How to Choose A Fleece

Fleece_wall2

First you buy a few fleeces, next you buy a fleece store…

It’s that time of year again and the fiber festivals are coming fast and furious.   While most of you prefer to handle only a few ounces of raw wool at a time, or prefer not to be led astray by the heady fumes, a few brave souls after my own heart might attempt to choose a whole one.  Or two.  Or three.  Or…….

Let me first say that you can, in fact, buy whole fleeces from The Spinning Loft at a discount off our retail offerings.  Please contact us if this is something of interest to you – as we want to make sure you get a fleece undivided by previous orders! If we do not currently have such a fleece in stock, we can often place a special order, usually around shearing season.  Outside of shearing season, that becomes more challenging.

For those willing to brave the fleece sale at a local festival, particularly for the first time, there are questions, conundrums and qualms.  What fleece?  How much?  How big?  How do I choose?  What makes it worth it?

shearing_AccokeekThis my fiendish fibery friends is what I hope to assist you with today.  As you may be aware, it is shearing time and that means we have been busily sourcing fleeces.  We have spent the better part of the last 2 months visiting shepherds, choosing sheep and fleeces, assisting in the skirting – even, in some cases, the actual shearing.  Through all this we have been carefully evaluating each fleece.

The major questions I ask when I buy a fleece are the following:

Do I really need it?

I know, what an absurd question! The answer is always “yes, of course!” But occasionally the saner wombat among us says “Alison, do we really need a billionth Shetland fleece?”  (This of course is a ridiculous question because as all the people know every Shetland is different!  unique!  scrumptious!)  The real question here is not “do we need” but….

Do I like the color?

Is it a naturally colored fleece?  Is it a creamy white?  Do I have 23 moorit (brown) fleeces of identical color?  Would I prefer that glorious silver one over there? OOH SHINY!

What is the purpose of the fleece?

Do I want to make a million pairs of socks?  Mittens?  a Cable sweater? A lacy shell?  A lap blanket?  These factors influence what fleece I would buy for my project.  Some wools like Romney can be found and used for pretty much anything, but some wools, like Cheviot, may not be suitable for that wool bikini you’ve been dreaming of.

What is the condition of the wool?

Really, this is the question everyone wants to know about.  I could ignore all the others and just cover this one and you’d all be happy right?

To decide if a fleece is sound, I take a lock of wool and examine it.   I look at the crimp – is it right for that breed?  I look at the color.  I’m not looking for the actual color of the wool mind you – since that can’t really be known until it’s scoured (grease hides all manner of lovely color) – but for possible staining.  Some stains, like yolk, which often results in a buttery tint to the finished yarn, or mating tag, which actually does wash out, do no harm to the wool but may affect how you handle either the washing process or the finished yarn.  Canary stain on the other hand, will likely weaken the fiber. I look for breaks.  I sound the lock – gripping each end between the thumb and index finger of each hand, I tug on the lock near my ear and listen to the sound it makes.  Does it sound like fabric tearing?  Does it ring like a struck piano wire?

The results of these examinations are seen in all the photos I post on the site – the measurements, the description, the lock photos

How does the fleece look in the bag?

Fleeces are rolled with the cut (butt) ends out so you can see the goodness through the bag.  Some festivals have space to allow you to open up a fleece, some don’t.  If you can’t, don’t go tearing through the bag – you will disrupt the fleece (more on that later).  What you can do though, is turn the bag about, take a look at all the parts you can see – is there any evidence of VM or dirtier locks?  Fleeces at a show are skirted and VM is picked off, but sometimes things are missed, and some shepherds are more vigorous with their skirting than others.  The nature of the VM is more important than its presence.  Sometimes the roll opening is on the top of the bag and you can get a look at the tip end of the fleece in that area by ever so very gently opening it just an inch or so.

How expensive is the fleece?

Most fleeces are priced by the shepherds at a festival, not the festival itself.  Shepherds compare prices with each other for their breeds, speak with their breed associations, talk to the state or county agricultural boards, and factor in the cost of feed, hay, vets, coating and shearing to assist them in setting their prices.  Prices vary across breeds and I have rarely encountered a price on a fleece that I thought was outrageous.  That said, the price should fall into a range you want to pay.

How large is the fleece?

This is dictated by the type of sheep of course, as well as how often it is sheared.  It should fall within the guidelines of the breed standard.  But it also needs to be manageable by the person who will process it.  I may have a burning desire for a 40 pound Lincoln fleece, or a desperate urge for a merino fleece the size of Shrek’s at 60 pounds, but can I handle a single fleece at that size?  (And do I want to pay mill fees if I don’t?)

Is it a rare breed?

Some people don’t care about this, but I do and I will explain why.

Buy our fleece, they're very nice and rare, too.

Mick, the Hog Island, says. “Buy our fleece, they’re very nice and rare, too.”

A rare fleece, or a fleece that while not rare, is difficult to find, may be dirtier than a more common one.  For these fleeces I will make exceptions to some of my fleece condition rules.  Not soundness, or breaks, those have to stay, but in how filthy the fleece is – how greasy, or dirty it appears, how much VM is present.  For some breeds, mere survival is the key and while the battle for mere survival is being fought, other factors must be set aside.

In the case of a fleece that is rare ‘here’ but ‘not endangered’ I will also make certain allowances.  If I have trouble getting it, and the only flaws are dirt, there is no reason not to get it.

Dirt washes out, and VM can be addressed – even some of the more pulverized stuff.  I may not recommend such a fleece for a first time fleece processor, or someone who isn’t patient, but those things are not a deal breaker.  The condition of the fiber itself is the only deal breaker.

What if I just love it?

Assuming it met all the soundness and budget criteria, buy it silly!

Why the whole fleece?

Why indeed.  And this answer addresses why you don’t want to go pawing through a fleece sale bag as well.

You see, a fleece has different characteristics sometimes.  Some fleeces, like Merino (I do pick on merino don’t I?) have been bred to be perfectly uniform across a fleece.  Others, like Jacob or shetland, not only vary from sheep to sheep, but from area to area within a fleece.

When you get your fleece home, you can open it up.  With enough space, most of the time you can see the shape of the sheep in the fleece you have unrolled. The shoulders will have a different texture from the sheep’s back, the sides a different texture from the shoulders.  If the wool comes from a not so next to the skin type of sheep, it may well be that some of that shoulder wool is soft enough for that woolen bikini we talked about.  But on the same sheep, that back wool is perfect for some hard wearing mittens.  It’s all so exciting!

Max_frisian

East Frisian fleece, with slightly grumpy Shih Tzu for scale.

Now that you know what to look for – I look forward to seeing you at a fleece sale!  Don’t forget your copy of The Field Guide to Fleece.

And remember, if it’s still too many things to think about while your oohing and ahhing over those gorgeous colored braids, and spindles, and yarns, and curly fries, and dipped soft serve, and sheep, and llamas, and dog trials, and spinning bowls, and sheep and goats milk soap, and…. well, you just let us know here at The Spinning Loft, and we’ll see about shipping you that whole fleece we have just waiting to be loved in Cube 5C3.

See you at Maryland Sheep & Wool!

Alison, James and (not*) Max

*Max won’t be at MDSW, he prefers to let us explore while he enjoys the quietude of his comfy bed and a good gnaw on his lamb shank.