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What the Shepherds Have Taught Me

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

Sorry about the dirt and grass, but we love to be outside!

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.  

A shearer at work – Shearing, skirting, and keeping the sheep safe

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.

All Hail the Sheep.  Scēap Waes thu Hael!

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How to skirt a fleece

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 in a raw (top) and cleaned (bottom) lock of Leicester Longwool

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 has a weak spot

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?

Cotted tips breaking off of the locks

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?

A shearer skirting as he shears a Tunis ewe

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.

Skirted bits
Bits of our Santa Cruz removed on the second skirting

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.

a second pass on the Tunis at the skirting table

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!

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Year of the Sheep Finale – News & a Sale!

The time has come for the final installment.  I know you have all been waiting ever so patiently and we thank you.

So many things ahoof around here at The Spinning Loft.

This has been a year of highs – Year of the Sheep, exciting new fleeces, shopping for fleece and meeting shepherds at Maryland Sheep and Wool with Beth Smith – and a year of lows – the loss of our intrepid Fleece Overseer – but it has been a year of fun.

Before I get to our fourth and final installment for The year of The Sheep, I want to tantalize your fibery taste buds.  You see, now that Rhinebeck has passed, we can hint about the secret special project being released soon.  I can’t tell you much more yet, but I can tell you that we teamed up with one of our favorite spinning tool makers to bring you a special treat.  You’ll all need to be ready as the project has a limited number of supplies available.  As soon as I can tell you more I will!   WHAT COULD IT BE?!?!?!  Well, I can tell you that some very delicious wool is involved.

We are also uploading some newly arrived fleeces soon.  They have cleared my quarantine and are in photography and sampling. Also 2016 will come soon and we are excited.  We have more great things in store.  We are investigating some better shipping options with the mid January postage increase looming and we are planning some interesting breed features.

Perhaps most importantly: The Spinning Loft will be at PLY Away in April!  I know!  I’m excited too!  We will bring our Wall of Fleece with us, and some special, just for PLY Away, items.  It will be like having a mini Spinning Loft for your enjoyment!  So if you have any wish items, let us know early and we will do our best to bring them along.

But on to the knitty gritty; I have tried to stall for far too long because I am a little sad to come to the end of this fabulous year of celebrating sheep!  It has been great to honor such wonderful beings and most importantly – the soft and squooshy fibers they give us.  So how is it we are closing out the year?  

Sheepy gift giving of course! For the final installment, we are celebrating the giving of sheepy gifts!  All of our easily gifted items are on sale.  Notions to books, scours to tools, small looms* to spindles, even our samplers are ready to be gifted to your favorite appreciator of all things sheepy.

I like to start my holiday shopping a little early – because I inevitably find myself still doing it at the last minute.  And as this time of year is filled with family events, seasonal transitions and various spiritual celebrations that often involve gift giving, we here at The Spinning Loft want to help you all with your efforts and give you what I hope is a great boost.

WHAT?!  I know, we’re crazy.  But we like you..

We know you’ve been seeking that perfect gift for the new breed study fanatic and our samplers are just the thing.  Looking for wheel oil?  My favorite oil is on sale!  Need to stock up on scour?  Yep, that too.  Fiber wash and rinse to finish all your wooly gifts – oh yes my friends.  You’ve spent all year spinning up our special breeds and now you need to knit them – we have a limited supply of needles and stitch markers!   Or maybe you prefer to weave them?  We have looms*! In need of a great spindle?  Spindles are also on sale!  Books and DVDs to enjoy? Yup, those too.

As always we’ve done the discounting on our end so you may shop to your heart’s content.  Consider 10% off all these crazy items as our gift to you! Discounts will show in your cart for all items not already marked down (such as Samplers).

Concerned about your gifts arriving in  time?  We have reviewed the postal deadlines and any orders received by December 15th will make it to their destinations in time for the holidays.

Speaking of orders, Schacht has also released it’s ordering deadlines – so if you want to get any of these items for holiday gift giving, and I don’t have them in stock, please get your orders in by the dates below (you’ll note the Schacht Reeves is not on the list – that is because we cannot guarantee its delivery before the New Year at this time):


Wolf Looms, Floor Looms, Table Loom – Nov 11th
Matchless, Ladybug, Sidekick – Nov 18th
Accessories, Small Looms, Bulky Packages – Nov 25th
Crickets, Cricket Accessories, Zoom Looms – Dec 2nd

We hope this final installment of the Year of the Sheep will be as much fun  for you as it is for us.

Alison and James

Spin All The Wools!

*Some restrictions apply.

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Year of the Sheep – The Part That is Third


It is that time again my fleecy friends!  What could possibly be next you ask?

It’s the third installment of the Year of the Sheep of course!

 

 

But first – did you see?  Have you heard?  You all have been clamoring like an Austrian governess for processed fibers and we heard you.  We have begun stocking mill processed tops, rovings, and slivers.  More breeds will come, but we think we’ve made a good start.

That brings us to our other news.  Since before our last Year of the Sheep offering l knew what I wanted to do for our 3rd offering.  You see, I love Maryland Sheep and Wool – and I love other fiber festivals too – they are so much fun.  The scrum of the fleece sale, the smell of all those wool fumes, the energy, the shepherds, and of course, the sheep!  A fiber festival just makes me giddy.  I find such delicious surprises!

What?  Did I hear you say you missed it? Shocked I say.  And dismayed.  But not to worry, I am bringing you some of the MDSW goodness.  YES I AM!

I promised you all those months ago that I would feature spinner’s fleeces.  Do you remember?  Well it is time to do so.  These fleeces are crosses – crossed because the shepherds were aiming for some feature in the wool, or crossed because the flock ram got randy.  Regardless of how it happened, the results are marvellous.  They have interesting textures, interesting breeds within the cross, interesting colors.  They make for fascinating spinning, educational spinning, joyous spinning, blissful spinning.

More importantly – they are some of the fun you can find at a fiber festival when you aren’t pressured to find a BFL fleece or just the right coated merino.  Fibery fusions are totally where it’s at this quarter!

I know, I know, I can hear you all know, “What?!  A Cross?!  Say it isn’t so!”  But it is so.  We don’t have a lot of them because I don’t find a cross that’s more interesting than its constituent breeds so often, but these are exceptional.  I’d hate for you to miss them amidst all the breed specific fleeces.

Aren’t they yummy?

So there it is.  The next installment of the Year of the Sheep.  We have only one to go. As with our previous installments, the 10% off our feature fleeces sale is already taken care of for you – you need only shop to your heart’s content and the discount will already be included.  Enjoy it while it lasts!

And don’t forget – you’ll need to clean your new fleece choices and spin them and we can help!

Until next time…..  Keep Calm and Spin On!

Alison & James

The Spinning Loft

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Memorial Flash Sale: a Celebration of all things Max

This is at once a celebration and a memorial.  As such, I hope you will forgive me if this little note is short.

Some of you may have heard about the recent loss of our intrepid and much annoyed supervisor extraordinaire.  Well, ‘tis true.  We here at The Spinning Loft are mourning the loss of our Shih Tzu Overlord, Maximus Minimus.  He would have been 15 this week.

Maximus memorial

But we must celebrate his life – we wouldn’t want him to be annoyed with us would we?  To do so we have chosen his very favorite fiber: Romney. And for giggles, we are also going to feature Gotland, the breed of fiber he dallied with in this video:

Max & the Gotland from James Mathieson on Vimeo.

They will be on sale (no work on your part – we’ve already done it for you) from May 6th through May 18th.

We miss you, Max.

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Year of the Sheep – Reloaded!

Bond samples!

Now that you have enjoyed your Cheviot – and who wouldn’t? – it’s time to talk about the next installment in our celebration of sheep.  What, you ask, are we doing now?  Goodness naturally.  Delicious, yummy, wooly, goodness in the form of…..

Bond!

Finished objects made from handspun Bond fiberIt is soft, crimpy and wonderful.  It’s great for lace, great for next to skin, great for warmth, great for stitch definition.  And it has Merino in its bloodline, which you could probably tell from that description.  But Bond is a different fiber.  It has more bounce, more loft and that comes from the other half of its lineage. It is also featured in our Beth Smith Sampler and if you’ve had the fortune to try it, I’m sure you know how wonderful it is.  Now is a great time to get enough for a project.

Crackers in his Bond sweaterBond is, well, heavenly.  It is the result of a Peppin Merino and Lincoln cross by those spunky Aussies. It is one of the few breeds I look for coated, and all of the Bond I carry has been.  It’s all clean and lustrous and has amazing crimp and lock length.  The color variety is extensive and I’d love to be able to carry every single shade.  Personally, I think this breed lends itself to the creamy brown and moorit shades and the silvers very very well.  I love this breed so much I have at least 6 full fleeces – one of which is being prepared for weaving fabric for a tailored houndstooth coat!  It soft and wonderful and it was the only breed my, now gone from us, shih tzu Crackers would wear for his sweater.  And it kept lovely stitch definition for cables.

I also like to leave a little bit of lanolin in this fiber for spinning, especially if I’m doing anything woolen.  It does make lovely woolen yarns, even with that lengthy staple.

1, 2 and 3 ply examples of handspun BondSince I do have a penchant for the moorit shades of this fleece, our samples for you are from a lovely pale milk chocolate moorit fleece.  I have my customary lace sample, stockinette sample and samples of 3 ply and 2 ply yarns.  I would definitely weave this as a closer sett but it’s so nice anyway and the others well, so yummy.

So check out our current stock of Bond before they’re all snatched up!

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What’s good for the sheep…

Max has mixed feelings about this

Or how I came to use Power Scour to wash my dog, creating yet another reason why I love it so.

You guys have heard of Unicorn’s blog entry contest right? If not get thee over there and check it out.

Unicorn Beyond CleanI am a fan of Unicorn Products – I carry them and I recommend them. For scouring wool, I find they work fantastically under the conditions almost all spinners have in their homes and they do so at what I have found is a lower cost than many of the usual alternatives. They clean the grease out of raw wool efficiently, condition the wool nicely, and treat my finished objects gently. I don’t need to boil extra water, and I can dump the water/scour/grease sludge on my vegetable gardens – and let me tell you, I had roses blooming under the bathroom window well into February one year when I was cleaning a whole lotta fleece in there!

But the usage that sold me on them the most is bathing my dog.

Seriously you say? Yup. Seriously.

As anyone who follows the blog knows, we at The Spinning Loft are the servants of Shih Tzu Overlords. Well, Overlord now. But that’s hardly relevant: We. Live. To. Serve.

Roughly 18 months ago we had to let go of my first shih tzu baby – Crackers, he was the best snuggler ever – and while he liked to steal your pillows, he was more than happy to take their place, assuming you’d cuddle him.

But Crackers had some issues – among them a nasty case of acute seborrheic dermatitis. This condition is usually mild and causes flaky skin. But Crackers, being Crackers, had it far more than “mild”. Instead he would get red, itchy sores accompanied by globs and globs of grease, between his toes, at his shoulders, anywhere there was a joint or fold. Nothing we did could keep it at bay – the grease just came back too quickly. Finally I said, well, I want it give a shot. I figured if the product was nice enough to wool and easy enough on the environment, ‘chiengora’ on the paw as it were can’t be much different.

I plopped him in a tub of warm water and Power Scour (actually one of the tubs I use to scour wool – he fit perfectly, felt safe, couldn’t slide around, and I could immerse him to the shoulders) just as I would raw fleece. Same ratio of scour to water but at a much lower temperature suitable for the dog.

And it worked. His skin cleared, and the grease level came down. Slowly but surely we were able to stretch his baths from every week to every few weeks to every 6 or so and the prescription spray usage dropped to almost nothing. My vet was so impressed she asked what we were doing differently – new food? the meds finally taking? what? She was equally shocked. She now recommends Power Scour to other patients.

Max has mixed feelings about this
Max has mixed feelings about this

Since Unicorn came out with the Baby line, I use that one for our remaining Overlord and Supervisor. It makes a huge difference in the allergy he has towards his medicine and reduces his itching as well. Max now likes to be bathed between grooming sessions, and he’s now a big fan of Power scour too.

Do you all have great Unicorn stories? Share them!

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It’s The Year of the Sheep!

THE YEAR OF THE SHEEP – Part 1

We spinners get all the luck in 2015!  Have you heard?

Year of the Sheep!

It is the Year of the Sheep according to the Chinese calendar so we here at The Spinning Loft have decided to do something exciting.  We are celebrating …. wait for it…..

SHEEP!  

I know right?  Aren’t you excited?  It’s a whole new thing for us! I thought we might branch out.

Ok ok ok, fine.  The Shih Tzu Overlord has decided my sense of humor is flatly NOT amusing and demands I get on with it.  (When is the year of the Shih Tzu, Mummy? Huh?  WHEN?)

Cheviot yarn on the bobbin
The Loft colorway – Sock yarn singles on the bobbin

Throughout this year we will be featuring certain sheep.  Challenging breeds, unsung heroes, personal favorites, super versatile fibers, and even, if we like you all very much (and we do), some spinner’s fleeces* – they are all fair game this year.

Why should you love this?  Aside from the fact that it’s all about Sheep and so are we?  Well, because you will get a 10% discount on any featured breed/fleece product!  There’s no need to enter any coupon code, the discount will appear on the featured products automatically.

So who or what is the lucky first victim candidate?  Well, it’s one of my favorites for lofty poofy well wearing yarn that is still comfortable for the hands: Cheviot!

I LOVE CHEVIOT.

Cheviot plys
Top to bottom: Cheviot Singles, 2-ply and 3-ply yarns

It makes great socks.  It’s lofty.  It takes dyes nicely.  It has a lovely creamy color when left white. Did I mention it makes great socks?!   It shows cables well.  It’s a great winter outerwear wool.   It’s sturdy.  Did I mention the socks?  Ok – so maybe it’s not so good for drapey lace shawls, but if you wanted to add a lacework element to some cables it’s a great option.  It weaves nicely.  It’s spongy and springy – a friend once described it as “bouncy as a bunch of kangaroos.”  That’s because of its characteristic helical crimp. Sometimes the texture of this crimp comes through as “crunchy” and can give the impression of coarseness.

Cheviot are sturdy sheep, bred to care for themselves in the harsh conditions of the Cheviot Hills and the HIghlands where they range free on the hillsides and rarely see the inside of a shed, let alone a barn, and their wool reflects that.  It’s lofty and thick and warm and sheds water.  This is why Cheviot is so good for socks and outerwear or anything that needs some ruggedness.  I confess that their history is as much why I like them as their wool – they were mentioned as long ago as the 1370s.

It’s just SO GOOD!

What should I tell you about Cheviot that is not in our Sheep-o-pedia? Well, I’ll tell you.

Cheviot is one of the parents of Perendale (the other is Romney).  I find it doesn’t object to be spun thin – and given how much it likes being a traditional 3-ply, I am fond of this trait.  It works well for worsted OR woolen spinning as well, which is why it does so well as socks or outerwear.  The wool has a spongy-ness to it that promises loft (and it delivers) and thus it also spins nicely into uber floofy thick and thin singles – or even just very lofty bulky yarns.  Where the strongly spun and plied singles for socks are sturdy, the fluffy singles are warm and lofty.  You can also coax it to felt with a little effort.   I would call Cheviot felt-resistant as opposed to some who say “it’s un-feltable” – Cheviot is not a true down breed so it’s less likely to be un-feltable.

And just to be even more fun I have photos of some of my samples for you too.  Singles yarn, 2-ply yarn, 3-ply yarn, stockinette samples, lace samples, woven samples – even, yes, sock yarn made from The Loft in Cheviot.  These are the best socks EVER.

Cheviot locks, raw and cleaned
Raw and scoured Cheviot locks
Raw and cleaned cheviot locks
More raw and scoured Cheviot locks

 

We even have some Cheviot dyed in our “The Loft” colorway from Spunky Eclectic for anyone who doesn’t want to process it themselves!  I love this colorway so much I accidentally dyed my hair to match it over the holidays.  (Seriously – I really did do it by accident.  Well, the dyeing was on purpose, I just didn’t realize I had created the colorway on my head until a friend said they wanted to knit my hair.)

Skeins of The Loft colorway on cheviot
The Loft sock yarn on Cheviot. Such great colors!
Swatches of The Loft
Swatches of The Loft, that’s the sock swatch on top.

 

Also interesting is that North Country Cheviot is actually a different breed of sheep.  They may originate with “hill breed” from the highlands of Scotland, the Cheviot, but these sheep are from the lowlands on the English border with Scotland.  The difference in environment creates a difference in the fleece.  Cheviot is sturdier.

If you are accustomed to or prefer Merino, Bond and BFL, you will find Cheviot coarse feeling.  But it’s a really fun spin anyway so don’t give up.  Give Cheviot a chance – it’s a wonderful all around  fiber from a great sheep!

On more thing…. A brief announcement.  We have received updated pricing from our vendors for 2015.  Most have had some sort of price increase over our previous stock and we will be updating accordingly.  After February 28th, we will be listing the new stock at the new prices.  On the other hand, there was no postal increase in January so that’s refreshing.

* A spinner’s fleece won’t be breed specific – but it will be a fleece or fleeces from some of my favorite shepherds who are producing delicious fibers for spinning that I fell in love with and JUSTHADTOHAVEZOMG.  They might be strange and unusual crosses or they might be just plain delicious.  You’ll have to wait and see!

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Getting ready for the holidays

Well hello there!

Photo credit: Wedgemondo (via Flickr)So – somehow the first year of our shepherding has come and gone.  Wherever did the time go?  In this year we have seen some fun things around The Spinning Loft –  new fibers from Norway, the development of our new Beth Smith and Down Breed samplers, working with Accokeek to foster Hog Island sheep.  We worked with Spirit Trail to field a Tour de Fleece team and with Storey Publishing for Spinzilla.  We have learned much and our adventures have brought us idea after floofy idea.

The fall brings us many tasks here at The Spinning Loft.  We have leaves new fleeces to sort, orders to plan and dream tools to seek out to bring to you.

We still have just under 2 months to go in 2014 – and it’s the 2 BEST SHOPPING MONTHS!!!  We have some excellent goodies in stock and we have even more arriving just for the holidays! Here are just a few suggestions to help you settle in the cozy winter season:

  • Want to try a pin loom for sampling?  We have Schacht Zoom Looms in stock! These looms are fantastic for sampling or for making quick little projects – or even for making hand woven squares for larger projects like blankets, or sweaters, or totes!
  • Are you in need of fiber processing tools? We have combs and cards.
  • Haven’t picked up a copy of Beth Smith’s new book?  Get one for your favorite spinner!  Better still, pair the book with a sampler!
  • Now is an excellent time to pick up some more scouring liquid for your fall acquisitions.  We stock Kookaburra and Unicorn Power Scour.
  • If winter static concerns you when processing wool, a few drops of Unicorn Fiber Rinse (or Kookaburra!) mixed with water in  spray bottle helps tame those wooly tresses!
  • Did you know The Spinning Loft has knitting needles &  Stitch markers? and even knitting, crochet, weaving and yes, felting books?  We do!  We do! We do!
  • And of course we have spindles!  Including a small number of ne’er to be produced again Desko spindles.

 So in the spirit of the holiday festivities we are offering a 10% site wide discount (* some exclusions apply) now through December 15th – just enter the code HOLIDAY2014 at checkout.

In order to get all the shipping out and have our packages arrive on time to their destinations, we must send out our packages no later than Saturday, December 20th for domestic Priority Mail (First class).  International orders we suggest shipping no later than December 13th.

Max_frisian
Max has claimed his own fleece!

We will also be taking some time to visit family over the holidays and that means a short break in shipping.  The site will keep taking orders while we are away – the internet never closes! – but we will have a shipping hiatus from December 21st to January 6th.

After all this, what on earth will we do in this next year?  We have a few things in the works.  So keep an eye out, listen for our tell-tale bleats and baas, and keep your spinning fingers primed!

Happy Holidays!

Alison, James, and Maximus

Your Spinning Loft Shepherds (and Wooly Overlord)

P.S. If you don’t see something – send us an email with your request. We can usually order it – and if we can’t, we will add it to our wish list and keep you posted.

* Discount coupon does not apply to looms or spinning wheels.

 

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Getting Down & Spinny – Summer of Fun at The Spinning Loft

Max guards the wool at The Spinning Loft

Summer marches on and we are getting into Fall. Where does the time go?

Around The Spinning Loft it has been a busy spring and summer. We worked with the lovely Jennifer Heverly at Spirit Trail Fiber Works for a great Tour de Fleece competitors and their prizes have been issued. We have met (and “met”) some lovely new shepherd friends and their sheep. We’ve been working with Beth Smith, Deb Robson and a few others for some upcoming class supplies. We’ve even been working with a few Spinning Guilds for breed studies.

But, you ask, what else have you been doing? It’s true – somehow you all know I’m up to my ears in fleecey fun!

You got me. I admit it. We have designed 2 new samplers!

Many people have asked us about down breeds and we created a sampler of down/meat sheep to help explore them. Down breeds can be whacky – they’re floofy, they often resist felting, they take up a lot of space, it can be hard to find their locks and know what to do with them. But more importantly they’re so often called “meat breeds” and their fleece gets so short! Fear not the fluff, fiberistas! My favorite processing and spinning method for a down breed is to toss my fiber in a bucket of super duper hot water with scour in it, let it soak (do this a couple times) and let it dry. Then I grab a handful, shake out any VM, tap flick it up a bit and just spin away short forward draw. Lofty deliciousness will ensue. It’s often crispy (good crispy, not oh no breakage crispy), but it’s always lofty and warm. And that felt resistant quality makes it great for socks, especially hiking socks, and mittens and warm lofty outerwear.

The second sampler is really fun. Perhaps even more fun, if there is such a thing. You see, Beth Smith’s new book, The Spinner’s Book of Fleece, is out and we created a sampler to accompany it! You can buy the book separately from the sampler, the sampler separately from the book, or buy both together and explore some of the breeds Beth loves alongside her while you read. Every spinner who loves breed specific fibers needs this book!

We are also partnering with Storey Publishing for the 2014 rendition of Spinzilla. Spinzilla runs from October 6th through October 12th Team Spinner Registration is available from August 4th through September 22nd. Spinners of all levels are welcome to join. Our team, like the others, is limited to 25 spinners. Spin miles, spin a rainbow! SPIN SPIN SPIN like the wind! Registration started Monday, August 4th at 10am ET. To register, go to  http://www.tnna.org/event/SpinzillaTeamSpinnerRegistration and select “Storey” on the team selection page.

More next time… after I can find my way to the top of my pile of fibery goodness again.

Alison, James and Max
Keep Calm and Spin On