Is it REALLY Garbage?

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.  

Fleece with much damage. But is it unusable?

This is the other fleece. Abby chose the other one, with even more issues.

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:

  1. There’s a break so it cannot be spun; it can and to great result.  
  2. There’s staining so you can’t spin it; you can and it will be yellow – or you will overdye it.  
  3. There’s stain so it will dissolve in your hands; not necessarily, see 1 and 2.  
  4. It’s filthy so it’s not worth spinning; cold water and a few hours works wonders – even on mating dye – spin away!  
  5. It’s got cotted tips, you can’t spin that; they mostly card off in processing, see 1.  
  6. 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?  

Cold-soak scoured fleece

Cat’s photo of the cold water soaked wool, on a hotel towel with dirt and VM picked out. This was not scoured – the Andean farmers don’t have wool scour.

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.


cold-soak scoured fleece

These are the three wools Abby obtained and gave out – the Southdown of Ill Repute is on the right. Cat: All three samples we were given, after cold-water soak only, no scour, no soap, no hot water — then hand-picked through with a hair dryer on the lowest setting, to speed up the drying process and be ready to spin the next morning.

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.

Spindle and wool

Cat: This is the spindle I used, and how the singles looked. You can see that the locks are not combed or carded.

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.

Ball of new-spun yarn

Cat’s Triumphant first ball of singles: Just a tiny halo on the strands, but these want to be high-twist, two-ply, Andean warp!

Skeins of yarn ready to dye for weaving

Both balls of yellow and both balls of white are now ready to dye.

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.

Ready to ply and weave

Rinsed, dried, and ready to ply next.

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.     

Spin all the Woolz, folks.  

All the woolz!


The Spinning Loft