Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How to Choose A Fleece

A lot of new spinners are excited to dive into the world of spinning, but it can be a bit overwhelming to start from raw fleece when you don't know what to look for.

When I first began spinning, I started with raw alpaca and then expanded my fiber stash to include various types of commercial rovings, including merino, shetland, blue face leicester, bamboo, milk fiber, silks, camel, tibetan yak, and more. It didn't take long to realize that all of these different breeds have a unique feel to them, and I can now tell what type of fleece a braid of roving is by simply touching and smelling* it.

 After a while, I began to realize that by only spinning and handling commercial fiber, I was missing out on a world of possibilities creatively. Shetland, for example, can be extremely coarse or extremely fine - even as fine as merino. But this varies from sheep to sheep and you need to be able to look at a fleece while it's raw to determine certain characteristics of that particular fleece.

And Shetland is not the only type of fiber that is like this - nearly all breeds of sheep will have some variations which cause certain fleeces to be more valuable or more suited to each person's particular needs.

So as a beginning to the raw wool scene, it can be very overwhelming. It's hard to know where to start and what to look for to determine if a raw fleece is good or not.
That's where I come in. This blog post will hopefully help out a little bit. Unfortunately a lot of what you will learn can only be acheived by trial and error --- believe me, I have bought my fair share of VM-riddled fleeces. But if you can get past the intial hurtles and learn how to choose a good fleece, you will likely find it to be a thousand times more rewarding than buying a faceless commercial brand.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that picking through a raw fleece and washing it is for everyone. It is often very hard work and can be grueling, stinky, and time consuming. But I think that it's incredibly rewarding to watch a fleece transform from its dirty, primitive state, to whatever it will end up becoming. And I'm happy to put in the hard work for you! We purchase raw fleeces from various farmers across the country, then we post photos of the fleece when it's raw and after it is cleaned so our customers know what they are getting. This post should not only be valuable to those people looking to buy a raw fleece and process it by hand, but also to our customers who trust us to do the choosing and cleaning for you.

So let's begin:

The obvious place to start is to determine what you are looking for in a fleece: Ask yourself these questions:
  • What is it going to be turned into? 
  • Do you want to use it for felting, spinning, or both?
  • Are you going to be making something that will be next to your skin, or are you going for an outerwear garment? This will tell you how soft you need your fleece to be and help determine what breed of sheep to look into. Some people are more sensitive than others to wool, but there are types of wool out there that won't bother even the most sensitive skin. Not all wools are scratchy!
Once you have answered those questions, you will want to look more closely at the first question, "What is it going to be turned into?". Socks, for example, need to have elasticity to keep them from falling down your legs. Shawls and scarves can drape well and hang freely.

The first thing to look at is the general appearance of the fleece. Check to see if there is a lot of visible vegetable matter, such as hay, burs, dirt, etc. If there is a lot of it, consider whether or not you are willing to take the time to clean it out. Most uncovered sheep are going to have some VM in them, but an excessive amount can be difficult to take on.

 At this point you will want to find out if the fleece has been skirted or not. Skirting involves throwing out the more contaminated or unusable parts of the fleece, such as areas with a lot of VM and second cuts. It's ok if this has not been done, but if you are paying for the fleece by the pound that can add to the cost of the fleece for fiber that won't be useable. Use cation when buying an unskirted fleece to make sure it doesn't hurt your budget.

Corriedale with great crimp!
Next, look at the crimp of the fleece. Depending on the breed, some fleeces will be expected to have a lot of crimp while others won't have any at all. This comes back to what you plan to use your wool for. The amount of crimp a fleece has will determine the memory of it and how springy it will be. If you have a fleece such as karakul, qiviut (musk ox), angora, icelandic or even suri alpaca, you can expect there to be no crimp in the individual fibers. These types of fiber will be best for garments that you want to hang freely and that will drape nicely. It's important to note that this doesn't have to limit you -- you can still buy these fibers and blend them with other crimpy breeds if you want to use them in projects that require memory. For example, a lot of people like to blend shetland (lots of crimp) with angora rabbit fiber to make wonderfully soft, fuzzy socks that will keep their shape.

Corriedale, shetland, merino, and many other breeds tend to have a great deal of crimp to them, and are often used for socks and other form-fitting projects.
Corriedale before washing
Corriedale after washing

If possible, it is always best to check the fiber from different parts of the sheep. If you are able to see the fleece in person, you can ask to spread it out and then check different areas to see if there are drastic differences in the fleece from one part of the animal's body to the other. Good areas to check are the shoulder, haunch, and mid-side. Why is this important? Because you don't want to get stuck with a fleece that has fantastic long, soft fibers on the back while the rest of it is short and matted.  Uniformity is a good thing and is prized in fleece shows.

Which brings us to the next thing to look for: Cotting or matting. I recently had the unfortunate experience of purchasing a beautiful mohair fleece (sight unseen) from a local farmer. It had 14 inch long locks and was just lovely, but once I started to pick through it I realized that the majority of it had been felted throughout. At most, I was able to cut off about 6 inches of locks and save them, but the rest of the fleece was beyond repair, having been matted completely from the cut ends of the animal up. Cotting happens a lot with older animals or with animals that have been exposed to extreme elements. Just as you can felt a fleece when it's off the animal, this can also happen while it's on the animal. Sometimes this can be salvaged and combed out gently, but more often the fleece will simply break, lessening the quality of the wool. These fleeces also can become brittle and dry and are best avoided if you want to spin them**.

It is also important to check the tensile strength of the locks. You can do this easily by taking each end of a lock of fleece and bringing it close to your ear. Tug on it sharply at both ends three times and listen to the sound it makes. If it sounds like fiber tearing, it is likely not a good fleece and will result in some problems during processing and spinning. It should sound clear, high pitched, and springy when you pull on the ends, with no evidence of breakage. I like to test various parts of a fleece for this, typically at the same time that I inspect the crimp. The back is a great place to test this because it is the area most prone to damage by weathering.

Weathered tips are a slightly different story. They are weaker parts of the fleece which can be a lighter color than the rest of the fleece and/or can be slightly matted together. A lot of people refer to them as "lamb tips" or "tippiness" and they are easy to cut off. There are often very nice fleeces that might have these tips, which does not necessarily mean that the rest of the fleece is not strong. They can easily be cut off while preserving the good part.

Sometimes a fleece will have a high tensile strength overall, but have a specific spot that is prone to breakage. Breaks are not a genetic problem, but rather environmental. They are most often caused by stress such as being moved, severe weathering (hot or cold), or chased by animals. I bought a fleece several month ago that fell into this category. It had 14 inch long curls (it was a teeswater fleece) with a break about halfway through each of the locks. I decided to keep the fleece because both halves had great tensile strength and curl definition. As long as the rest of the staple holds up to your tests, this does not have to be a deal breaker (assuming that you get enough fiber to make it useable -- 2 inches or more is ideal).  It will all depend on your needs and how long you need your fiber to be.

Check to see if there is any significant staining of the fleece. Lanolin or yolk will often have a light yellow look to it, but that can easily be washed out and helps protect the fleece (and makes your hands feel amazing!).

A fleece with Canary Stain
Canary stain, on the other hand, will not come out and comes with a lot of other potential problems. Canary stain is bright yellow and is caused by microscopic parasitic organisms which live on the sheep. These organisms feed off of the wool's wax and protein. After a while, the wool can become very brittle, break, and ultimately disintegrate altogether! Washing the fleece will kill the organism, but the salvaged wool can have a gummy feel and will likely not take dyes well. These fleeces are best avoided.

Weather staining, or fleece rot is caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. These bacteria thrive in damp environments and are almost always found in soap scum and showers. You can identify a fleece that has been infected by looking at the color - it tends to be green, blue, orange, or pink. These fleeces should be avoided for the same reasons as the canary stain.

The last thing to consider is the overall feel of the fleece. Micron count is most often used in the United States as a measure of how thick the individual fibers of a fleece are. Each fleece will likely have multiple different microns within it, but the overall micron count should be the average of them all.  The higher the micron count number, the coarser the wool will be. A small difference in number can be a big difference in how a fleece feels. For example, we used to only offer 21.5 micron merino roving to our customers. We now offer 19 micron merino instead because the softness is noticeably different. You obviously won't be able to determine the micron count with your bare eyes when looking at a fleece, but it's good to ask if the grower knows what it is. If not, use your best judgment to decide if the fleece will be soft (or coarse) enough for your needs. The finer the wool, the less likely it is to cause irritation next to your skin. The coarser the wool, the more likely it is to hold up to wear and tear (such as rugs). Different types of animals will feed different depending on their microscopic make-up. For example, kid mohair, alpaca, and wool will all feel different even if they have the same micron count. That is because the tiny scales that are found on each of these types of fibers will be arranged differently, resulting in a "silky" feel that is different for each breed.

I know that there are other things to consider, but hopefully this helped you a little bit.

As always, you can find us on Etsy at www.bluebarnfiber.etsy.com and feel free to message me if you'd like to try a sample of any of the breeds mentioned.


*You read that right! Rose fiber, for example, looks almost identical to viscose bamboo, milk fiber, and silk at first glance, but it has a distinct smell. Silk also has a very strong protein smell which I lovingly refer to as "bug spit smell" which does go away after a while. 

** But waste not, want not! in cases of sheep breeds with long, curly locks, they can sometimes become felted while on the animal while maintaining the beauty of the curls. Instead of cutting the loose ends off of the matted section, you can sometimes keep it intact and make beautiful felted scarves out of it. Check out Namaste Farms on facebook for some amazing examples of this.