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Production Spinning

Note: This was originally published by Beth Smith on her blog, and is used with permission. See Beth’s latest work at

Today I want to talk a little about choosing a productions wheel…or rather what I like about the wheels that I use for spinning a whole bunch of yarn. Of course those wheels aren’t with me because of my impromptu trip to Pennsylvania yesterday. The wheel I did bring is the one I rely on for a lot of things. It’s my fall back wheel. It’s my trusty Schacht Matchless.

Let me go back a little bit. I started spinning around 2001ish. Since then I’ve owned and sold a lot of wheels. In every price range. My favorites may not be your favorites but I do know why I love the ones I love an so that’s what I’m going to try and explain today so that on your search for your favorites I can help.

And I’m good at helping people find their perfect wheel regardless of their budget. If you know me you know I don’t often say that I’m good at something but wheel shopping, I have a talent. When I had the spinning store I always had at least 8-12 wheels on the floor at all times for people to try when they came so they could find the perfect fit.

But I’m getting off track here.

What is a production wheels anyway? This can be a different answer for a lot of people. For me, it’s a wheel that I can comfortably sit at for at least an hour and sometimes up to 3 hour before I get up and walk around – you know, potty breaks. It’s a wheel that will add twist to yarn quickly which means that I can get more yarn on the bobbin faster. There’s no waiting around for twist to build up. These two things will be different for different spinners based on your body and also how fast you can spin.


My Matchless – at one point I had three, I currently have two and am looking to sell one of those – anyway, 10 years ago I would have called my Matchless a production wheel. The drive wheel is 19.5″ and with the fast whorls and lace bobbins it can add twist at a pretty good clip. The ratio on the super high speed whorl is 21:1. I love my Matchless. It’s the wheel I go to for sample making and for relaxing spinning but it can’t keep up with me anymore when I’m in real production mode. I’ll always have one on hand though.

Schacht Reeves

My Schacht Reeves 30″ Saxony is another one that I super love. I started out many years ago with the 24″ version then added the 30″ and when I was super comfortable with that big boy I sold the 24″. If you follow my Instagram or Facebook posts you’ll often see the SR in the photos. I currently wish it were a tad faster. The High Speed whorl can go up to 38.5:1.

I love how this wheel treadles. Super smooth. I have the double treadle model but I can spin with only one foot if I want. If I want to get her going pretty fast two feet are best. I can sit in almost any chair to spin with this wheel.


The other go-to production wheel that I have is a Watson Martha. This is an accelerated wheel that was originally built for Amy King who also loves to spin like the wind. When her order was almost finished she asked if wanted it instead and I jumped at the chance. Then a friend of mine talked me into selling her which I immediately regretted. But now she’s back to my house thanks to my friend’s kindness. And the fact that sadly Mr Watson died and won’t be able to finish my order for a replacement.

This wheel is equivalent to a spinning wheel with a 42″ drive wheel but instead I have this little wheel that takes up very little space. She has a top speed of 48:1 if I remember correctly.

This wheel is a bit heavier to treadle and it’s better if I sit on a chair that is a tiny bit higher than my couch, like a dining room chair.

Norm Hall

I have two Norm Hall wheels which could be considered production wheels. One is a castle style wheel which has a 24” drive wheel and the other is a Saxony that has a 22” drive wheel. These wheels have ginormous bobbins. Both of them have a lot more take up than I like even after changing the drive bands to something fine and a bit slippy. So I add some pipe insulation to the bobbin cores and it helps a lot if I want to spin a finer yarn for weaving.

All of these wheels have their own personalities and needed some time and attention so I could figure out their quirks, what drive bands work on them, which way to adjust them to get the super low take up I like and at the same time keep them spinning at top speed. Some need to be oiled every 45 minutes and some can go a couple of hours between oiling. Some are fine with me in a semi reclined position and some are better if I am sitting up straight. The feel light and easy or heavy and require a little energy to get going. I love them for all different reasons but they are all fast and I can spin a whole bobbin in a day (around 4-6 ounces of finer yarn)

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Icelandic Wool – a story from a land of fire and ice

Icelandic sheepYou may think me strange, but I love dual coated breeds.  I love their possibilities, their diversity, their color range – and yes, their textural range.  I also love that I can make so many different yarns from a single fleece; there’s outer coat, inner coat, both coats together; yarns from singles to multiple plies for each of those.  

Wool Characteristics

So let’s talk about the Icelandic breed characteristics.  The most eye-catching aspect of the breed is the variation of colors and patterns. Genetically, Icelandics have one of two base colors, either black or moorit (brown). On this base, they add one of 5 pattern combinations: white, gray, badgerface, mouflon and solid. Individual sheep may also display various shades of these colors/patterns, ranging from white, cream, light gray, tan, caramel, milk chocolate, silver, dark chocolate, dark gray, to jet black. A spotting gene adds even more combinations with many recognized and named patterns of white markings.  Icelandic sheep are a color cornucopia!

They’re small sheep, so an average fleece is only about 5 pounds (2.25 kg), and many are smaller.  BUT because the standard includes “a lot of wool” – basically a dense undercoat and thick outer coat – there’s a lot of wool volume in one of their fleeces.  Generally speaking, there’s probably 30% loss, but good care and treatment of the different fiber types on a fleece helps.  

The shepherds I work with prefer to raise their flocks in an Icelandic style, with minimal barn time if not entirely outdoors and on browse.  I find this method has produced fleeces and sheep that most closely resemble their Icelandic forebears in Iceland. Don’t fear for the sheep though – Icelandic sheep are known to build little igloos and snuggle up, browsing UNDER the snow!  These are *tough* little sheep, bred for a challenging climate and their fleece reflects it.

Icelandic sheep fleeceThe outer coat (known as tog)  is generally coarse and straight and you’ll find it averages about 27 microns.  Some sheep produce a slight wave in their outer coat, but this is the coat that makes Icelandic feel “coarse”. The length of the outer coat can be anywhere from 3” to 15” depending on the sheep, growing conditions, and fleece type.  It’s purpose is to shed water and keep snow off the under coat.  The inner or under coat (known as thel) though, that is super fine and insulating.  It’s the part of the fleece designed for warmth.  Thel of an Icelandic fleece averages around 20 microns (similar to fine merino). 

Uses for the wool

Oh – everything!  These sheep are descended from the sheep the Vikings used to make sails, ropes, blankets, shawls, hats, foot wraps and tunics.  The modern wool lover can make all the same things plus sweaters and coats!  The classic Icelandic color work sweater is just the beginning!  

Icelandic wool products on displayAlafoss, the Icelandic wool cooperative (credit goes to them for the textiles shown here as well, as I was neither a spinner nor a knitter when I first fell in love with Icelandic wool), lists 6 yarn weights they make regularly ranging from laceweight to a bulky weight, some combine the coats, others are made only from the under coat, while cordage yarns are made from just the outer coat.  So you can see how versatile a single breed is!  SO EXCITING!!!

Now that you know how great this breed is, I can’t wait for you to explore it!  

PS.  You know what else Icelandic does?  EVERYTHING!  Milk, cheese, yogurt (Skyr!!!!), meat, triplets…… 

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Learning to Process Fleece

Fleece to finished object is one of the most exciting ways I know to work with wool.  Not only do you gain the longest and most varied enjoyment from the process, but you have total control over the yarn you produce!  

While the steps are numerous, the process is actually quite simple.  Your Learn to Process kit contains well near everything you need to create fiber ready for spinning: raw fiber, a mesh bag to scour it in, two types of scour for experimentation, these instructions, and a flick card – one of the most versatile processing tools in the arsenal.

Your first step will be removing the raw wool from its baggie.  Choose whichever wool inspires you most. Shake it out and pop it into the mesh bag.  Make sure the fiber isn’t clumped up but is spread out a bit inside the bag. You’ll want the hot scour water to be able to penetrate the wool.  I use the mesh bags to make it easier to handle the wet wool – but you can use a colander, cat litter sifting tray or anything else with small enough holes to prevent wool from being lost down the drain, while allowing water to penetrate the wool.

Your next step is to take a container large enough to float your packet(s) of wool in.  There should be enough room underneath the soggy packet for about 3-4” of water.  I like to use a clear plastic shoe box for small batches, or one of those sifting kitty litter trays for medium sized batches, or a big tub trug and colander for the really big batches.  Once you have your container, fill it to about an inch from the top with the absolute hottest tap water possible – so hot you can’t immerse your hand for more than a second, the temp should be at least 120F and not above about 135F – and put a couple drops of either scour in the water.  You have enough scour in the sampler to wash all 5 samples separately (you really do).   Now pop the fiber packet into the water and push it down gently with your fingers so it gets totally saturated – it’ll float, but you want it wet. Now, walk away for about 15 minutes.

Gently lift the packet out of the water, which will be quite grimy, and dump it on your plants.  If you live in the city, turn on your tap water – on hot (you’ll need it anyway) and slowly dump it down the drain.  

Then do this step one more time.  

The third and fourth times you do this but skip the scour and just use clear hot water.  These are the rinses. 

After the final rinse, gently remove the wool from the mesh bags and lay it on a towel to dry.  It’s ok to gently blot the damp wool, and it’s also ok to spin the wool in the bag in your shower (behind the curtain, or you’ll have wool water all over your bathroom) as if you’re the spin cycle of your washing machine before you remove it.  If you put it in a sunny spot, it should take a few hours to dry.  If you don’t have one, it takes a little longer. A cat or a dog finding its way to snuggle on it (don’t panic – it happens) may speed up the process even further.

Once the fiber is dry you may card.  A word of warning – I have more than once stabbed my fingers with a flick card while flicking.  I highly recommend you use caution – and make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.  I also recommend a thick cloth like leather, canvas or the leg of an old pair of jeans you can cut off to protect your thigh.

A flick card is used to open up both ends of the fiber locks; unless it’s a long wool or a multicoated wool, this is normally sufficient.  Taking a lock between your fingers and giving it a good twist in the middle to hold everything together, you can either tap the flick against each end in turn as if you were drumming a rhythm on a desk, or brush each end as if you were getting snarls out of the ends of your hair.  The tapping method also works very well by just grabbing a clump of wool and tapping it all over to create a cloud.

Longwools may not respond as well to the tapping method, and may require more of a brush starting at one end and working gently up to the butt end.  Multicoated wools may separate the inner and outer coats.  This is completely normal but if you wish to use the two coats combined, as in a lopi style yarn, you’ll want to make sure your grip is solidly in control of the shorter undercoat and may need to shift your grip toward the butt end where the under coat is more prevalent.  The cloud method works particularly well to open up down/type breeds.  

Once you’ve flicked your fiber is ready to spin!  You may take it to your spindle or wheel and begin the next stage of enjoyment!

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Let’s talk about Merino derivatives

These are the breeds that have marino crossed with something else.  Often times that something else also originates in its own merino cross, like Corriedale which is an English Leicester or Lincoln and Merino cross. These breeds include CVM, Corriedale, Polwarth, Debouillet, Targhee, etc.  You can see where this is going.

Generally speaking, these breeds retain all the wonderful Merino traits we know and love: amazing crimp, really dense locks with a LOT of fibers per square inch, nice hand, good drape, excellent memory, pleasant texture (by which I mean next to skin softness).  

I love spinning these breeds because I find that they feel more lively in my hand when I work with them compared to merino.  Don’t get me wrong – when it comes to endless enjoyment and spinning my default frog hair to get 1600 yards of 2-ply laceweight, merino is hard to beat.  But when I have the opportunity to spin Polwarth or Targhee, I simply find that I enjoy it even more. Their crosses bring something to the table that makes them… more, different, interesting.  I tend to like the Merino derivatives more than Merino for this added character. And some of those breeds, like Polwarth, Bond, CVM, and Targhee, I really like a lot! 

Sometimes, when I encounter spinners who struggle with Merino – maybe it’s slick, too fine, so soft, super special, any number of things – I hand them some derivatives and they discover the joys.  Other times I encounter spinners who have only spun Merino and want to branch out – but are nervous about a wider array of textures and characteristics – I hand them a derivative and gently introduce more variety.  

So many options, so little time…..

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Merino – The Foundation Fleece

Salutations my Spinning Supporters! 

As you know some time ago we mentioned developing a Peri-baa-tic Table of the Breeds. WELL.  WELL. It’s nearly done and it’s pretty darn exciting if I do say so myself.  

January is all about a breed which, I must say, I think is perfectly suited to take its place as the Hydrogen of Sheep Breeds: Merino. Just as hydrogen holds its position with an atomic number of 1, launching it all, so merino is the foundation of oh so very many breeds (not to mention the blood count system of measuring fiber!) and takes its place as number 1 in the hearts of so many spinners. You’ll find our Sheep-o-pedia entry on Merino helpful.

Known for its softness, and recognizable to even non fiber people for its presence in catalogs and textile labels everywhere, Merino is a very versatile fiber.  It comes in an array of colors from snow white to black and has a micron count of 11.6-25, a wide spectrum when you consider that cashmere is about a 16 and Cheviot is about a 26! It’s crimpy, has very dense locks, and lots of grease – so count on at least 50% loss in weight from a raw fleece.   It’s also a fiber many mills were designed around so that 3” staple rule is pretty solid here: most Merino staple lengths will be in the 3” range. Also, because most Merino clips go to mills, expect dirty tips which trap dirt and grime away from the rest of the lock; take advantage of those cold soaks!  These fleeces are DENSE and thus they are also frequently quite large, averaging 9-14 pounds. A single 14# Merino fleece will keep you busy for a long long time – especially if you like to spin fine yarns.  

For the historical nerds among us, the Merino is the source of the Spanish Empire’s wealth – prior to colonial conquest in Latin America.  The Spanish court got their flocks from the Beni-Merines, members of a Berber tribe in Morocco and one of the sources of the name Merino – the other source is a Leonese government official known as a merino who may have inspected sheep pastures – from whom they acquired excellent rams to breed with their finest native ewes in the twelfth century! By the Middle Ages, Spain had bred these sheep to such quality that they cornered the European wool market and by the end of the Renaissance, they were gifting sheep to their relatives in other European courts.  

Merino itself comes in about fourteen different strains.  Debullet, Cormo and Rambouillet are also strains of Merino, but they are considered their own breeds now.  A recent genome study on global sheep breeds found 74 breeds from 6 continents with the Merino genotype! A small sample of includes, but is not limited to: Corriedale, Targhee, Polwarth, Oussant, Ile de France, Finn, Boreray, Cheviot.  A huge number of feral sheep also have Merino bloodlines, such as Soay, Gulf Coast, Santa Cruz, and Arapawa Island. Merino really gets around! 

A word of caution when scouring Merino: if you don’t get the grease out the first time, it’s REALLY hard to get out later.  To help you be more successful, I recommend a few extra things when working with Merino (and the Merino family):

  1. Make sure you have a VERY reliable scouring agent, such as Power Scour or Kookaburra.  This is important because things like Dawn require so many more rinses, and every time you change water with a persnickety grease removal fleece, you risk temperature drops and felting.  
  2. Do a cold soak first to loosen up stuck tips and get some of the dirt out before you begin to scour. This will also loosen up the grease and start its removal process.  
  3. Make your water extra hot.  I don’t normally need to, but if I find I have a particularly grimy fleece, or a Merino family fleece, I increase my water temperature and NEVER let it drop.  My normal 18 minute soaks become 12-15 minute soaks just to make sure. If that temperature drops, the grease can redeposit. 
  4. Be EXTRA careful not to agitate it.  All those super fine scales beng open, in all those very dense and crimpy locks lend themselves to easy felting.  This is another reason why a very good wool scour is so important; they’re designed to work in tap water at lower temperatures and require fewer scours and rinses to do their job.  
  5. Consider a 3rd scour cycle – but do it cautiously.  

It’s fitting that Merino starts our Per-baa-tic table.  

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In life, as in Wool, Diversity is our Strength

I’ve been struggling lately with how to express some feelings I have about the fiber world of late.  Frankly, I’m saddened to see the tired old tropes still clinging: Men who knit, weave, and crochet harassed and belittled.  People of color rejected or made unwelcome. Members of the dominant socio-economic group complaining when fiber arts are used for something other than “relaxation.”  Condemning a major fiber arts platform for reinforcing their community standards and reminding people hate will not be tolerated.

I know many people who somehow manage to create little boxes that hold all sorts of things nicely and neatly separate from other parts of their lives.  Knitting is a hobby and nothing more. Social media is for trading photos of family BBQs and nothing more. Schools are a place where all we do is learn from books and nothing more.

I don’t know how that works.

I am a woman.  As a woman I have been continuously paid less, born the brunt of the mental and emotional burden of relationships, subjected to terrifying misogyny and sexual assault on a daily basis.  I am no more capable of separating these experiences of my life into neat little boxes than a person of color can remove the pigmentation from their skin.

By definition politics is “the activities, actions, and policies that are used to gain and hold power in a government or to influence a government” AND “a person’s opinions about the management of government” (emphasis added).  Every single person feels the effects of politics in every fiber of their beings in every moment of their days.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The fiber arts are no different; they may very well be functional, but they are also art.  Art by its very nature is a political expression – a visual and tactile story told in a manner everyone can understand immediately to influence, provoke reaction, create thought.  Textiles have, since their inception, included politics; indeed they were frequently created for that express purpose. Here’s a small sampling.

  • In South America, quipu (“talking knots”) were a textile in the form of knotted strings woven into belts.  The Inca used them to collect data and keep records, monitor tax obligations, to properly collect census records, record calendrical information, and for military organization.  These textiles date most often from the 3rd century BCE to the 17th century – and are used in some areas today.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry is a textile we think of as historical record – created in the 11th century CE and documenting the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.  Take a closer look at the images and manner of their depiction, and one realizes that the tapestry is also sensationalized and exaggerated: it’s a propaganda piece and it has been used as a propaganda piece for a millennium.
  • Colonists to the Americas deliberately handed out small pox infected textiles to Native peoples knowing the infection would spread to them and wipe out entire tribes. Prior to the American Revolution, colonists in the Americas resisted British taxes by making their own textiles and refusing to buy cloth from Britain and held spinning bees to challenge each other to spin the most yarn.  In 1777 a Philadelphia tavern owner, Molly Rinker, would pretend to knit, instead inserting messages about British troop movements into her yarn balls and dropping them into George Washington’s camp.
  • African print textiles have a complex history, with those wonderful and colorful prints we know so well being manufactured by Dutch Colonial powers as a tool of subjugation.  Now they have been transformed into an expression of vibrant culture and pride.
  • The red knitted caps of the French Revolution, known as Phrygian caps, were inspired by the caps freed slaves wore in ancient Rome and are widely considered a symbol of Republican government over that of monarchies and dictatorships in art, literature, and theater.
  • The history of cotton is itself an expression of global politics and racism – covering subjects as wide ranging as slavery, industrialization, far wages, unionization, global trade wars, the politics of the British colonization of India, pesticides, GMO crops, water use, and child labor.
  • In 1992 I had the express honor to experience the AIDS Quilt spread across the National Mall in Washington DC.  At that time it consisted of panels from every state and 28 countries.  I had the pleasure of visiting it again in 1996, the very last time the Quilt was able to be spread in one place, it grown by thousands of panels.  Known as the largest community art project in the world, the Quilt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. This expression of love and remembrance was created precisely to show the impact of the disease and how many people, from all walks of life and age, it affected.  It inspired people and incited awareness. It was the first time I truly understood the power of fiber arts and it was the beginning of a new insight into the influences of textiles.  To this day I am humbled and inspired by the Quilt.
  • Today in Tibet, the Pangong Cashmere Center is promoting community development and empowering women through textiles.  The Center was founded with the express mission of creating economic opportunity while retaining traditional cultural connections and values.

And that is the tiniest selection of millions of examples throughout history and across the globe.  Textiles have always been included in sumptuary laws. When particular dyes, fabrics, or materials are restricted to specific classes – or ranks within a class – textiles are explicitly political.  To suggest that politics has no place in the fiber arts is to express a profound ignorance of history, dismiss the experiences of billions of people, and elevate one’s own privilege to the detriment of one’s self and our entire community.  To suggest that fiber arts are merely a “relaxing hobby” is to dismiss tens of thousands of years of rich and diverse history and technological development, artistic expression, and the voices of all the men and women to whom I am connected through my spindle, my loom, and my needles.  To suggest that textiles are nothing more than utilitarian belies the depth and breadth of their presence in our lives and the means by which they express identity. Whether it is a hat, a quilt, or a knotted rope, textiles are an expression of the diversity of our world, of its struggles and triumphs.

At The Spinning Loft we promote breed study, we focus on having fleeces that represent the unique features of each sheep breed and promote their wonder, utility, beauty, and joy.  We specialize in stocking as many heritage breed sheep as possible – both foreign and domestic. We stock as many colors of natural wools that we can find for each breed. We work with our shepherds and pay a fair price which contributes to a living wage for their farms regardless of scale.  I would like to think we’ve made it clear that diversity in wool is our top priority, and through that diversity we believe in the success of our shepherds.

Spin All The Woolz is not just a jingle – it’s how we view the world.

I am always asked “which breeds do I like the most” – and I can rarely answer with fewer than 10.  Truthfully, I love them all. Yes. Even Merino, which you have all heard me say I dislike. I do dislike it – but it is also a valuable fiber with much to give.  When someone tells me they “hate Navajo Churro,” I can’t let that go. I ask what characteristics they dislike. I ask about what preparation they experienced. I asked how they worked with the wool.  I ask them what purpose they had in mind when they spun it.

So often a hated fiber is one that either a person has never met before and hasn’t figured out yet, or one that a person tried to force into their preferred little box.  Fiber, like people, does not take well to being forced to live a life that isn’t reflective of their unique characteristics. Sometimes what we hear or spin makes us uncomfortable; the problem is not the message or the messenger, but our own feelings.  Diversity is critical to our survival and inherent bias is real and systemic.

I do not allow hate – I encourage and promote transformation and growth and sometimes that growth is challenging.  Those perspectives are important, they have something to teach us. Monoculture, be it tomatoes, sheep, or people will eventually be wiped out because monoculture cannot adapt and grow.  But diversity – diversity adapts, meets the challenges of environment, overcomes adversity; diversity thrives.

I think it’s remarkable that this month, diversity is so prevalent in my life.  It is the subject of recent writing for my work. It is the subject of my blog this month.  Diversity is unavoidable – trying to keep it in a little box is destined to fail. I encourage you to embrace it and ask yourself why it is we are so defensive when our community members express who they are and their experiences.  We need to listen to grow and thrive.

I know that for some of my community, these words come late.  To you I apologize; I can only hope that you know me well enough to know I have stood with you.  I needed to find a way to express myself in a way that clearly stated my values and the values of The Spinning Loft.  I wanted these words to indicate that we are listening to you, and we shall continue to do our own labor as a result of what we hear.  We shall continue to act consistently with promoting the values of diversity and inclusion.

I know for others in my community, these words will drive you away.  I am saddened by your insistence on sacrificing your fellow fiber artists, to turning away wonderful experiences, in favor of your own comfort and to the defense of your personal authoritarianism.

The Spinning Loft stands against hate.

The Spinning Loft stands with human rights.

The Spinning Loft stands with Ravelry.

The Shipping Wombat
The Shih Tzu Overlords

Which, when combined, make The Spinning Loft

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Challenging fleeces – how to cope with less than perfect fleeces, multiple coats, and the mystery of skirting

With so many fiber festivals happening in April, May and June, I thought it would be appropriate to go over some things you might come across while being tempted by warm wooly goodness.  

What treasures can you find at a fleece sale?

By far the most common place at a fiber festival to buy a whole fleece is in a fleece sale. Festivals, particularly those geared to handspinners, have rules about what conditions fleeces entered into the sale must meet. At Maryland Sheep & Wool, for example, rule #5 states “Each fleece must be skirted to ensure it is clean, dry, as free as possible of contaminants (e.g., vegetative matter (VM), chaff, burrs, manure tags & second cuts, etc.).”  A fleece sale is a safe and reasonable place to acquire a fleece.

Remember that some festivals require a fleece that is entered for judging to be eligible for purchase – even if the shepherd doesn’t want to sell it. So they are often priced exceptionally highly in hopes that buyers will keep walking. So if you find a gorgeous fleece, and it’s $80/pound, keep that in mind; even the most pristine of fleeces is rarely priced this high.

The breed barns and sheep barns are another option for acquiring fleeces at a festival. They are often a treasure trove of fleeces grown by shepherds who aren’t there for the fleeces, but for the sheep themselves.  They often the fleeces from their sheep aren’t worth the effort, frequently the case with the so called “meat sheep”. I found my favorite Lincoln shepherd this way – she raises beautiful, handspinner friendly fleeces, but she rarely enters a fleece in a fleece sale.  Because the breed barns are not the fleece sale, there is a wider range of possibilities for flaws and cleanliness issues in those fleeces.

So what is a handspinner to do?  Go forth – and go armed with knowledge and an open mind.

The Cult of the (Im)Perfect Fleece

This Polwarth is pristine right off the sheep, but it’s not the norm!

While everyone loves super clean fleeces with not a spec of straw to be found, and coated perfectly so the tips barely touch fabric for a full season, these fleeces are neither common nor cost effective for the majority of handspinners.  Fleeces almost never meet this standard. And when they do – be prepared to pay a boatload for them. The shepherds earned that with the exceptional care they took for those fleeces.

I’ll tell you a secret though – most of the time, those “perfect” fleeces, are not my favorite treasures.  In fact, my most favorite spins have come from fleeces that are anything but perfect. And frankly, spinning can be expensive enough in our world, I want to empower handspinners of all ranges of experience and all ranges of income to spin the fleeces they acquire into the textiles they love.  

A standard Polypay fleece – some dirt, some VM, great spinning!

See, something like 90% of fleeces have more moderate levels of vegetable matter and dirt, they normally have dirty tips that need opening up or extra attention, and they are rarely coated.  By ignoring the less than perfect, a handspinner may lose out on some amazing fleeces. Sure they may take a bit more effort, but the variety is so very much greater. Truthfully, I have rarely met a fleece that wasn’t fantastic after a couple scours and rinses. Those that need more, are fine after a cold soak.  These are normal.   

Truthfully, unless you plan on buying one perfect fleece and making it your life’s mission to create a textile from it, you’ll have a great experience working with a “normal” fleece.  If you do have an opportunity and the resources to experience a Truly Perfect Fleece, by all means I encourage you to experience one. I have to confess that of the fleeces I consider “perfect” that I’ve experienced, neither was coated, but they were lovely experiences.  

Multiple Coated Fleeces

Dual coated Romanov fleece.

Lots of handspinners tell me that they are hesitant to try multiple coated fleeces because they don’t know how to work with them or what to do.  Naturally, I encourage it anyway with a few tips because at least one breed of multicoated fleece, Shetland, is one of “I can’t live without” breeds.  And talk about versatility! Undercoats that are usually next to baby skin soft and insulating; outer coats that shed rain like Goretex(™); combinations that ignore all weather entirely; and textiles that conquered territory across the northern hemisphere.  

Quite simply you have 2 options for working with a multi coated fleece: 1.) you can separate the outer coat from the inner coat (the longer coarser outer coat, from the downy short under coat), or 2.) you don’t separate them.  Within these two options is a range of goodness and amazing experiences.

Not all “multicoated breeds” have multiple coats, although perhaps more accurately, they have outer coats that are similar in length and texture to their inner coats so they are single coated instead.  

The Mystery of Skirting

There’s a significant range of thoughts I hear about skirting, but regardless of how severe a skirting is all the fleeces in a fleece show – or which you may be offered for purchase – have been skirted at least once.  So let’s talk a little about the apprehensions you might have with regard to various levels of skirting.

It really comes down to dirt, debris and, ok, I‘m saying it: poop.  Right? Not everyone likes to work in their gardens, not everyone copes well with diaper changes, or even scooping our floofy overlords’ sidewalk/litter box offerings.  Facing something like that in our wool is just an icky surprise.

Shearer skirting as he shears
Shearers will get rid of most of the “nasty bits” – shepherds will also give the fleece a once-over.

Shearers do the initial skirting when they shear a fleece and remove the worst areas.  When a fleece is skirted, the edges are removed – the parts that are around the groin, lower legs, tail, and belly.  In this photo I took of a shearer working on a favorite shepherd’s flock, you can see those edges that the shearer removes as he rolls the fleece for the shepherd for further inspection.  Everything on the floor to the left – all that very dirty wool is skirting and it’s where most of the tags and poopy locks are found. That pile is swept aside and put in a trash pile with hoof trimmings and whatever other muck gets cleaned out of the barn into the compost pile that day.  Everything in his left hand, where the white wool is, is a skirted, and rolled, fleece. Shepherds then have the option of taking another pass and further skirting a fleece. It’s not required, the shearers do a great job, as this one did, but we knew the fleece would benefit from another pass on the skirting table and handspinners prefer the extra attention to their fleeces.  

The second pass removes more of the edges (skirt) of the fleece, any tags, shakes out second cuts should any have snuck in, and picks out some of the larger bits of VM.

This image shows a fleece after a second skirting pass. (image on p. 10 of the Spinner’s Book of Fleece by Beth Smith)

You are left with a fleece that remains in the shape of a sheep, but which still has legs, and neck wool present.  Some spinners prefer only the parts within the white line, which they would claim as “properly skirted”, but that is the prime blanket (if there’s a tender spot on the back ridge line, this should be removed in a second pass, however); the other sections are still wonderful parts of the fleece.  

The key point to remember, is that any fleece you acquire at a festival has been skirted.  To what extent a second – or even third – pass depends on the shepherd and sale expectations.

Truly Challenging Fleeces

Some fleeces are just generally challenging. They are frequently filthy, loaded with VM, have short staples; sometimes they have flaws.  They are also rewarding. Some of these fleeces have been my favorite spins.

Santa Cruz sheep fleece
Santa Cruz – it can be a challenge, but very rewarding!

We recently featured Santa Cruz and it is probably one of the more challenging fleeces I’ve worked with myself. Because it’s so rewarding, I use it as my challenging fleece case study pretty frequently. Santa Cruz is challenging because it’s short stapled, filthy, loaded with VM, and defies physics.

So how do I deal with it? It’s fairly simple:  I shake it out, do a cold soak, do my standard 2 scours and 2 rinses, let it dry, shake it out, and proceed to flick, card or comb.  I treat it just like I would any other fleece. There is one caveat – despite how short these staples are, my experience with this fleece tells me I prefer to comb it with mini combs.  

Dealing with dirty short stapled fleeces is not complicated, as I said, I follows the same process I would with any other fleece. The real issue is how, especially when I first encountered these fleeces, I got in my own way.  It’s short – surely there’s a special process? Nope. It’s dirty – surely I have to do something special? Nope. There’s a lot of VM – surely I have to do a bunch of fancy things to address it? Nope. There’s a stain – surely it will eat my yarn forever and be useless? Nope.  I learned, as you will, to trust the process and sample the fiber. It will tell you all sorts of things.

It’s all just wool. There’s nothing fancy or extreme to be done.  People have been using less than perfect fleeces to make textiles for tens of thousands of years and for tens of thousands of years they did not have the myriad of specialized tools we think are a must.  They used fingers, teasels, hair comb looking things, bead whorls on a stick, warp weighted or backstrap looms, cold water or water heated over a fire.

Once More into the Breach

Ultimately, as handspinners we have many choices when we go to a fiber festival or buy raw fleece online.  We now have tools to make our lives easier and continue a long tradition of making textiles. We have access to traditions all over the world to inspire us.  Go with a trusted source, educate yourself, and don’t be afraid of challenges. Hopefully, all this information helps you feel less apprehensive about the various fleece challenges you might find.  

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New Year – New Projects

Well, sort of.

So I decided that 2019 as a year for me to clean up some of my ongoing projects and get them finished.  I’m sure you’ve been there – a lingering unfinished object, a pile of fiber you started to spin and put aside for a more appealing color or simply because you were tired of looking at it; you know the type.

So many samples!

Well, I realized while cleaning up my office that I had a whole lot of samples for which I had spun, plied, finished and knitted sample squares all awaiting notes clean up (what does that squiggle mean again?), some that I’ve spun and plied, but are awaiting finishing and knit samples, some that I’ve sampled for the store but not for my personal samples, and still more that I’ve sampled, and are already in the stole, but that I wanted to go back in and do some more extensive comparisons on!

Many breeds living harmoniously in one shawl.

And after all that is done, the leftover yarns are being used in my breed study stole, which will now be far too large for a stole, and has become a ruana.

But they’ve all been lingering for far too long.  I mean sure, sometimes it gets boring to knit the same sample squares – I use the same pattern and the same needles for all my samples so I can compare them properly.  But it’s also so rewarding: I really understand the fibers once I’ve sampled and knit with them.  And I love that I’m using those leftovers in a project.


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The Importance of Heritage Breeds

You’ll notice a theme throughout 2019 here at The Spinning Loft and elsewhere: Heritage Breeds.

In 2019 the Livestock Conservancy is challenging fiber artists to “Shave ’em to Save ‘Em” by encouraging them to spin and work with as many Heritage Breed fibers as possible.  As you all know – The Spinning Loft has carried and featured these breeds for years and this year we will be among the providers supporting their challenge.  Our stamps are on the way and the initiative launches very soon.

Heritage breeds are amazing.  A few of their many benefits include: wide genetic diversity, improved hardiness, a wider variety of wool textures and applications, wider range of habitat, key niches in ecosystems, more vigorous health and resistance to disease, and improved lambing.  Also, if you eat lamb, they also have more diverse flavor.

Most frequently we encounter Heritage breeds as part of a cross.  For example, dozens of breeds, some of which are now heritage breeds, trace their origin to Leicester Longwool which began with the now extinct 18th century Dishley Leicester.  The Leicester Longwool is a common sight in such places as Colonial Williamsburg where they are used in historical re-enactment, breed preservation, and textiles because they are the sheep brought to Williamsburg by the Colonial settlers.

So what is a Heritage Breed? 

Well, it’s quite simple really.  A Heritage Breed is a breed of one of the seven traditional US livestock species that has been raised since pre industrial times and breeds true to type; each generation retains the traits of its forebears.  They were adapted over time to their local environments, and retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.  They are truly multipurpose animals.

The danger they face is mainly industrialization.  They are often slower to grow so they take longer to get to market.  Having a wider range of fleece textures, lengths, and colors means they are not suited for industrial mills.  Many tend to be smaller so they are not as suited for industrial meat production.

They also face extinction due to cross breeding.  Many of these breeds were and are used to impart their desirable genetic traits into other breeds.  A shepherd who wants a disease resistant but very wooly sheep is likely to cross a very disease resistant Heritage Breed with something like a Merino to get more wool with greater disease resistance.  The danger of industrial breeding, of only considering these breeds as part of a cross or only crossing them for spinners’ fleeces and flocks, is that they are dying out.  Breeding back is not a solution because once other genetics have entered the mix, you no longer have the original characteristics and will never get back to what is truly the Heritage Breed.  We must preserve them while we can.

How do they get on the list?

The Livestock Conservancy is the organization in the United States which monitors, raises awareness of, and promotes Heritage Breeds in an effort to save them from extinction.  They work with breed organizations to monitor registrations, shepherds and state agricultural organization to spread the breeds around and foster them.  They are truly amazing and they have a counterpart in the UK known as the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.  Some of the breeds on the American list are also on the British list.

Annual breed registrations indicate overall active livestock breeding populations and a Heritage breed gets on the list when its annual registrations of new births falls below a certain level.  If the breed is a landrace, which tend not to have a breed association, the Conservancy reaches out to shepherds directly.  The idea is to track those populations of livestock which will result in future generations and retain breed integrity.

While the Conservancy has a solid list of characteristics to determine what breeds get on the endangered list, we are mainly focused on sheer numbers.  There are 5 classes on the Conservancy list:

  1. Critically endangered – To be critically endangered, a breed must have less than 200 registrations each year.  That means less than 200 breeding ewes in the United States.  Breeds such as Gulf Coast, Santa Cruz, and Hog Island fall into this category.  Having stood in the center of one of the largest remaining Hog Island flocks in the country, and counting only 40 head of these amazing sheep is a gut wrenching experience.
  2. Threatened – Threatened breeds register less than 2000 each year.  Breeds such as Jacob and Leicester Longwool are on the threatened list.
  3. Watch – The Watch list is where you will find populations in flux, with fewer than 2500 registrations each year.  They tend to be Heritage meat breeds, such as Oxford and Tunis, which find themselves with a slightly wider variety of applications, but for the handspinner, these breeds can be particularly challenging.  They have wonderful wool, but because the shepherds do not think of them for textiles, they tend not to be particularly clean, long or even available; most often they are composted or dumped at the regional wool pool.  I am always looking for shepherds who raise these wonderful sheep and are willing to work with me to improve their fleece condition.
  4. Recovering – This is a category of hesitant joy.  It’s a population with more than 2500 registrations but that still needs to be monitored.  It might come as a surprise to you that Shetland and Southdown find themselves here.  Southdown is here for the same reason that those breeds on the Watch category are there, but there are slightly more of them.  Shetland is here because they are primarily used for wool and not for meat – you only get about 20 pounds of very small cuts from a Shetland; they are not terribly large sheep.
  5. Finally, Study – These are breeds where the population is of genetic interest but either lacks definition or lacks genetic or historical documentation.  There are no sheep on the Study list.

Sheep in the Mist
Hog Island sheep

The Spinning Loft is proud to work with shepherds and stock all but five of the sheep on the Livestock Conservancy list.  Two of those are hair sheep – which while technically spinnable, is not very friendly to the hand spinner.  Three are breeds I struggle to find entirely.  Locating both shepherds and fiber which is in spinnable condition for my clients is a huge challenge for these three breeds.

Heritage breeds are endangered breeds, many of them critically, and without additional outlets for the shepherds they will be abandoned in favor of wool and meat that meets standards of industrial production.  In some cases, such as Santa Cruz and Gulf Coast, there are fewer than a few hundred of these sheep globally.

When you seek out these breeds to create your textiles, you take a tangible and concrete step in saving them for future generations and in promoting diversity in our environment.    


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Sampling for a sweater

The Hush Chemise

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!