You all have been patiently waiting…and waiting…. and waiting to learn what happened to us this year at Maryland Sheep and Wool. Well, wait no longer! (Hey – everything had to clear quarantine!)
This year’s MDSW was, how can I put this, epic. We tromped through the grass, dove into the fleece, and schlepped our treasures back. And boy howdy did we schlep! 130 pounds (yes pounds) and 25 fleeces later, we have some excellent new finds for you all – and better still, some excellent new shepherd friends!
I was very pleased by the festival’s dedication of an entire barn to the fleece sale this year. We got to see and fondle far more fleece, in a much more comfortable spot. The volunteers were great as always, and I hope that the sale stays in its new digs for many years to come – at least until it outgrows it and needs something even bigger!
I think one of our very favorite finds was a shepherd with Debouillet on offer. Debouillet is a range sheep, normally found in the southwest, and it’s soft, and luscious, and lofty, and downy all at the same time – but not so greasy as a Rambouillet. It’s such fun and I am so excited to have gotten some of these fleeces.
We met many sheep and talked with them about their wool and their experiences at the festival and enjoyed the Parade of Breeds. Maryland Sheep and Wool is always a highlight of my fleece year and I enjoy it each and every time I go.
We are also developing a Down breed sampler. I often have people ask what things down breeds, such as Southdown, are good for and the answer is oh so many, but for one thing: socks! Down breeds are frequently felt resistant. I often hear that the shorter staple makes them hard to process, but don’t be intimidated my fiber travelers: down breeds flick or card up nicely and are just made for woolen and spinning right from the cloud. I often hear people worry that because down breeds are meat breeds, their wool is really gross and dirty, but do not be alarmed. Down breeds shake out and scour clean with minimal fuss – and since they aren’t as greasy as finewools, there’s less loss to processing! Though you might need to run your vacuum more often while you work with them. So we decided to help you all out by assembling a sampler of some of the down breeds we have in stock to allow you all to try them out for yourselves. Overcome a fear, learn something new, and discover the glorious springy goodness that is a down breed. Meat breeds a fleece friends too!
In other news, our intrepid Web Wombat is pondering some experiments in color and will be playing with some natural dyes over the summer. Let him know if you wish to see his efforts made available to you.
Finally, I can tell you that, in answer to some of your requests, he will be helping me make scoured fleece (albeit not processed fleece) available to you – and indeed, we currently have some available in the store.
Well, that’s all for now – but keep a wooly eye out because there’s a few more things in the works that we here at The Spinning Loft think you’ll be excited about.
Alison, James and the Ever-Exasperated-Shih Tzu Maximus
It’s that time of year again and the fiber festivals are coming fast and furious. While most of you prefer to handle only a few ounces of raw wool at a time, or prefer not to be led astray by the heady fumes, a few brave souls after my own heart might attempt to choose a whole one. Or two. Or three. Or…….
Let me first say that you can, in fact, buy whole fleeces from The Spinning Loft at a discount off our retail offerings. Please contact us if this is something of interest to you – as we want to make sure you get a fleece undivided by previous orders! If we do not currently have such a fleece in stock, we can often place a special order, usually around shearing season. Outside of shearing season, that becomes more challenging.
For those willing to brave the fleece sale at a local festival, particularly for the first time, there are questions, conundrums and qualms. What fleece? How much? How big? How do I choose? What makes it worth it?
This my fiendish fibery friends is what I hope to assist you with today. As you may be aware, it is shearing time and that means we have been busily sourcing fleeces. We have spent the better part of the last 2 months visiting shepherds, choosing sheep and fleeces, assisting in the skirting – even, in some cases, the actual shearing. Through all this we have been carefully evaluating each fleece.
The major questions I ask when I buy a fleece are the following:
Do I really need it?
I know, what an absurd question! The answer is always “yes, of course!” But occasionally the saner wombat among us says “Alison, do we really need a billionth Shetland fleece?” (This of course is a ridiculous question because as all the people know every Shetland is different! unique! scrumptious!) The real question here is not “do we need” but….
Do I like the color?
Is it a naturally colored fleece? Is it a creamy white? Do I have 23 moorit (brown) fleeces of identical color? Would I prefer that glorious silver one over there? OOH SHINY!
What is the purpose of the fleece?
Do I want to make a million pairs of socks? Mittens? a Cable sweater? A lacy shell? A lap blanket? These factors influence what fleece I would buy for my project. Some wools like Romney can be found and used for pretty much anything, but some wools, like Cheviot, may not be suitable for that wool bikini you’ve been dreaming of.
What is the condition of the wool?
Really, this is the question everyone wants to know about. I could ignore all the others and just cover this one and you’d all be happy right?
To decide if a fleece is sound, I take a lock of wool and examine it. I look at the crimp – is it right for that breed? I look at the color. I’m not looking for the actual color of the wool mind you – since that can’t really be known until it’s scoured (grease hides all manner of lovely color) – but for possible staining. Some stains, like yolk, which often results in a buttery tint to the finished yarn, or mating tag, which actually does wash out, do no harm to the wool but may affect how you handle either the washing process or the finished yarn. Canary stain on the other hand, will likely weaken the fiber. I look for breaks. I sound the lock – gripping each end between the thumb and index finger of each hand, I tug on the lock near my ear and listen to the sound it makes. Does it sound like fabric tearing? Does it ring like a struck piano wire?
The results of these examinations are seen in all the photos I post on the site – the measurements, the description, the lock photos
How does the fleece look in the bag?
Fleeces are rolled with the cut (butt) ends out so you can see the goodness through the bag. Some festivals have space to allow you to open up a fleece, some don’t. If you can’t, don’t go tearing through the bag – you will disrupt the fleece (more on that later). What you can do though, is turn the bag about, take a look at all the parts you can see – is there any evidence of VM or dirtier locks? Fleeces at a show are skirted and VM is picked off, but sometimes things are missed, and some shepherds are more vigorous with their skirting than others. The nature of the VM is more important than its presence. Sometimes the roll opening is on the top of the bag and you can get a look at the tip end of the fleece in that area by ever so very gently opening it just an inch or so.
How expensive is the fleece?
Most fleeces are priced by the shepherds at a festival, not the festival itself. Shepherds compare prices with each other for their breeds, speak with their breed associations, talk to the state or county agricultural boards, and factor in the cost of feed, hay, vets, coating and shearing to assist them in setting their prices. Prices vary across breeds and I have rarely encountered a price on a fleece that I thought was outrageous. That said, the price should fall into a range you want to pay.
How large is the fleece?
This is dictated by the type of sheep of course, as well as how often it is sheared. It should fall within the guidelines of the breed standard. But it also needs to be manageable by the person who will process it. I may have a burning desire for a 40 pound Lincoln fleece, or a desperate urge for a merino fleece the size of Shrek’s at 60 pounds, but can I handle a single fleece at that size? (And do I want to pay mill fees if I don’t?)
Is it a rare breed?
Some people don’t care about this, but I do and I will explain why.
A rare fleece, or a fleece that while not rare, is difficult to find, may be dirtier than a more common one. For these fleeces I will make exceptions to some of my fleece condition rules. Not soundness, or breaks, those have to stay, but in how filthy the fleece is – how greasy, or dirty it appears, how much VM is present. For some breeds, mere survival is the key and while the battle for mere survival is being fought, other factors must be set aside.
In the case of a fleece that is rare ‘here’ but ‘not endangered’ I will also make certain allowances. If I have trouble getting it, and the only flaws are dirt, there is no reason not to get it.
Dirt washes out, and VM can be addressed – even some of the more pulverized stuff. I may not recommend such a fleece for a first time fleece processor, or someone who isn’t patient, but those things are not a deal breaker. The condition of the fiber itself is the only deal breaker.
What if I just love it?
Assuming it met all the soundness and budget criteria, buy it silly!
Why the whole fleece?
Why indeed. And this answer addresses why you don’t want to go pawing through a fleece sale bag as well.
You see, a fleece has different characteristics sometimes. Some fleeces, like Merino (I do pick on merino don’t I?) have been bred to be perfectly uniform across a fleece. Others, like Jacob or shetland, not only vary from sheep to sheep, but from area to area within a fleece.
When you get your fleece home, you can open it up. With enough space, most of the time you can see the shape of the sheep in the fleece you have unrolled. The shoulders will have a different texture from the sheep’s back, the sides a different texture from the shoulders. If the wool comes from a not so next to the skin type of sheep, it may well be that some of that shoulder wool is soft enough for that woolen bikini we talked about. But on the same sheep, that back wool is perfect for some hard wearing mittens. It’s all so exciting!
Now that you know what to look for – I look forward to seeing you at a fleece sale! Don’t forget your copy of The Field Guide to Fleece.
And remember, if it’s still too many things to think about while your oohing and ahhing over those gorgeous colored braids, and spindles, and yarns, and curly fries, and dipped soft serve, and sheep, and llamas, and dog trials, and spinning bowls, and sheep and goats milk soap, and…. well, you just let us know here at The Spinning Loft, and we’ll see about shipping you that whole fleece we have just waiting to be loved in Cube 5C3.
So, I realized the other day that I haven’t written in a while. Things have been so busy around The Loft in the past few months that we haven’t had time to stop whirling around like Dervishes in ages!
As you all know we spent some time developing a rare breeds sampler to accompany Interweave’s Rare Breeds Kit and it’s a big hit. The Kit is made up of 6 very excellent rare breeds, Deb Robson’s Spinning Rare breeds DVD and her recently published Field Guide to Fleece – a must have book for any fleece shopper at a fiber festival’s fleece show and sale. Who needs a field guild to wildflowers – we want WOOL!
We here at The Spinning Loft are very excited to have put together a sampler that covers 6 very varied breeds, one of which is the “sheep that makes Deb cry” in the video, with a great range of wool types and we think you’ll just love it.
It has arrived just in time you see. Why you ask?
Well, it’s spring of course! Even though mother nature does seem to want to sleep in this year – and who could blame her- lambing time is upon us and with it comes shearing time.
I’m not entirely sure which one I like better, but I may have to lean slightly in favor of shearing for what I think are fairly obvious reasons:
Shearing time of course means spring fiber festivals! It means fleece shopping! And boy do we love fleece shopping here at The Spinning Loft. It’s better than coffee! Better than wine! Better than well… anything! (wow, can that be possible?)
And because it’s shearing time we have a few other things brewing around here, so keep an ear out for the sheep bells.
We’d also like to give a hearty shout out to A Certain Guild in Wisconsin for diving into a really fun breed study. We had a great time assembling it for you and we hope you enjoy it! If there are other Guilds interested in doing such a study, please feel free to contact us and we can develop a study package for you as well.
While we were there we met a number of the farm’s Hog Island sheep which are part ofthe Foundation’s Livestock Conservancy Program. The two fleeces we have in stock currently come from sheep in this very photo!
It was QUITE the soggy day – foggy, wet and squelchy but it was really rewarding to see these critically endangered sheep out in the fields, being lowed at by some cows and chased around by the geese, wandering about happily like the feral sheep they are.
We also learned about picking cotton which was rather fun and right up my honey’s alley with his anal retentive streak. I confess that I got a little excited about the natural green cotton myself, but fear not! My heart still belongs to wool. (Not that I don’t have a desperate need to have James weave us some naturally colored cotton kitchen towels now….)
We spent some quality time with the stitch group talking about different fiber qualities, and the work done by the farm to restore the breed. We carded some of their previously scoured Hog Island wool and did some spinning. And we talked about the future.
James, in his historical happy frenzy, has volunteered us to participate regularly in their Stitch n’ Time – and it’s only fair. We do love the Foundation’s mission, it is a living history farm (it’s possible that at some point in the future we’ll be dressed accordingly) and they have a small flock of a critically endangered sheep breed after all. This project screams out for our attention!
You’ll find two of Accokeek’s Hog Island fleeces in the shop right now! They’re quite lovely, and display breed standard: they have that crispness that fleece with down breed in their backgrounds have, with a short dense staple (2-2 1/2″) and good bounce. Hog Island doesn’t felt very easily – and when you can convince it to, it’s a loose felt – which bodes well for socks accidentally thrown into the washing machine! – and it spins up very nicely. This fiber will never create a smooth orderly worsted yarn though, and it’s not meant to; it’s lofty and airy and is great for woolen spinning. Hog Island shows stitch definition nicely with good round yarns, and it will wear well. It cards beautifully and if you wanted to try combing I’d suggest mini combs. But truthfully, this fiber sings when carded and woolen spinning really shows it off to the utmost.
The sheep were shorn by Polly herself and there will be more to come. James and I will be going to the shearing in March to choose fleeces from the 2014 clip. Even more exciting, The Spinning Loft is partnering with the Accokeek Foundation’s Farm to source quality Hog Island fleeces and 10% of all proceeds from our sales of Accokeek’s Hog Island fleeces will be donated back to the Foundation’s livestock program.
Hooray for saving sheep! This is a great example of our mission in action.
Now that the inventory is well in hand, shopping for new fleeces is underway, and some much needed scour, combs and cards are in stock, it’s time to meet The Spinning Loft’s new shepherd, her faithful companion and the supervisory “sheepdog”.
As you can tell, I have some rather historical interests. I work at the Maryland Renaissance Faire for a fantastic seamstress and I have a love of history, which is shared by my partner in crime. It is not, however shared by the ‘sheepdog’ who views the garb merely as a hint that he won’t be seeing us for several hours, again. I also like wine and pairing it with the dishes I enjoy cooking for my friends and family (often with a historical theme). When I get to combine these passions it’s even better.
I love all the wools. All of them. My favorite is whatever I happen to be working with at the present moment – and given what some might call a rather disturbing habit of acquiring wheels and spindles, that can encompass rather a lot of options. But it’s wool and the sheep grow more, and it’s soft and floofy – or long and wirey, or curly , or straight, or… .
I confess that I came to this love via the aforementioned Beth Smith who conveniently offered a breed study class not far from me at a rather ‘coincidental’ time. I am still not convinced that it was coincidental, but that’s a conspiracy for another day. Anyone who has met Beth knows that her love of wool is infectious. Over that weekend I learned that all the wools are the best wools and that I simply must spin all of them, even if it would take a while to get all of them. Coarse wools, soft wools, long wools, down wools, primitive wools, new fangled cross bred wools, crimpy wools and smooth wools – they are all wonderful and they all have something to offer. She also told me about Deb Robson’s book that was coming out, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook.
That weekend began my slippery slope down the mountain of breed study. Then a couple years later Deb met me as the crazy fan girl (can you be a wool fan girl?) at Maryland Sheep and Wool, bouncing up and down and squeaking with excitement when I got the Sourcebook signed . I’m pretty sure that’s how she’ll always remember meeting me. I can assure you that Deb did not help with my obsession – unless by help she meant “oh look at this one! I wonder how this spins?!!!” as she greased that slippery slope some more. Deb’s rare breeds classes and video are the best (and yes, I always cry at that part…).
Since that weekend I have sampled 96 different breeds (with a few new ones from Norway waiting by the wheel as I write this) and each and every time I sample a breed I am reminded how rewarding wool is. Its variables, its textures, its wealth of natural colors, its ability to be dyed and transformed into so many different things and it’s profound sustainability should we as shepherds take care of the sheep. I have so many more to go!
I am joined in this project by my faithful companion: my husband, and internet and social media guy, James. He has generously leaped down the slope after me, spinning and weaving his way through Merino and Tunis (unlike me, James does have some distinct favorite fibers). He is also usually one of the more guilty parties when it comes to fleece acquisition, so if there’s something you are craving, you should not hesitate to Tweet or post a note to James on the website or our email asking him to slide that item in my shopping list.
There is one other in our menagerie: Our supervisor – who admittedly supervises far far away from the store, from the comfort of his bed upstairs. Our fearless “sheepdog” Maximus makes sure we stick to the straight and narrow. He has been known to choose a little something from our personal stashes, but otherwise he finds our obsession rather smelly (“How can you stand that?”) and avoids it entirely by standing at the top of the stairs, snorting in derision and turning his butt at us as he trots back to his puppy bed and a stuffed crab toy.
We are your shepherds. In our natural environment we shall continue to source magnificent fleeces in as large an array of breeds as we can source. It is our mission to help the shepherds who raise the sheep treat and view their wool, not as an unnecessary byproduct, but as a welcome additional source of joy and income.
We look forward to your participation in this journey!
With some minor exceptions (Mohair, our recent Suri acquisitions, and some mystery fleeces we are tracking down) ALL THE FLEECES ARE ONLINE! We also now have Unicorn and Kookaburra fiber washes and scours in stock – and our fleece washing service has made a triumphant return. The combs and cards currently in stock are also up.
We continue to work feverishly to be ready for Small Business Saturday. Books, DVD’s, a few knitting kits and the fabulous textiles from the Centro de Textiles in Cuzco are coming.
New orders to replace stock are in process. Thank you all for your patience and patronage!
Good evening Fiberistas and Friends of the Fleece!
Things are finally calming down some here in the Loft. We’ve spent the last week moving, sorting, photographing, stowing and otherwise stashing the inventory, and we’ve been working on getting it all online. We’ve made a lot of progress and there’s more to come, which we’ll be updating over the next week. Look for more fleece, books, tools, and some great Peruvian textiles.
We’ve also set our shipping times. We’ll be processing and shipping on Wednesday evening and Saturday each week. Please let us know if you need your items sooner than our regular shipping schedule.
Welcome to the new Spinning Loft website. We are currently undergoing a major renovation, but will soon be live with a full product listing of fleeces, fiber prep equipment, books, and textiles. We promise this will be worth the wait!
In the meantime, here’s a small teaser of what’s to come…