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What is breed study?

The Spinning Loft prides itself on having as many breeds of sheep in stock as we can in the form of wool and fleece for our clients and we generally have more than 50 unique breeds in a combination of prepared fiber and raw fleece (at time of writing we have 56).  We also carry samplers consisting of 2 oz of a variety of breeds themed according to the sampler.  


Aside from catering to the need to Spin all the Woolz, well we do it for breed study of course!  Breed study is really all about knowing what works for any type of project.  This happens through experience an experience comes from sampling: sampling different wool types, sampling the wool of different breeds of sheep, sampling different preparations.  Breed study allows a spinner to experience a wide variety of wools, it teaches us about how they act, what they might be used for and the effects that can be created with different wool types.

Does a wool like lace?  Cables?  Textured effects?  Does it work better worsted?  Woolen?  Perhaps it likes a preparation somewhere along the continuum of semi worsted or semi woolen?  Would it like to be knitted?  Crocheted or woven?  Does it drape?  Is it durable?  Is it springy?

Sample, sample, sample!

All of these factors – and more – affect your spinning and your finished object and sampling helps you to decide what wool to use for a particular project.  It also helps inform decisions about what types of wool a spinner might prefer to spin.  It is well known, for example, that I do not enjoy merino as much as I enjoy Bond or Polwarth.  Initially, I thought this was odd – both Bond and Polwarth are very similar to merino in many ways.  But I learned through breedy study that I prefer the hand of the other two over merino, without sacrificing the softness, loft, spring and drape of merino.  

We stock every breed we can find so that you can find exactly the wool you want to spin – and you don’t have to buy a whole fleece to do it.  

Ok, but what do you do with it?  

Sure, you are thinking, 2 oz samples (or even 4 oz samples) of 10 different breeds is great – but what do I do with all those tiny skeins?  

I will be having a whole blog post coming up about what to do with 2 and 4 oz bits, and those projects are not limited to breedy study, but in the meantime I want to share what my “breed study” project is.  Because when I set out I decided I wanted to dedicate a project to my sampling, something that showcased sheep breeds in all their glory and natural colors.  Because, well, I wanted to *do* something with all those samples!  

It’s obviously ongoing, and thus will take forever to finish – if I ever can call it finished!  But it’s still such fun.  

See, samples can be useful

It’s a simple stole in a simple pattern.  After I sample my swatches – whatever yarn is left is added to my stole.  I suppose when I get to my desired length I will probably cast on new stitches alongside to add another panel and turn it into a lap blanket or a ruana!

You said the “s” word!  I don’t like the “s” word!

I did.  I did say the “s” word.  But don’t turn away in horror!  Sampling is actually pretty darn awesome.  

When I began my breed study, I only created two samples of each breed.  I prepared them in the ‘traditional’ way for each fiber type, combed for longwools, carded for down, flicked for fine wools (mostly) and I did a singles yarn, a 2 ply yarn and a 3 ply yarn.  I used the 2 ply to make a lace swatch and the 3 ply to make a stockinette swatch.  I used the same pattern and the same size needles – and the same wheel and whorl settings.  I do this just to make everything uniform and compare only the wools themselves.   

I have since gone back and made other swatches from the earlier samples because as I went on, I found that those weren’t enough.  What about lace on a 3 ply?  Why not card that longwool?  Why shouldn’t I comb the down breed?  After all, breed study is about learning about how wools behave and what I like about them.  I need to try all the woolz in all the wayz!  I still use the same needles and lace pattern though.

Ok so, I got carried away there.  But that’s just it – that’s the excitement of breed study!  Four breeds led to eight, then twelve, and somewhere along the way I found myself with 104 (and counting) and a whole lot of tiny skeins.  All my sampling led me to so many revelations – so much fun and adventure.  I just wanted to do more and more and more of it.

Oh sure – how can fiber be an adventure? It’s an exploration of geography – where in heck is Borerary?  It’s an exploration of history – wait, the vikings used Gammelnorsk Sau for their sails?!  Gotta get me some (and I did).  Woodrow Wilson put shetlands with an attitude on the White House lawn?!  Why yes!  It even suggested culinary exploration (they do taste different!).

But wait, there’s more!   

Sometimes I don’t want to do what the fiber tells me to do – I just want to spin for the joy of it.  And sampling helped me do that too.  Trying to spin a fiber that is prepped in a way that it fights me while spinning used to lead me to hate that breed.  But then I realized – what if I change it?  Now I can enjoy spinning ALL the breeds because of what I learned sampling.  Picking up a coarse fiber still makes me happy because I learned what it liked.  Picking up merino can also make my day now – yes, even merino.  

And just spending time spinning a few ounces makes my day too.  Sometimes I don’t have time to spin a whole 4 or 8 ounces, and who am I kidding, I love to finish a whole bump of wool all in one go.  But knocking out 2…. Well, that’s a sanity check in a tiny wooly bag!  

I’m sold – where do I start?  

Buy all the woolz!  

Ok, seriously.  You can start with samplers.  Or you can choose 4 fibers of different fiber types.  Or you can start at the beginning (or end) of the alphabet.  Or you can pick up a few ounces of every breed in stock somewhere.  Or …. oh heck, the possibilities are endless.  But I do recommend keeping a list.  Otherwise, how will you know if you spun Zwartbles or Hebridean?  Gulf Coast or Gammelnorsk Spelsau?   What if you see a breed and you think you spun it but aren’t sure?  Well, you could do what I do and pick up 4-8 ounces anyway.

All this in a tiny bit of woolen fluff.   After all, wool is wonderful!
Well, I do still keep a list.

4 thoughts on “What is breed study?

  1. […] touched on sampling briefly in my Breed Study blog post back in April 2016. I’m still working on that stole by the way. I think it’s a lap blanket now. […]

  2. Hello I was wondering what information there is out there for documentation of what you should be looking at.

    1. Thanks for clarifying Melissa. Breed study can be confusing – there’s a lot there.

      A breed study is absolutely your opportunity to spin wools from different breeds and understand how they behave when YOU spin them and how YOU as a spinner feel about them. You are exactly right.

      The purpose is so that you can make an educated decision about a fleece you may come across or what wool to use for a specific project. A book or another spinner can tell you what you might expect, and narrow the scope, but they cannot tell you what YOU will get when YOU prepare and spin a breed and they cannot tell you what YOU will want to spin.

      You may come across a totally amazing Hog Island fleece at a fleece show for example, but having never encountered one you don’t know how it might behave. The books can give you guidance if you should happen to have one on you at the time. But say you’ve spun Southdown before and the fleece reminds you of that – you might expect it to behave similarly. (And you’d be correct as Hog Island is a down type breed with Southdown in its background.)

      First off – there is no official “breed study form”. We basically make our own based on what characteristics matter most to us; sometimes we end up going back and doing MORE sampling because we’ve discovered a trait we need to know about after the fact. That’s ok. There are characteristics which you’d find across everyone’s breed studies, and across all the books about sheep breeds, such “breed name”, “breed type”, “wool colors”, “staple length”, “preparation method”, “ply structure”. Lots of people have breed studies that they have given us in which they provide the information THEY felt was necessary for a breed study. For example, Deb Robson provides the same information for 200 breeds in The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook – and the same structure and information was used for the Field Guide to Fleece, but in a brief “field Guide” format so it could fit your pocket to go fiber festivals. Beth Smith provides consistent information across all the breeds mentioned in her book – and on page 63, there’s a photo of all the samples she did for merino in a bag, which illustrates how many samples were done for all the breeds in the book (she did the same thing for EVERY breed in her book).

      I can tell you what I put in my notes for each breed I study: Name of breed, type of breed, wool characteristics, preparation method. I include a raw and scoured lock. I also include a singles, a 2 ply and a 3 ply yarn ply back sample. On the back I write how the fiber handled – how it scoured, how it behaved in prep, how it behaved while spinning, and while plying. I prepare and finish a mini skein of each ply structure and knit a sample in stockinette and a lace sample – the same size and lace pattern. I do them all on the same wheel in the same setting on the wheel, the skeins are all finished the same way, and I knit the samples on the same set of needles. Each sample is labelled with breed, prep method, spin direction, ply direction, ply structure.

      Once you prepare a fiber you cannot “change” its preparation; you can’t make something woolen worsted. At best it will be semi-worsted. If I want to test the same fiber combed, carded, flicked, cloud, and lock, I require 5 separate sets of fiber, 5 separate sets of spun and plied yarns, and 5 separate sets of sample swatches. Each one will be tagged and information recorded. That’s what sampling is. Sampling is how you compare and contrast all the variations for a breed.

      If you want to see how merino behaves woolen prepped and woolen spun in singles, 2 ply, and 3 ply, and as garter, stockinette, and lace in each of those ply structures, you will prepare a sample of each – and a swatch of each. You want to compare that to how it behaves worsted, set those aside and do a sample of each (worsted prepped and worsted spun in singles, 2 ply and 3 ply, in stockinette and garter). Want to know how that compares to semi worsted? You got it – another set of samples. Want to know how the same thing behaves in double drive vs scotch tension? Guess what – another set of samples. Want to know know Viking combs do something different than 5 pitch combs? Another set of samples. Hand cards vs a flick card? Another set of samples. Want to know how short forward draw is different from spinning from the fold? Yep another set of samples. Want to know how it behaves with art yarn structures? You know the answer.

      This is why breed study can be so very overwhelming. You’d never spin anything but samples! It’s the lengths to which say, Olds Master Spinner Certification goes, but it’s a lot for a spinner.

      This is why I tell people to start with a finite number of breeds and a finite number of samples and do those. For example, most people have a default spin, so I tell them to chose the 12 breeds they can get most commonly at a fiber festival near them, and sample each one according to their default. Say you normally spin worsted short forward draw and only Corriedale, and you only do 2 ply yarns in stockinette based knitting. I would suggest you take 12 breeds you’ve never spun before, do one set of worsted and one set of woolen (pure – no semi here), do a singles, a 2 ply and 3 ply yarn from each (so 6 skeins total) and then knit each one into a stockinette and a stockinette based lace swatch (total = 12 swatches). Another option is to put Corriedale through its paces and do a set for every variation of Corriedale preparation, spinning, and knitting you can imagine

      Expand from there as you desire. It’s your breed study.

      In the end I can tell you this: after 114 breeds that I’ve sampled, not only do I have a fair understanding of how I expect a wool to behave, if I have a project in mind I no longer start from scratch for my sampling. Now I know what wool I can expect will do that. I only need to sample for gauge and keep my desired control card so I can match it across several thousand yards of spinning and plying. On the other side of the coin – I can also tell you whether or not I can make a fiber do something UNUSUAL. That knowledge came from breed study.

  3. Thank you for giving a better understanding of this practice. The term “breed study” is thrown around often and as a new spinning I appreciate the “concrete” direction. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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