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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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