, we want to! We plan to! We are applying to! But it often comes down to time. As you all know, both the shipping Wombat and I work full time (and then some…) jobs and then we come home to work on things in the store. We work around conferences and work travel.
That means we choose our shows very carefully. We choose them to maximize our contact with you all as best we can. And we are slowly but surely building the number of shows that we do.
Next up is the Maryland Alpaca and Fleece Festival on November 11-12 at the Howard County Fairgrounds, and we thought we’d give you a sneak peak into what it takes to prepare for a show
First, of course we select all the goodies we bring. I normally build a spreadsheet so we can check everything off as it goes into the truck, selecting just the right fleeces and variety of things to bring with us. I pick tools, books, and fibers; we decide on what special feature we will have for the show. Sometimes we assemble a special sampler – available only for that show; other times we feature a specific sale. We make sure any special goodies have arrived whether its wheel oil pens or sheepy measuring tapes. This normally takes place a month or two in advance, especially if we need to order anything.
Next we stage everything. Did we bring enough? (Answer: almost never.) What are we missing? Luckily for Maryland Alpaca we’re close enough that we can bring more on Day Two – or even Day 1 if set up proves that we may be short on something exciting. Did I forget the shetland? What did I do with the power cord? We even have a bin dedicated solely to admin with power cords, and zip ties, and energy bars! I always stage the weekend prior to make sure I have time to look at everything and make changes.
Then we pack the truck. My friends, I think I could pack a flock of sheep into my truck with all its nooks and crannies, and yet we are always over stuffed and in need of more packing space. Luckily, for Maryland Alpaca we can use two cars – but for PLY away and the farther shows we only get one and we must pack wisely. Vacuum bags and laundry bags are a space saver I appreciate dearly. We can get over 100 fleeces in the car in addition to tables and cubes, and books and tools that way! Packing happens the day before we leave for the show. It allows us to get an early start and not feel rushed.
Driving to the show for set up is always fun – I once spent 16 hours holding a bag of wool with my head so it didn’t slide into the driver’s lap! But once we arrive we set up. We’re pretty good at getting ourselves set up. Every vendor I know has their own special way of setting up – some pile everything in the middle, some put away their walls whole! As you know, we are known for our Wall of Fleece. And shows always feature our Traveling Wall of Fleece! It’s just like walking into the store – only smaller and tailored to the show we are at. Sometimes, we feature only American Heritage breeds when we are at a Colonial Farm. Other times we bring one (or more) of everything!
The Shipping Wombat assembles all the cubes and tables while I ready the fibers and stuff cubes. Then we attack everything so you all see what you love – do we have combs? Why yes! Cards? Yup! Spindles? Of course – care to try one? Scour? We do! Some sources say we hold the booth set up record, I don’t know about that but I know the fastest we’ve done it is 2 hours. We are a well oiled machine. Mostly we like to keep our set up/break down time efficient – we want to get to you all arriving for the show!
After that the fun begins: Several days of very early mornings, and late nights as we welcome our wooly friends to huff our fabulous fumes. (I swear, shetland smells like crayons!) Answering questions and inviting you to fondle fibers. Packing your baggies of goodness. Exploring combs and cards. Comparing the merits of different washes and scours. This is the best part. Seeing all of you!
When the show is over, we do it all in reverse. Depending on the show, break down can happen in as little as 45 minutes but it usually takes about 3 hours – re-stuffing fleece in vacuum bags is a wee bit tricker if we have no room for the vacuum. Then we head home, empty the truck. Pick up some BBQ. (It’s true – our post show guilty pleasure is BBQ! Meats, slaw, corn bread, beans, collards and a tall cold beer. Oh yeah…..) Catch up on the paperwork. And at some point, put everything back where it normally goes!
So there it is. A little snapshot of our show prep. I’m sure we missed many things. But don’t let us miss you at Maryland Alpaca!
This spring prior to PLY AWAY 2017 I got what I thought was a normal message from Abby Franquemont, who was in need of some fiber for her upcoming PLY Away class, a 3 day intensive on Andean Backstrap Weaving from raw fleece to woven object. She wanted normal, run of the mill fleeces of a medium type; not too long, not too soft, not too coarse, nothing really specific. Basically, she wanted “sheep’s wool” of the type any random farmer in any random place might have in their flock. I hmmmm’d a bit and came up with a few good options. But then the zinger: “Oh, and I want the flaw-iest, crappiest fleece you have.”
Teachers often ask me if I have flawed fleeces for class demonstrations, so I figured I knew where this was going. But it was oh so much better. Abby’s intention was to show her students that a flawed fleece could not simply be composted as waste – people have to be able to USE these fleeces no matter what. Handspinners do not all have the luxury of pristine gorgeous fleece with which to work.
So I gave her a southdown fleece I had. Actually, I gave her the choice between two I had. Meat sheep already have a terrible reputation – however unfair that is, and this one was utterly hated by the shepherd who sent them to me, so much so I had to talk him into sending it. He should be happy I did, because I need these fleeces sometimes too! They had every single flaw in the book, but one of them was way worse than the other: it was utterly filthy – I think the sheep liked to mud bathe; it had canary stain; it had yolk; it had cotted tips; it had staple breaks mid way down it’s desperately short 1.5” staple; it had VM enough to make a barn. On top of all this it was very greasy and had tarry tips! Honestly, it was one of those fleeces that make a person cringe in agony, sigh, and toss it in the compost heap (or around the hydrangeas). Abby squealed with glee at the sight of the really nasty one and snatched it up in a hot second. Bystanders were confused by her excitement over its utter horrificness.
The Chosen Fleece is ideal as a teaching moment. With all those flaws a teacher gets to go over all the reasons why someone would say “don’t buy that and tell the shepherd/seller why it’s garbage and why they are horrible people for putting it out there because you can never spin it because of all the reasons.” Here I am back, and my opening post will be loaded with controversy!
I’ve heard them all:
There’s a break so it cannot be spun; it can and to great result.
There’s staining so you can’t spin it; you can and it will be yellow – or you will overdye it.
There’s stain so it will dissolve in your hands; not necessarily, see 1 and 2.
It’s filthy so it’s not worth spinning; cold water and a few hours works wonders – even on mating dye – spin away!
It’s got cotted tips, you can’t spin that; they mostly card off in processing, see 1.
there’s so much VM; it shakes out most of the way once it’s clean and the rest spins out. Plus, I hope you clean your floors sometimes, this will clean up nicely when you do that.
Knowing that flaws do not doom a fleece to the compost heap of woolens, and eager to see how her students felt, naturally, I asked Abby if she’d mind letting me know how the students fared and their impressions. As with so many things, Abby outdid herself. She didn’t tell me, instead, she sent one of her students to my booth.
Cat Ellen was filled with excitement, spinning a spindle full of buttery singles. She said to me. “Abby said I had to come show you this. It’s yarn I made from that horrible fleece! And you know what? All we did was cold soak it!” She handed me this amazing ball of buttery yellow yarn – and showed me the weaving she was working on with it. “I didn’t realize Abby was doing natural dyeing in class too?” “She didn’t! It just blended that way!” So I decided to meet up with her after PLY Away and talk with her about her experience. Note: Cat’s photos are used in this blog with permission. You can and should read her blog story on the bigger project here.
Alison: If you had ever seen such a fleece – what did you think about fleeces like that before Abby’s class? I believe Abby shared that this fleece had absolutely every flaw in the book: canary stain, yolking, staple breaks, really short staples, cotted tips – you name it, it was in there. Have you ever worked with a fleece with any of these flaws, let alone all of them? If you had, what was your experience? (I hope there’s a picture of the fleece out of the bag in all it’s “glory” – if not, the “not as horrible” fleece above will have to suffice.)
Cat: I have never seen anything like this. I’d never really even wondered what you would do with a fleece that had every undesirable quality possible. Up until this class, I didn’t ever work with wool in the grease or enjoy processing wool. I preferred “spin ready” materials.
Alison: I understand that you had to sort the fleece, soak it in cold water (no scour!), and process it like any other fleece for spinning. What were your impressions when you worked with the fleece in class?
Cat: Since I thought the assignment was to cold-water process the wool before class the third day, I set the wool to soak in our hotel sink while we went to dinner. Afterwards, it probably took about 20+ minutes to finish running the rinse water until it ran clear. The first soak water was a deep brown at the beginning.
I set out a hotel hand-towel on the desk, held the hotel hair dryer in my teeth (holding the rubberized loop that hangs the dryer on a hook), and used the lowest setting help blow the dirt particles out of the wool while I opened the locks and pulled out the vegetable matter. The photos of the effort really show how dirty the wool was, even after the water ran clear.
Alison: Once it was carded and spun, and you wove with it, – a process markedly more demanding than knitting or crocheting on a yarn – could you tell it was from a such a flawed source?
First note: It wasn’t carded or combed. I spun it directly from the clean locks, with almost no pre-drafting. And so far I’ve only completed spinning the singles and dyeing the wool. I still need to ply the yarn (high-twist) to prepare to measure out a warp for an Andean Backstrap.
I don’t think that anyone would ever notice that this wool was not originally a great fleece. The yarns from the “problem fleece” compared to the white locks (in the grease) look remarkably similar when spun up. And I had a gut feeling this wool would take dye beautifully.
I started spinning the “problem fleece” first, just in case it took longer to work with. I had to watch carefully for the second cuts and breaks. I spun directly from the wool without combing or carding. I started to really get into a rhythm with the wool. After a while, I could see how you would never want to throw out any fleece, because all it might need is some extra loving care.
Alison: Was it any more/less work to process this fleece than a pristine one?
Cat: While it was weird at first to try to use a stained, dirty, plant-filled fleece, I began to really adore this wool. I kept imagining what the sheep might be like, what it might have suffered to have vitamin deficiencies and dirty hair. Once you discount the dust and dirt, the biggest difference between the “problem fleece” and the other two samples was that this one had very little lanolin. Since I have never been enamored of wool-in-the-grease, part of me liked this wool better for being less greasy. Yes, the white and brown/grey locks seems long and luxurious in comparison, and they slid neatly past each other in the grease. But this wool just didn’t want to give up.
At first it was a little hard to deal with the locks, I think because I didn’t comb or card it and just spun it from the lock. But, once I got used to them, it got easier to spin confidently. The finished yarn seems *very* solid and dependable and I trust it as a 2 ply high twist warp yarn.
Alison: Now that you’ve worked with a fleece that we spinners might consider “garbage” – what are your thoughts? Did it change your mind?
Cat: You would never know that the deep pink yarn was ever a “problem” fleece originally. And I’m truly looking forward to plying up the high-twist yarn used in Andean Backstrap Weaving. I can see know why the elders in the village were concerned that the children learn to spin early. Because once you’ve started making yarn for your weaving, it is really hard to stop spinning everywhere, all the time. And with the right love, any fleece could possibly be awesome.
Alison: Thanks, Cat! I’m glad you had fun with it – and discovered that “any fleece could be awesome”!
It’s so true: Any fleece could be awesome. Even the apparently sketchy ones have so very much to give in terms of pleasure and reward. Flaws are not an automatic death sentence for a fleece and they should not be considered so. They do need to be understood and loved. But never just dismiss them as unspinnable or trash and demand recompense, trashing the reputation of seller or shepherd in the process.
So there I was, wandering the aisles and reviewing fleeces at the Fleece sale. I wasn’t shopping for me, no I was not! I was shopping for the store. I was also training some new wool buyers.
See, I like the fleece sale. It’s a really great opportunity for me to expand my shepherds list for fleeces. The sale lets me evaluate fleeces honestly and anonymously with my shipping Wombat and whoever else I bring with me without the hazards of having a shepherd lurking at my shoulder getting bristly, worried, or upset at my critiques.
It has happened before when I’ve evaluated a shepherd’s fleeces against breed standard. I get that, all their fleeces are important to them and maybe Sally-Ewe had a rough lambing or was tormented by an obnoxious barn cat. But Sally-Ewe’s fleece is not breed standard. It was too short, didn’t have the right crimp, or it had unacceptable flaws. Perhaps it was horribly filthy; while I’m super supportive of 4H’rs that’s not going to get me to buy a fleece filled from tip to butt end with pulverized – *what* is *that*? As for that one, well, it may be an otherwise lovely merino, but I am quite sure that fleece had both scurf AND canary stain (and since it’s hard to see scurf in the grease that’s a shocker!). This one is really old and her fleece is, well, more kemp than wool now. Yes, your shetland may have a very fine micron count for the thel, but it’s still a dual coated breed – it’ll never be a fine wool. And also, by the way, Sally-Ewe’s fleece just wasn’t worth $100/#.* A little realism here. I will pay you fairly – but neither I nor anyone else should be gouged. I think I’ll pass.
See, I really need all my fleeces to reflect the characteristics of the breed’s wool accurately and appealingly. Sometimes my choices are limited but I can’t evaluate a Scottish Blackface using the standard for merino. The fleece sale, therefore, is perfect for evaluating a shepherd’s work as exhibited in fleece. I can see if a shepherd knows their standard, cares for the nutrition and land, is more focused on a spinner’s flock or the promotion of the breed. I can tell very quickly if I want to call them on the phone and ask for more, directly, at the time of shearing – or even reserve fleeces on the hoof. Many times after a sale I have gone out of my way to go go to the farm and meet with the shepherds. And reserve I do, my friends, reserve I do!
Back to this year’s MDSW….
So I’m wandering through the sale on Sunday, while my fleece buying trainees were in the skirting demonstration. My Wombat and I are exploring everything Saturday left and turned over looking for gems – and some more Shetland fleeces, which after PLY Away I was desperately in need of. Again.
Then I saw it. Ok, I saw THEM.
A gorgeous silvery-pearlescent fine wool fleece from a breed I strongly dislike(™). The staple length was good – slightly shorter than I’d like, but that color! The fleece was uncoated, but not egregiously unclean, just a slight bit of very large bits of straw and hay from the sheep lying down right before shearing – and that color! The staple was sound and pinged like a guitar string – and that color! The weight was good – and that color! The price was good – and that color! Obviously I must hold this for a bit to make a decision.
But then I saw it. Slightly further down the table….
A slightly darker, pewtery-pearl fleece from the same flock. An even better color. With even better staple. With even better length. With even cleaner fleece (perhaps this sheep didn’t lounge like its fellow). Even slightly bigger. And at the same good price. It’s beautiful. It’s got a stripe!
WHAT DO I DO?!?!?!?! I need two of these fleeces like I need a hole in the head. Right?
No really… right? I mean surely…. I have to make a decision. I can’t get them both. Right?
The Shipping Wombat is summoned. “Honey should I?” “Well,” says he, “we could use a colored one on the site. You know we need that. But I don’t think we need two.” BUT BUT BUT…. “BUT WHICH ONE?!?!”
I call for help from a trusted favorite shepherd friend. “Well, this one is prettier, but this one will photograph better – and really, it’s just as pretty. This is so subjective, Alison But if it were me, I’d chose…..” and she picked a fleece.
WHAT DO I DO?!?! Well, if you’re me and certain other fleece-meisters you get both. Right?
Well, I didn’t get both. I exhibited what is a rare and unusual amount of self control. Clearly I need I doctor. I did get one of them though – you didn’t think I was going to NOT get one of them did you? I’m sick, but I’m not THAT sick. Sheesh. Course, now I’m kicking myself for not getting both, but that’s what happens when I second guess. Never second guess. Never.
AND THEN! AND THEN! AND THEN!
I found this AMAZING Karakul fleece. I know I know – what can be amazing about Karakul? It’s so coarse and it’s just for rugs right? No my darlings. No. And this one I was secretly hoping was amazing. It seemed a bit disheveled. Was it tangled? Is this the undercoat – or is it a bit felted at the butt end? I had to find out.
I begged, I pleaded – actually I just asked. I needed to see the fleece open to make sure my instinct was right so I asked the fabulous ladies (YOU GUYS ROCK) at the fleece sale if I could open it up to check a few things. I wanted the fleece – but needed to be SURE. We barely started to unroll it when I confirmed this miracle. No wonder it seemed tangled. LOOK AT THE STAPLE LENGTH! “Surely it’s more than 18 months growth, right?” one of us asked. “Where is it from?” asked another. “California, and it’s clean and dry – I bet they just let it loose in some pasturelands,” I said. “It reminds me of the way it looks when they are allowed to shift their grazing naturally, with the seasons.” I have never seen a Karakul fleece like it. And the staple is as long as my forearm. No. Really. That’s my arm there.
And is that? Why yes! It’s THEL – there is an undercoat on this bad boy! A delicious, soft, yummy undercoat. And the outer coat. My friends, my own hair isn’t as silky soft as this Karakul.
I think we may have a fight on our hands…..
*Disclaimer: Names and dollar events have been fictionalized – and I haven’t encountered all these things in a single fleece – but the inspiring events were real.
The Spinning Loft prides itself on having as many breeds of sheep in stock as we can in the form of wool and fleece for our clients and we generally have more than 50 unique breeds in a combination of prepared fiber and raw fleece (at time of writing we have 56). We also carry samplers consisting of 2 oz of a variety of breeds themed according to the sampler.
Aside from catering to the need to Spin all the Woolz, well we do it for breed study of course! Breed study is really all about knowing what works for any type of project. This happens through experience an experience comes from sampling: sampling different wool types, sampling the wool of different breeds of sheep, sampling different preparations. Breed study allows a spinner to experience a wide variety of wools, it teaches us about how they act, what they might be used for and the effects that can be created with different wool types.
Does a wool like lace? Cables? Textured effects? Does it work better worsted? Woolen? Perhaps it likes a preparation somewhere along the continuum of semi worsted or semi woolen? Would it like to be knitted? Crocheted or woven? Does it drape? Is it durable? Is it springy?
All of these factors – and more – affect your spinning and your finished object and sampling helps you to decide what wool to use for a particular project. It also helps inform decisions about what types of wool a spinner might prefer to spin. It is well known, for example, that I do not enjoy merino as much as I enjoy Bond or Polwarth. Initially, I thought this was odd – both Bond and Polwarth are very similar to merino in many ways. But I learned through breedy study that I prefer the hand of the other two over merino, without sacrificing the softness, loft, spring and drape of merino.
We stock every breed we can find so that you can find exactly the wool you want to spin – and you don’t have to buy a whole fleece to do it.
Ok, but what do you do with it?
Sure, you are thinking, 2 oz samples (or even 4 oz samples) of 10 different breeds is great – but what do I do with all those tiny skeins?
I will be having a whole blog post coming up about what to do with 2 and 4 oz bits, and those projects are not limited to breedy study, but in the meantime I want to share what my “breed study” project is. Because when I set out I decided I wanted to dedicate a project to my sampling, something that showcased sheep breeds in all their glory and natural colors. Because, well, I wanted to *do* something with all those samples!
It’s obviously ongoing, and thus will take forever to finish – if I ever can call it finished! But it’s still such fun.
It’s a simple stole in a simple pattern. After I sample my swatches – whatever yarn is left is added to my stole. I suppose when I get to my desired length I will probably cast on new stitches alongside to add another panel and turn it into a lap blanket or a ruana!
You said the “s” word! I don’t like the “s” word!
I did. I did say the “s” word. But don’t turn away in horror! Sampling is actually pretty darn awesome.
When I began my breed study, I only created two samples of each breed. I prepared them in the ‘traditional’ way for each fiber type, combed for longwools, carded for down, flicked for fine wools (mostly) and I did a singles yarn, a 2 ply yarn and a 3 ply yarn. I used the 2 ply to make a lace swatch and the 3 ply to make a stockinette swatch. I used the same pattern and the same size needles – and the same wheel and whorl settings. I do this just to make everything uniform and compare only the wools themselves.
I have since gone back and made other swatches from the earlier samples because as I went on, I found that those weren’t enough. What about lace on a 3 ply? Why not card that longwool? Why shouldn’t I comb the down breed? After all, breed study is about learning about how wools behave and what I like about them. I need to try all the woolz in all the wayz! I still use the same needles and lace pattern though.
Ok so, I got carried away there. But that’s just it – that’s the excitement of breed study! Four breeds led to eight, then twelve, and somewhere along the way I found myself with 104 (and counting) and a whole lot of tiny skeins. All my sampling led me to so many revelations – so much fun and adventure. I just wanted to do more and more and more of it.
Oh sure – how can fiber be an adventure? It’s an exploration of geography – where in heck is Borerary? It’s an exploration of history – wait, the vikings used Gammelnorsk Sau for their sails?! Gotta get me some (and I did). Woodrow Wilson put shetlands with an attitude on the White House lawn?! Why yes! It even suggested culinary exploration (they do taste different!).
But wait, there’s more!
Sometimes I don’t want to do what the fiber tells me to do – I just want to spin for the joy of it. And sampling helped me do that too. Trying to spin a fiber that is prepped in a way that it fights me while spinning used to lead me to hate that breed. But then I realized – what if I change it? Now I can enjoy spinning ALL the breeds because of what I learned sampling. Picking up a coarse fiber still makes me happy because I learned what it liked. Picking up merino can also make my day now – yes, even merino.
And just spending time spinning a few ounces makes my day too. Sometimes I don’t have time to spin a whole 4 or 8 ounces, and who am I kidding, I love to finish a whole bump of wool all in one go. But knocking out 2…. Well, that’s a sanity check in a tiny wooly bag!
I’m sold – where do I start?
Buy all the woolz!
Ok, seriously. You can start with samplers. Or you can choose 4 fibers of different fiber types. Or you can start at the beginning (or end) of the alphabet. Or you can pick up a few ounces of every breed in stock somewhere. Or …. oh heck, the possibilities are endless. But I do recommend keeping a list. Otherwise, how will you know if you spun Zwartbles or Hebridean? Gulf Coast or Gammelnorsk Spelsau? What if you see a breed and you think you spun it but aren’t sure? Well, you could do what I do and pick up 4-8 ounces anyway.
All this in a tiny bit of woolen fluff. After all, wool is wonderful! Well, I do still keep a list.
When I began this journey of fiber exploration, I did not intend to dive into the realm of breed study – or even to become a wool merchant! I began as a way to de-stress and provide an outlet for some creative juices, to do something with my hands to take my mind of something less appealing. In short, I began in a way many others do. And I began knitting; I didn’t take up spinning until later – because I couldn’t find the yarn I wanted and because it appealed to my sense of history.
When I discovered different breeds, a whole new world opened up to me (more on that later this year) but I soon found myself unable to get ALL the breeds. I had books about the wools from so many breeds – I began with Fournier – and I couldn’t find some of them. So I started talking to shepherds instead. Along the way, I discovered things about the wool from the shepherds that is either not commonly shared or may be commonly ignored by the general spinning public; particularly the spinning public that does not work from raw fleece quite so much.
This blog post honors some of the things I have learned from my precious and appreciated shepherds. It began as “an interview with a shepherd” – or rather, shepherds. I have asked many shepherds many questions, but they all ultimately have similar things to say. Some of these things I have touched upon before, some of these things are talked about by multiple people, and some of these things really get the shepherds on a tirade.
Without further ado, this is some of what my shepherds have taught me.
Most of my shepherds don’t know their wool is worth selling
No, it’s true. They really don’t know that people love to spin the wool from their sheep. Most only have contact with the wool pool and the wool pool pays them so little. It is especially true of shepherds raising what are considered meat sheep – breeds like Suffolk, Oxford and Southdown, or Clun Forest. Some shepherds choose not to raise wonderful breeds like Leicester Longwool because they take too long to reach a market (for meat) age. And some, like Icelandic or Shetland, because they are so small they don’t fetch enough money for meat.
When they learn about spinners they get excited – and sometimes have a bad experience because of our proclivity for longer staples or pristine wool. One shepherd I work with – especially for some of the meat breeds – was so excited to work with us because we could field those questions and give him another outlet for his sheep – and pay the shearer – while letting him get on with what he loved: raising his sheep.
Fleece is a byproduct – and most of us think it’s garbage
This lesson is a partner to the previous one. I know this statement hurts me to the very cockles of my being and it probably makes all of you cringe, but it’s still true. Shepherds raise sheep for meat – or for breeding stock. Sometimes a quality ram is worth its weight in, er, you know what I mean. Some of the shepherds have also learned they can get a couple month’s feed or help pay the shearer with what they make from the sale of fleece to handspinners. But ultimately, wool is not making them rich. If they are lucky, the added income stream helps them to pay the bills.
If a shepherd develops a relationship with various sources, such as The Spinning Loft, we are able to work with them, give feedback on the fleece, and get better fleece over time – and pay the shepherd a fair price for their labor and efforts. And, as quality goes up, so do their costs and the cost of that wool. It costs a LOT of money to raise sheep – money for vet bills, barns, feed, equipment, shearers (even meat stock has to be shorn before harvest!) – and they don’t get nearly enough money from the sale of the wool to cover those expenses. And that doesn’t include their mortgages, farm equipment, electric and water bills, food for their tables, etc.
I recently posted an excellent article about this subject in the UK, and it’s no different (if not worse) here, in a place where eating lamb is exotic and mutton all but unknown. Almost all the clips from the large and medium flocks are bought by large mills for things like Pendleton blankets, Patagonia, etc. and they are paid pennies for their pounds of fleece. Whatever doesn’t sell still goes to the compost heap or the trash. Now, as a spinner you’re thinking “oh yes pennies please!” but that’s such a disservice to our wonderful shepherds. I remind you – they lose thousands of dollars on the wool and like you and I, they deserve to earn a living, put food on the table and send their children to school.
Coating is a misery
As spinners, we all love a pristine fleece in gorgeous condition with nothing to remove. Such fleeces lend themselves to our impulsiveness, our desire and our need to just dive into some glorious wool. But coating is not without its problems.
Sheep already have coats: their fleeces! Adding another layer can put added stress on the sheep that produce the wool we love. They can get overheated, they can get caught in scrub and become easy pickings for predators while in the field, the coats can actually damage the fleece by felting the tips – or by trapping grease and sweat and causing sores. Coating can even stress a sheep who doesn’t like the coat so much it affects their health causes a break in the fleece. Coating is also prohibitively expensive for most of them. Those coats are not cheap and they have to be changed as the fleece grows – sometimes every month or so. That’s a lot of coats! To save money many shepherds make their coats – which adds the burden of time at a sewing machine to their already long days and these are shepherds, not seamstresses or tailors. Coating adds a ton of money to the cost of your fleece – money spinners prefer to spend on wool.
Sheep live in fields and barns, VM and dirt comes with the territory
It’s uncanny – not a single one of my shepherds has failed to mention this when I have asked them “what they wish spinners knew”. Some of them have even spent HOURS decrying this trend against VM and dirt. They understand – really, they do. They know that a cleaner fleece is easier on us. They know a cleaner fleece commands a higher price. “But don’t they understand?” my shepherds cry, “The sheep live in fields – they don’t shower and change their clothes each day, throwing yesterday’s in the wash!” And it’s true. Sheep lie in the grass or dirt. Sheep wander through brush and scrub and trees. Sheep don’t mind standing in the rain – and snuggling down in the warm compost heap. Some sheep even have long locks designed to shed the water from that rain – which then can drag through more sloppy ground
Sheep who also live in barns tend to be dirtier, though they are also less likely to cot or felt thanks to less weather exposure. But on the flip side, they like to eat hay underneath or above their flock mates – and boy are sheep messy eaters! They always wind up with bits of hay and straw in their necks, and backs; if only they’d learn to use a fork.
Shepherds must care for the land on which they keep their sheep – making sure that it provides them with nutrients and safety. They often struggle to remove burdock and other prickly shrubberies from their sheepfolds. Quality environment leads to healthy sheep and quality fleece and that is far more important than the dirt we can not only wash off of ourselves, but off of our wool. We must accept that all fleece is not pristine.
Please don’t ask us for just a small amount from this spot on a fleece
This one really gets their goat. Imagine, kind spinners, if after you worked so hard to produce a beautiful skein of yarn someone wanted to buy that yarn. You are overjoyed. The skein is lovely and you are happy someone wants it. You toiled for a nice even yarn, something smooth and consistent – or maybe you toiled for the perfect art yarn, filled with bobbles, eyelash or beads. It took many hours of careful scouring, lock by lock, followed by many hours of careful combing or carding. And then even more hours of spinning and plying. Perhaps somewhere in there you also dyed your fiber. Perhaps you achieved 1000 yards from your small amount of fiber or perhaps it’s the most poofy lovely DK weight – destined for a cabled hat and mittens. You are so happy! You worked so hard and your toil has paid off.
But wait – what is this? The buyer only wants this particular 3 yard stretch from the middle of your skein for some fair isle work? Would you please cut that part out and sell it instead? And incidentally, your family wants dinner, other customers are scrabbling for your attention, your wheel is squeaky and wants to throw its driveband (you were hoping this sale would help you get it overhauled by the maker this month). But alas, your buyer says you should just cut that part out because they insist it’s the right thing to do. No my spinner friends, it is not. There are people the shepherd works with to achieve this. If you really want only a couple pounds, go in on the fleece with some friends and share it or contact a retailer who sells in smaller quantities.
Our shearers are underpaid and overworked – and they skirt.
Oh our wonderful unsung heroes! Shearers are a dying breed. There are a handful of them throughout the US (and world, really). All of them travel during shearing season from one flock to the next shearing hundreds or thousands of head a year and spending weeks and months on the road away from home. They charge by the head, and hope this charge pays for their truck, their hotels, their gas, their equipment, maintenance, and all the other bills you and I have as well. Shepherds book them months in advance and they stick to their schedules. They are not on call – and some, like those who shear with scissors, are a rarer breed still. Shearing is hard work – the sheep are heavy, they spend hours at a time hunched over a flock, one sheep after another on uncomfortable ground. While they shear, if they have an agreement with the shepherds, they trim hooves (yes, that’s an add on). Shepherds and shearers work together – the shearer can see various conditions when they shear. Perhaps there’s a clump of dandruff, or a break in the fleece, the shearer can spot these and notify the shepherd.
If you want to anger a shearer ask them to skirt more carefully. I had a lovely discussion with a local shearer who works with one of my shepherds. We had planned the interview and I was clear up front that I was hoping to learn and share with my fellows so as not to offend. I was glad that I did. As I mentioned in my last blog post – shearers already skirt. They do it with the hand not wielding the blades and the shearer I interviewed said that it was the most offensive question he gets asked. He said it was akin to someone questioning the quality of our work – and no one likes that. Shearers “work hard,” he said, “to shear fleeces cleanly and efficiently for the shepherds; and to make those fleeces usable if desired – and that means skirting.” He also said he appreciates it when the shepherds disclose that they have a spinners’ flock – they can schedule more shearings that day, adjust timing, or even ask if several flocks nearby can be brought together for a shearing – but it doesn’t change how he shears. “The shepherds,” he emphasized, “won’t have me back if I don’t do a good job. A shearer must shear cleanly, efficiently, with the fewest possible number of blows (a blow is the pass they take with the blades to shear the wool off). Having to go back over a fleece, creating what you call second cuts, slows us down and risks wriggling sheep or wasted wool. And my family needs to eat; doing a good job is how I feed them.”
Speaking of shearing – nicks happen and the sheep don’t notice
This one was totally logical – and yet surprising. The first time I saw a sheep sheared at a shearing with one of my shepherds, the ewe squirmed at a delicate moment and the shearer accidentally nicked her butt. Naturally, I asked my shepherd about it and her young son answered my question, “Oh they don’t feel that – it’s no big deal. It wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t squirm just then.”
My shepherd confirmed it and explained. As prey animals, sheep have developed limited nerve endings in their skin. Unlike you or I, they don’t react with a sharp hiss and recoil in pain when they get nicked. And just like when we shave ourselves, nicks, though unusual, do happen. There’s a special antibiotic/antibacterial liquid that the shepherds use when it happens, and the shearers always feel terrible. But it really is no big deal and the sheep never notice.
And what about the stress, you might wonder. Well, most animals object when they are rolled over – at least until they get all the way over. It’s just really awkward for them in the process. All that struggling ends when the sheep are on their butts and relaxed, like a dog getting its belly rubbed – and it’s all just a temper tantrum anyway. The sheep aren’t hurt, tormented, stressed or disturbed any more than your 2 year old at her first hair cut.
Sheep need shearing – unless the breed is feral, the gene that allows them to roo (shed their fleece like a dog or cat or rabbit blows its coat) has been bred out and they rely upon us for their hair cuts. Remember that: sheep rely on us for their health. Part of that health includes shearing. Besides, we want that wool for spinning!
We raise sheep because we love them – the money comes from the meat
If you love sheep, eat lamb AND use the wool. Our shepherds love their flocks. They find them rewarding and want to maintain their shepherding lives. But they make more money from selling their sheep for meat – and that includes the very low prices they get. I wondered at this myself given the price of lamb in the supermarket until I learned that almost all our lamb is imported from Australia or New Zealand, with Iceland a close third. Now, I love all three nations – and I appreciate their products – but there are hundreds of local shepherds who have lamb that doesn’t need a freezer transport and a plane ticket.
I know many of us would say “if you love your sheep don’t kill them!” but the truth is that ewes have many purposes, and rams do not. Many spinners don’t like ram fleeces – sometimes they are coarser, they are often larger, and sometimes they have a “rammy” smell that takes a bit more attention to remove in scouring. And, the older a sheep gets, the coarser its fleece gets.
I learned from several shepherds that too many rams in a flock are not only dangerous to the shepherd, but to the ewes and lambs as well. A ram that wants to mate can easily kill a lamb to gain access to a ewe, so they are frequently kept separately from the ewes. But too much testosterone in one place leads to rams attacking each other and fighting for dominance. One of my Jacob shepherds reported finding a pair of valued rams in his field after such a fight, one had not survived while the other was severely injured and required significant veterinary care. A shetland shepherd I work with reported a ram attacking her every time she separated him from the ewes! All that mating has some other effects as well: on several occasions after observing a much larger flock than usual or intended, I have been told of “accidental lambs.” A ram can mate with an ewe who shouldn’t raise a lamb that year, or who is too young, and the shepherds don’t always know that it has happened until it’s too late. “What about wethering?” I asked. Well, it seems that wethering is not the best solution either. Sometimes the wethers are attacked and bitten by other rams. And unless that wether has an extremely lucrative fleece or companion purpose, he’s just eating.
I also learned that just as different breeds of sheep have different types of wool, different breeds of sheep taste differently! Tunis really does taste better than Merino or Corriedale or Suffolk. So does Icelandic. And Katahdin is quite different than Tunis. Who knew?
Breed standard length – well, that’s not necessarily what I can get in a year
This one was revelatory for me. An inch is an inch is an inch right? A year’s growth is the breed standard right? Well, sort of. Long wools grow their wool faster in a shorter time, reaching a reasonable breed standard in 6-8 months instead of a year. But meat breeds take longer. Finer staples with super crimp are slower too. All that crimp we love makes the fleece take longer to reach it’s length; too many sharp turns – like the Col du Chaussy in the 2015 Tour de France!
And what may be a year’s growth – well, that may not be in the best interest of the sheep. A year’s growth on a Teeswater might well be 10-12” but letting a Teeswater go for a year frequently results in felted fleece, or causes the sheep to overheat, particularly in the tropical weather of the mid Atlantic and south east, so the shepherds shear twice a year. Keeping a Merino going for a full year can create issues in the skin folds and disguise fly strike, so maybe they are shorn every 8 months instead. And sometimes a bad winter or hot humid summer threatens the well being of the sheep and the shepherd doesn’t shear or keeps a fleece shorter to save the sheep.
My shepherds have taught me so much – this is really just the tip of the iceberg. The more I learn from them, the more I love the wool their sheep make – and appreciate them. They live in the best interests of their flocks – and that results in the best interest of my spinning. I have learned that sometimes that means *I* have to work harder – so that *they* can keep bringing me the wool I love. It’s a fair trade.
How to skirt fleece – or, more aptly, what a skirted fleece looks like
I don’t know about you all but I hear this question – or concern – a lot: How do I pick a good fleece? How do I know if it was properly skirted?
Since we are in shearing season – and the fiber festival season is upon us – I thought I would revisit a few bits from the blog just to help frame a well skirted fleece. There are a great many sources out there on this subject, and while I have been hesitant to add my voice to the clamor, the subject does seem to keep coming up.
What is a good fleece?
A good fleece
is in good condition,
has the features I am looking for,
can be processed and spun, and
meets the needs of my project(s)
That’s all. Seriously. No, really, that’s all. Ok, surely there’s more to it, right? Well, no, and yes.
I decided to use a Santa Cruz fleece with 2 years’ growth to show some of the things you might find when looking at whole fleece. We have been working with this shepherd to get longer, nicer fleeces and she asked me to evaluate this fleece for her. It was one of a couple new sheep that she had added to her flock to help the blood lines – and because they have some better wool quality in their genetics. I had high hopes for it, but both the shepherd and I knew that with that much growth between shearings it was NOT a saleable fleece. And it’s not. But we both found it invaluable in the review.
Well, what does ‘good condition’ mean?
A fleece in good condition doesn’t have faults. It’s reasonably clean and has vegetable matter that is easily removed or not pulverized and distributed throughout the fleece. Faults are things that you either try to skirt out, or use to disqualify a fleece during judging. Ideally, such fleeces simply don’t enter the spinner’s radar – they aren’t brought to fleece sales, a shepherd doesn’t offer them, etc. A fleece in good condition has no canary stain, no breaks or tenderness, no cotting, no felting, and it has been reasonably well skirted. This is where we see the results of good skirting (and wonder about some of the not so good skirting).
But some of those faults aren’t necessarily a problem for us hand spinners like they are for mills.
Take my example fleece – rolled up it looks promising – and it has a 3.5” lock. On Santa Cruz! Unfortunately, once unrolled you can see how muddy this fleece was. It’s filthy and there is VM positively everywhere. Well, all is not lost – I can soak out dirt. I reskirted it a it so I could get to some representative locks from the fleece and test them for soundness. I took one from the neck/shoulder area, one from the blanket, and one from the back.
First things first, yolk – or yellowed lanolin – should not be confused with canary stain. Canary stain is is actually a parasitic infection in the body of the sheep that causes the fiber to stain yellow – the parasite actually feeds on the wool wax and attacks the sheep’s immune system. Since it’s a systemic infection, canary stain often results in a tender fleece. The break is usually at the yellow band and there’s not much you can do about it. Once scoured it’s gummy, won’t dye, and will probably break. This is a fault to avoid.
Yolk on the other hand is wool grease that may discolor to yellow. It does not damage the fleece, though it does tint it yellow, and can be overdyed. It may be more concentrated in spots but generally blends through the fleece in processing and lends a warm buttery or creamy tone. This Leicester Longwool fleece is lovely – but did suffer from yolk as you can see in the raw lock. I discovered it after scouring – which is usually when you discover this particular issue.
Next, we look for breaks or tenderness – just tug both ends of the lock and listen. If it thunks or you hear tearing, that is tender and should be avoided. If it pings like plucking a string on an instrument, it’s sound. No one wants a tender fleece. It mucks up the works in processing. But here’s the thing. This is one of those faults that can go either way on desirability. And it comes down to one question: Where is the break? Where the break is can determine if I can still use the fleece. If it’s in the middle of a 7” staple – that leaves me with a lot of staple to work with. I know that it means more pokey ends – but I can spin this fiber worsted, perhaps with a high twist and tuck them all in neatly and get a strong yarn. If it’s at the end of a 4” staple then I can cut, or process the break out of the locks and I still have a good length of fiber to work with. If it’s in a 2” staple – then I’ll probably compost that fleece if I didn’t find the break before I bought it, or I’ll avoid it entirely.
Our Santa Cruz fleece has a tender spot smack in the middle of the lock, as you can see in this photo. That is the big danger the shepherd is trying to work on. This sheep actually suffered stress mid growth. Not all the locks have this break, but the majority do so we suspect it was ill or the weather really affected the sheep. But while I had hoped I might be able to coax these locks to life – even with the break – the rest of the faults just make it impossible.
It made me sad – the shepherd is really trying to get me longer fleeces, but this sheep was a feral breed and she’s fighting nature quite a bit. Feral sheep roo – which means that nature creates a rise, and allows the sheep to shed it’s fleece by scraping it against trees and the like. Coaxing more length from this breed will probably mean not shearing each year – but as you can see, it’s a catch-22.
What about cotting?
Cotting usually happens at the tips and is a sign the fleece is felty. Basically what happened was that the tips of the fleece got muddy and tangled, trapped the dirt and mud in the fibers, and felted together. Tugging on them will pull the cotted ends right off the fleece. If the locks are long enough and the fleece is otherwise lovely this is not a deal breaker. Those tips generally break or can be cut off and the rest of the lock is quite lovely. I have used a fleece with cotted tips to great success. But this fleece has terribly cotted tips as you can see in this photo of the tip breaking off. And so much of the tip comes off, it renders the rest of the staple unusable.
Felting, which is a bit different than cotting, happens at the but end – or in the middle of the locks. It happens if the sheep has gone too long between shearings or if the sheep encountered crazy weather conditions – usually cold and wet or hot and humid. You want to let the sheep’s fleece protect the animal and sometimes the weather means that the fleece then suffers. If you can’t open the fleece locks without a significant struggle, it’s probably felted. You cannot spin a felted fleece – even after you clean it. But take special note – if you *can* separate the locks, the fiber is not felted, it just might have additional lanolin trapping dirt. A cold soak often helps these situations.
What about scurf? I’d like to say I have photos of scurf – but thankfully I don’t. Everyone goes crazy about scurf, but frequently they mistake dandruff for scurf. Scurf is caused by skin mites. A shepherd should be informed if there is scurf because scurf ultimately affects the health of the sheep. Scurf is painfully difficult to remove from a fleece. It’s also impossible to see BEFORE scouring as Beth Smith discovered with a really gorgeous BFL fleece. But, with a little work, and dedication, you might be able to remove it with careful combing if the fleece is otherwise worth it to you, as Deb Robson demonstrated. Seriously though, unless the fleece is amazing, one in a million, I’d probably not waste my time with a scurfy fleece.
Scurf, however, is not to be confused with dandruff, or even a roo or rise line. Dandruff on a sheep is the same as dandruff on you or me. It’s just flaky dry skin and it washes and processes right out.
A roo or rise line is a line of lanolin trapping dandruff on sheep that retain the gene for shedding their fleece naturally. It’s always at the butt end of the fleece and is an indicator of when that sheep is ready for shearing – or when it produces a natural break for the shepherd to peel the fleece off the sheep. You’ll see it frequently on the so called “primitive” or feral breeds such as Shetland, Icelandic, Herdwick, Santa Cruz, etc. This line also processes out easily – it just looks a bit scary.
What do you mean ‘features I am looking for’?
Well – a spinner has many things they might look for: softness, feltability, crimp, color, and suitability to intended purpose. With 1400 different sheep breeds out there, most of which have spinnable wool, you have a lot of options.
Wait – wuh? Spin for a purpose?
No, I did not try to slide that in there unnoticed. A spinner can choose a fleece for a specific purpose. Like “I want a fleece to a cable knit sweater” or “I want a fleece for a big lace shawl” or “I want fleece to make socks.” Each of these projects will lend themselves to particular wools and spinning methods. Some spinning methods don’t work with certain fleeces. For example, spinning a Southdown from combed top worsted sounds like torture to me – but it would be so wonderful and easy spun woolen from carded rolags for that cable sweater! Likewise the idea of carding my shiny Leicester Longwool seems like an excersize in hating a fleece – but if you comb that fleece for some drapey yarn for weaving or the like, you’ll be in heaven. If you just want a lovely fleece, then the all purpose breeds are appealing – Corriedale, Romney, Jacob, etc. and you should focus on condition.
Now that we’ve covered that….
What about that skirting?
Skirting is something I hear lots of comments about – what’s good skirting? What’s bad? Believe it or not the shearer does the most significant part of the skirting while shearing. The lower leg wool, the butt bits with the worst of the tags, the groin and belly wool all gets removed while shearing and these bits go straight to a compost heap – they don’t even come with the fleece for evaluation, grading, etc. All that happens the next round of skirting when the fleeces go on a skirting table.
That’s right: what happens at the skirting table is AFTER all the really gross nasty bits have already come off. Really. Unless a spinner is going to the shepherd to see the shearing process for themselves, they never really see the really gross parts. I’ve talked to shearers and I’ve talked to shepherds about this, and they all pull this stuff off before the fleece even goes to the skirting table. Spinners never see it.
The big exception to this are meat sheep. Sheep that are considered ‘unsuitable for wool production’ or which the shepherds think cannot be used for spinning tend to stop here and skip the skirting table. Assuming you can get your hands on these fleeces – and generally you cannot without a trip to the shepherd – they will still need some skirting. Significant skirting. When I get a meat sheep fleece in, I know it has skipped the skirting table. I do that work myself before it goes into quarantine. I may remove several pounds worth of wool before I even evaluate it.
The result of what happens on the skirting table is the round where spinners who prefer a pristine fleece find themselves frequently in lively discussion with those who don’t mind a little bit of rough. This is when the shepherd who wants to sell their fleece to spinners spread them out, shake and pick out the second cuts, large bits of vegetable matter (VM), stray tags, dags, tarry bits, etc. The fleece is picked over carefully – on both sides (cut and weather) – and then rolled for sale. Sometimes this is also when a fleece is divided (generally along the back line) if a fleece is being split for specific uses – the super fine fleece from the neck area which often goes for lace, for example, or the prime blanket from the sides going for sweaters.
The shearer rolls each fleece as it comes off the sheep and as he pulls the gross bits off. This is then unrolled on the skirting table – and if “solid” enough, shaken out like a lap blanket before it gets there. If not, and that’s generally more often the case, skirters will shake it on the table – much like shaking sheets onto a bed – to get all those bits out. These either drop to the ground or can be picked off by hand. Next you pick over the fleece to pull out more VM, remove the burrs, and check soundness in various places on the fleece. You take this time to also check the skirted edges to see if any more should be removed – remember, the shearer already got the really gross stuff. Now we are looking for whether or not the gross stuff encroached further than usual into the borders of the fleece. Once you’ve done that on one side, your flip the entire fleece over and do it again on the other side.
Once finished, you can be sure that what’s left is processable, spinnable and in good condition for sale to a hand spinner. Some things may slip through – bits of VM do tend to get stuck in the wool, especially on a fleece with dense floofy locks – but it is safe. You roll it back up, weigh it and label it.
That’s how skirting is done.
See? Super easy. No mystery. I’d say no muss no fuss – but the truth is, it’s pretty mussy and it’s also pretty fussy. It’s also why I prefer to consider the condition of the wool and the suitability of the fleece for my project over all other considerations.
Once you have your fleece it’s time to process it, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post!