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!