Posted on 31 Comments

Is it REALLY Garbage?

This spring prior to PLY AWAY 2017 I got what I thought was a normal message from Abby Franquemont, who was in need of some fiber for her upcoming PLY Away class, a 3 day intensive on Andean Backstrap Weaving from raw fleece to woven object.  She wanted normal, run of the mill fleeces of a medium type; not too long, not too soft, not too coarse, nothing really specific.  Basically, she wanted “sheep’s wool” of the type any random farmer in any random place might have in their flock.  I hmmmm’d a bit and came up with a few good options.  But then the zinger: “Oh, and I want the flaw-iest, crappiest fleece you have.”  

Teachers often ask me if I have flawed fleeces for class demonstrations, so I figured I knew where this was going.  But it was oh so much better.  Abby’s intention was to show her students that a flawed fleece could not simply be composted as waste – people have to be able to USE these fleeces no matter what.  Handspinners do not all have the luxury of pristine gorgeous fleece with which to work.  

So I gave her a southdown fleece I had. Actually, I gave her the choice between two I had.  Meat sheep already have a terrible reputation – however unfair that is, and this one was utterly hated by the shepherd who sent them to me, so much so I had to talk him into sending it.  He should be happy I did, because I need these fleeces sometimes too!  They had every single flaw in the book, but one of them was way worse than the other: it was utterly filthy – I think the sheep liked to mud bathe; it had canary stain; it had yolk; it had cotted tips; it had staple breaks mid way down it’s desperately short 1.5” staple; it had VM enough to make a barn.  On top of all this it was very greasy and had tarry tips!  Honestly, it was one of those fleeces that make a person cringe in agony, sigh, and toss it in the compost heap (or around the hydrangeas).  Abby squealed with glee at the sight of the really nasty one and snatched it up in a hot second.  Bystanders were confused by her excitement over its utter horrificness.  

Fleece with much damage. But is it unusable?
This is the other fleece. Abby chose the other one, with even more issues.

The Chosen Fleece is ideal as a teaching moment.  With all those flaws a teacher gets to go over all the reasons why someone would say “don’t buy that and tell the shepherd/seller why it’s garbage and why they are horrible people for putting it out there because you can never spin it because of all the reasons.”  Here I am back, and my opening post will be loaded with controversy!

I’ve heard them all:

  1. There’s a break so it cannot be spun; it can and to great result.  
  2. There’s staining so you can’t spin it; you can and it will be yellow – or you will overdye it.  
  3. There’s stain so it will dissolve in your hands; not necessarily, see 1 and 2.  
  4. It’s filthy so it’s not worth spinning; cold water and a few hours works wonders – even on mating dye – spin away!  
  5. It’s got cotted tips, you can’t spin that; they mostly card off in processing, see 1.  
  6. there’s so much VM; it shakes out most of the way once it’s clean and the rest spins out.  Plus, I hope you clean your floors sometimes, this will clean up nicely when you do that.  

Knowing that flaws do not doom a fleece to the compost heap of woolens, and eager to see how her students felt, naturally, I asked Abby if she’d mind letting me know how the students fared and their impressions.  As with so many things, Abby outdid herself.  She didn’t tell me, instead, she sent one of her students to my booth. 

Cat Ellen was filled with excitement, spinning a spindle full of buttery singles.  She said to me. “Abby said I had to come show you this.  It’s yarn I made from that horrible fleece! And you know what?  All we did was cold soak it!”  She handed me this amazing ball of buttery yellow yarn – and showed me the weaving she was working on with it.  “I didn’t realize Abby was doing natural dyeing in class too?”  “She didn’t!  It just blended that way!”  So I decided to meet up with her after PLY Away and talk with her about her experience.  Note: Cat’s photos are used in this blog with permission.  You can and should read her blog story on the bigger project here.

Alison: If you had ever seen such a fleece – what did you think about fleeces like that before Abby’s class?  I believe Abby shared that this fleece had absolutely every flaw in the book: canary stain, yolking, staple breaks, really short staples, cotted tips – you name it, it was in there.  Have you ever worked with a fleece with any of these flaws, let alone all of them?   If you had, what was your experience?  (I hope there’s a picture of the fleece out of the bag in all it’s “glory” – if not, the “not as horrible” fleece above will have to suffice.)  

Cat: I have never seen anything like this. I’d never really even wondered what you would do with a fleece that had every undesirable quality possible. Up until this class, I didn’t ever work with wool in the grease or enjoy processing wool. I preferred “spin ready” materials.

Alison: I understand that you had to sort the fleece, soak it in cold water (no scour!), and process it like any other fleece for spinning.  What were your impressions when you worked with the fleece in class?  

Cold-soak scoured fleece
Cat’s photo of the cold water soaked wool, on a hotel towel with dirt and VM picked out. This was not scoured – the Andean farmers don’t have wool scour.

Cat: Since I thought the assignment was to cold-water process the wool before class the third day, I set the wool to soak in our hotel sink while we went to dinner. Afterwards, it probably took about 20+ minutes to finish running the rinse water until it ran clear. The first soak water was a deep brown at the beginning.

I set out a hotel hand-towel on the desk, held the hotel hair dryer in my teeth (holding the rubberized loop that hangs the dryer on a hook), and used the lowest setting help blow the dirt particles out of the wool while I opened the locks and pulled out the vegetable matter. The photos of the effort really show how dirty the wool was, even after the water ran clear.

Alison: Once it was carded and spun, and you wove with it, – a process markedly more demanding than knitting or crocheting on a yarn – could you tell it was from a such a flawed source?   

First note: It wasn’t carded or combed. I spun it directly from the clean locks, with almost no pre-drafting. And so far I’ve only completed spinning the singles and dyeing the wool. I still need to ply the yarn (high-twist) to prepare to measure out a warp for an Andean Backstrap.

I don’t think that anyone would ever notice that this wool was not originally a great fleece. The yarns from the “problem fleece” compared to the white locks (in the grease) look remarkably similar when spun up. And I had a gut feeling this wool would take dye beautifully.


cold-soak scoured fleece
These are the three wools Abby obtained and gave out – the Southdown of Ill Repute is on the right. Cat: All three samples we were given, after cold-water soak only, no scour, no soap, no hot water — then hand-picked through with a hair dryer on the lowest setting, to speed up the drying process and be ready to spin the next morning.

I started spinning the “problem fleece” first, just in case it took longer to work with. I had to watch carefully for the second cuts and breaks. I spun directly from the wool without combing or carding. I started to really get into a rhythm with the wool. After a while, I could see how you would never want to throw out any fleece, because all it might need is some extra loving care.

Spindle and wool
Cat: This is the spindle I used, and how the singles looked. You can see that the locks are not combed or carded.

Alison: Was it any more/less work to process this fleece than a pristine one?  

Cat: While it was weird at first to try to use a stained, dirty, plant-filled fleece, I began to really adore this wool. I kept imagining what the sheep might be like, what it might have suffered to have vitamin deficiencies and dirty hair. Once you discount the dust and dirt, the biggest difference between the “problem fleece” and the other two samples was that this one had very little lanolin. Since I have never been enamored of wool-in-the-grease, part of me liked this wool better for being less greasy. Yes, the white and brown/grey locks seems long and luxurious in comparison, and they slid neatly past each other in the grease. But this wool just didn’t want to give up.

At first it was a little hard to deal with the locks, I think because I didn’t comb or card it and just spun it from the lock.  But, once I got used to them, it got easier to spin confidently.   The finished yarn seems *very* solid and dependable and I trust it as a 2 ply high twist warp yarn.

Ball of new-spun yarn
Cat’s Triumphant first ball of singles: Just a tiny halo on the strands, but these want to be high-twist, two-ply, Andean warp!
Skeins of yarn ready to dye for weaving
Both balls of yellow and both balls of white are now ready to dye.

Alison: Now that you’ve worked with a fleece that we spinners might consider “garbage” – what are your thoughts?  Did it change your mind?  

Cat: You would never know that the deep pink yarn was ever a “problem” fleece originally. And I’m truly looking forward to plying up the high-twist yarn used in Andean Backstrap Weaving. I can see know why the elders in the village were concerned that the children learn to spin early. Because once you’ve started making yarn for your weaving, it is really hard to stop spinning everywhere, all the time. And with the right love, any fleece could possibly be awesome.

Ready to ply and weave
Rinsed, dried, and ready to ply next.

Alison: Thanks, Cat!  I’m glad you had fun with it – and discovered that “any fleece could be awesome”!  

It’s so true: Any fleece could be awesome.  Even the apparently sketchy ones have so very much to give in terms of pleasure and reward.  Flaws are not an automatic death sentence for a fleece and they should not be considered so.  They do need to be understood and loved.  But never just dismiss them as unspinnable or trash and demand recompense, trashing the reputation of seller or shepherd in the process.     

Spin all the Woolz, folks.  

All the woolz!


The Spinning Loft

31 thoughts on “Is it REALLY Garbage?

  1. Just learned a bit more on these ‘less’ attractive woolz. That was a very interesting and informative read. All wool has its usefulness with a bit of extra tlc.
    Thank you sheep!

  2. I only am able to spin these type of fleeces. I have never even seen a great fleece in the raw. We help a farmer on his shearing day and he pays us with some of his fleece. Now know that these are meat sheep raised for slaughter and the farmer does not care what condition the fleece is in. Many are crossed breed with hair sheep, have very short fiber and they are loaded with vm and are filthy.
    My friend and I use what we have and do end up with some great results. Thank you for writing this……I appreciate this article and wanted you to know that you have lifted my spirit since I get down sometimes thinking about how much work is involved but then ralley when the fleece is finished knowing that this sheep will live on not only for it’s meat.

    1. Carol – Thank you for loving the less than perfect wool and for helping your shepherd! They do tend to be a bit of work, but the yarns are still wonderful! Some of my favorite yarns and garments have come from what I used to call compost fleece. 🙂

  3. I love this article! I’m a Dirty Fleece Girl and I’m proud of it. I take meat sheep fleeces farmers want to composte and I work through them. I also purchase some fleece, will go for the vm covered stuff because it’s more affordable. I don’t have the funds to buy pristine fleece. Also I derive great pleasure from spinning straw into gold. Also, much of what might not get spun from combing or carding waste will become stuffing for pillows or crocheted toys and things. Wasting any wool makes me sad.

    Thank you so much for publishing this. <3

    1. Renae – Thanks for your comment. Pristine fleeces really are expensive. They may be lovely to spin, but all that cleanliness comes at a (legitimate) cost, not only to us as handspinners, but to the shepherds. And the hit on their bottom lines – financial as well as day to day lives – is not insignificant. And I’m so glad you use everything you can! Isn’t that one of the things that makes what we do so rewarding? Spinning straw into gold is joyous, it’s fulfilling and it’s an adventure! Keep spinning all the woolz!

  4. I love this article. I have been amazed at spinners who comment about trashing a fleece. I learned from the wool that was on the back end of the sheep. It was nasty but that’s what I had so I spun it. As a teenager I couldn’t afford much so took what was given to me and spun lots of undesirable wool. So spend some time and give that fleece a chance!

  5. Wonderful Interview and Information! Thank you for sharing this! So true…spin all the woolz ❤

  6. These fleeces are what we call “Free Puppies”! tempting to accept, but a world of trouble!

    1. They may be more work, but I wouldn’t call them trouble.

  7. Oh Gawd…you WOULD get me on this….!! I just tossed half a pickup load of wool due to lack of time to work with it (and it was sitting out in the sun for two years, loaded with hair, VM, and bat guano as well as huge burrs)…..I’m never going to be able to do that again, thanks to you! Yeesh! 🙂

    1. Lack of time is a legitimate concern and a half pick up load is a lot of wool. You need to be able to look at your fleece reasonably and honestly – do you keep the whole load or pick out a few pounds next time may be a better question to ask. Especially as bat guano really is such good compost….. This post is about giving what is normally considered “unspinnable” a solid look and consideration. And to remind us – as many people have commented here – that not everyone is privileged enough to have pristine wool and yet they make amazing garments. They should not feel bad for having only flawed fleeces and flawed fleeces should not be disregarded so easily. Indeed, I admire them and their yarn for creating wonderful things. I often admire them more for literally (in some case, sense 1) turning straw into gold!

      And remember, remove the wool from the burr. Struggling with removing the burr from the wool is a wretched experience! (<--- This public service announcement brought to you by the karakul fleece with 507 burrs in 2# of felted wool.)

      1. Hm. Not sure if I offended you, but it wasn’t meant that way. More along the lines of, “I looked and said it was not spinnable, but now you’re going to make me look twice and I may NEVER be able to throw any wool away again!”. Knowing that even lousy wool is salvageable makes my life harder when it comes time to cut back. 🙂 I’ll survive, though.

        We have become rather spoilt when it comes to having ready-to-spin and low-prep materials available, no argument. It is awesome to know that even some of the stuff that doesn’t fall in those categories is useful and can be brilliant given the opportunity.

        You took 507 burrs out of 2 lbs of felted wool…? Main reaction from me is HOW….not sure you could have even seen the wool, just taken it on faith that there was some in there somewhere….! Wow. That’s dedication!

        1. Not at all – I mostly didn’t want you to feel you *MUST* use such fleece. I do want spinners to look twice – but I think you already did that if it was coated in guano and all felty and rained on on the outside!

          I don’t ever want to revisit The Great Bur Debacle of 2013. Just know it’s doable.

      2. LOL! Thanks for that tip!

        1. That tip changed my life. It came AFTER the Great Bur Debacle.

  8. Nice discussion 🙂

    When I give workshops on fiber prep/wool characteristics, I always try to have a “less than perfect” fleece on hand (Allison, you’ve seen me go directly toward the worst fleece in the batch specifically for this purpose). It is so much easier to show people exactly what to look for and what to avoid when you have examples on hand.

    I’ve noticed that most of the time, folks are pleasantly surprised at just what you can do with a “trash” fleece and how nice the fiber can be after a little bit of work.

  9. Awesome article, thanks for sharing. I love Abby, her classes are always a wonder. I had never quite thought about it this way, though I’m not sure why. It makes total sense, as does most of Abby’s teaching. Thanks again!

  10. This is a great post. Thank you! I have worked with many a questionable fleece in many years I have been spinning. I simply dont have the funds to devote to ready to spin fiber, and having my own sheep has been an adventure in frustration to try to get really good clean fleeces each year. Some years I am more successful than others. But, I love most of them.

    I do hope she compensated the housekeeping staff who had to clean up after that room, though. LOL

    1. Thank you for shepherding! We couldn’t do this without you.

      I’d love to hear you share more about how much work it is to keep fleece clean as a shepherd. So much is involved.

      1. That could be an entire series of blog posts.
        When I started, I had no idea what it took to get clean fleeces at shearing time. It was trial and error. So much goes into those pristine fleeces on a daily basis, and one wrong move can ruin an entire years careful work.
        The shephard must think of everything from the design of the feeders to how many animals can fit comfortably in a given space in the dead of winter.
        Hay must stay down low in feeders. Feeder space cannot be overcrowded or sheep will push each other and felt damp fleece in winter. They also have an irritating habit of putting their head into the hay feeder, grabbing a big mouthful of hay, then pulling their head out and looking around, thereby dribbling said hay all over the backs of each neighbor in turn. Gah!
        I learned years ago that round feeders in open spaces help solve this problem because they stand like spokes in a wheel instead of shoulder to shoulder.
        Overcrowding is a big issue for all shephards. The barn lot never looks overcrowded until the muddy time of year when it’s too late to ship or transport animals because of the weather. And it’s always a balancing act between the normal year and the one that was the wettest on record when all the animals seem to be slogging through the barnyard even though you were sure you had it right this time.
        And that’s only a couple of the many considerations that a good Shephard has to think about not just every year, but daily. I once saw some of the most beautiful alpaca fleeces ruined in a single weekend by a “helper” who fed for the Shephard while she was gone. Instead of putting the hay in feeders as instructed, he threw the hay over the fence, and over the animals backs. Then it rained on them before she realised what had happened. Wet alfalfa is nasty to get out of a fleece. She had worked so hard. It was very frustrating. The fleeces were still nice, but not pristine as they certainly would have been. And she took the hit financially for the mistake, too. You don’t ask pristine prices for fleece with alfalfa stained and stuck in there.
        Well, that’s enough. Sorry for running on. I just feel for shephards. It’s a job, and I only keep a few crossbred ewes.

        1. So it could!

  11. Ha ha, I just realized I’m Jen and Jennifer in the comments. Oops.

  12. Thank you for this great post, Alison, and to Cat for keeping great notes and taking great photos. I love the jacketed fleeces I buy, but I also take the time to look through the less-than-perfect fleeces. A lot of my very favorite fleeces have been from sheep who didn’t know I would want to spin them, and got into everything. The note on burrs in great – I learned that one the hard way, too.

    It would be great to hear more from shepherds about how hard it is to keep fleeces clean, with or without jackets. It’s good to be reminded about the hard work you put in on our behalf.

    1. Thanks Meg – I am adding this request to my blog post list because I totally agree with you!

  13. The dirt and veg doesn’t bother me as much as second cuts. Is there any thing to do with them? The fleece I am stumped with has them all though the wool. Every thing was just picked up and bundled together.

  14. You’re right this really is awesome!!

  15. Since we couldn’t even give away our professionally sheared fleeces l decided l’d have to learn to spin myself. As l had no carders l decided to start with our older, amateur – shorn fleeces (different lengths and dirty) and when l have plied the yarn will use it in place of garden twine. l hope by the time l get to the better fleeces l will have improved so l can knit my yarn. Thank you for letting me know l do not need to card it first!

    1. You don’t need to card before scouring. But I would recommend a good shake out, and if they’re really dirty, a cold soak or two before scouring. Then shaking them out again before you card them once they are dry. Carding will tend to pulverize VM and you want to try to shake out as much as possible. You also have the option of opening up the fiber with your fingers and spinning from the cloud and not carding at all! So many options. Good luck with your new adventure.

      I’m not sure who you tried to give it away to, but there are regional pools, local fiber festivals that often take it into fleece sales if the fleeces meet requirements, and you may also contact me about your flock, do you have a specific breed or are they mixed? If they’re breed specific and the fleece is in good condition, I may be interested.

  16. Here I am trying to convince myself to throw out some fleeces that got mishandled, buggy, wash, left in the sun too long. “Just throw it out!” I’m trying to convince myself after spinning some interesting, if rough, yarn.

    Then I read this and don’t fall so crazy for working with this.

    One day I’ll actually work with one of my *nice* fleeces. But for now I guess here I am staying with the junk….

  17. This is good information! I have a meat lamb fleece that I’ve been slowly washing and carding in hopes that it will spin. And the used travel wheel I just got in the mail came padded with bags and bags of clean wool waste from combing (I suspect machine combing, but I’m not entirely sure.) The seller says she generates a lot of it, and uses it as stuffing in needlework projects. But I think, if I pick the VM out of it, that at least some of it might be spinnable.

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