The characteristics of fleece — its structure, grease content, and fiber diameter — vary widely depending on the breed of sheep the fleece comes from. In this comprehensive guide, Beth Smith profiles 21 types of fleece, from bouncy and pliant to lacy and lightweight. A sheep-by-sheep reference describes the best way to wash and spin each fleece into rich, soft yarn. You’ll soon be confidently choosing the right fleece, spinning it to perfection, and enjoying the perfect yarn for your next fiber creation.
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About the Author
Beth Smith, author of How to Spin and The Spinner’s Book of Fleece, is renowned for her love of the variety and versatility of sheep breeds, and she teaches the whys and how-tos of preparing and spinning wool from different breeds. For seven years she owned The Spinning Loft, a shop celebrated for its selection of hard-to-find quality fleeces. She teaches internationally and writes for PLY, Spin Off, and Knittyspin magazines. She also sits on the editorial board of PLY magazine. She lives in Howell, Michigan.
Deborah Robson is co-author of The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook and Knitting in the Old Way. She is a former editor of both Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot and Spin-Off magazine, and she is currently the editor and publisher of Nomad Press, which publishes books on traditional and ethnic knitting and spinning. Robson is also an artist, working in textiles, printmaking, and oils. She lives in Colorado with her daughter.
Read an Excerpt
The Value of Raw Fleece
I began knitting because there were things I wanted that I couldn't find in the store. I began spinning because I was curious about where yarn comes from. I continued spinning prepared fiber from a mill because I realized that I could make yarns I couldn't find in the store. Preparing your own fiber from raw fleece takes that exploration one step further.
Many of the fibers included in this book can readily be found in both raw and processed forms, but I am a huge proponent of processing your own fibers from scratch. I have several reasons for this. The first is that by doing the prep yourself by hand, you'll often get a more consistent yarn. The second is that commercial processors sometimes use harsh detergents and other chemicals to remove vegetable matter (VM) and other forms of dirt from fibers, and these chemicals can affect the texture of the fleece. This makes the finished yarn a bit less soft and sometimes not as lustrous as a yarn spun from fleece that has been hand processed under gentler conditions. This drawback is particularly true of fleece from large mills that process hundreds and even thousands of pounds of the same wool types at a time. It's not usually a problem, however, with fleece from small local mills that accept batches of fiber as small as one fleece.
A third reason to process your own wool is that you can choose a particular fleece that will work for your particular project. As mentioned earlier, the qualities of several fleeces, although from the same breed, can be different from region to region, from farm to farm, and even from sheep to sheep. The Romney fleece I get from a local flock in the Midwest may have similar characteristics to a fleece acquired in the West, but the hand, or feel, of the wool may change. A lamb's fleece from that same midwestern Romney flock may be perfect for making scarves and hats, while the fleece of an adult ewe from the same flock is crying out to be a cardigan or even a lovely rug for the kitchen.
A Consistent Yarn: Fantasy or Possibility?
Many modern sheep breeds that are used mainly for their wool have been bred for consistency of fleece. This means the fibers from the neck of the sheep will be similar in fiber diameter, crimp structure, and lock length to the fibers taken from the side or back end of the same animal. This makes machine processing easier and also predictable from one lot to the next.
Completely mechanical spinning machines were developed to imitate what human hands could do. When we handspin with a view to spinning the perfect yarn, we're not trying to copy what machines can do or what can be bought in a store. Instead, we're trying to be the best spinners we can be. Although this may not be every spinner's goal, if you are someone who took up the craft of spinning for this reason, know that very smooth, consistent yarn is an achievable goal that will come with time and focused practice.
Skirting and Sorting Matters
Hopefully, the fleece has been skirted before you buy it. Skirting not only removes dung tags and lots of stained areas around the outside of the fleece, it also removes the belly wool and neck wool that generally has the most VM. With many breeds, however, some wool consisting of different lengths and textures remains after skirting, and this is where sorting comes in.
Corriedales and Merinos are examples of sheep that have been bred to have a very consistent fleece all over their bodies. This means that the lock length and crimp is similar from head to tail, and the fleece will easily make a similar yarn regardless of where the wool is taken from the body. On the other hand, more primitive breeds, such as Jacob and Shetland, have a range of different fiber diameters, crimps, and staple lengths (lock length) on different parts of the body. The wool on an animal's shoulders is generally softest, possibly getting coarser as you move from front to back. In their book In Sheep's Clothing, Nola and Jane Fournier write that there may be up to 14 different types of wool on one sheep, depending on the breed and her age.
Sorting your wool before processing it may help you avoid spinning an inconsistent yarn that is the result of dealing with different fiber lengths and degrees of coarseness. Sorting also helps prevent getting a yarn with different rates of shrinkage caused by differing amounts of crimp in fibers from different parts of the sheep, as well as a yarn that accepts dye unevenly because the different wool textures take the dye differently.
Is it always necessary to sort the fleece before spinning? In my opinion the answer is no, not always. It depends on how special the item is that you will be making, how much wool you need for your project, and how much blending you plan to do with it before you spin it. If you will be carding the fleece, you can card the coarser wool from the rump with the softer wools from the shoulders and sides to make a more homogenous yarn that will be consistent throughout the project.
Going by Feel
When you buy a fleece, it will sometimes be folded and rolled after the skirting. The two sides are folded into the center, then the back end is rolled toward the front, and finally the neck wool is stretched out a bit and used to wrap around and secure the fleece. When you unroll the fleece to look at it, make sure you remember which part was wrapped around it, so you can distinguish the front end from the back. Sometimes you can see the different wool qualities, but mostly you will be going by feel. As I said, not all breeds exhibit big differences in the characteristics of various parts of one fleece, so if you think it all will work well together, don't worry about it.
If, on the other hand, you find that some of the wool won't work for the soft sweater you have in mind, you can always put the coarser wool aside to use in rugs or bags or even as stuffing. All wool has a purpose.
An Introduction to Hand Scouring
There are many different ways to wash fleeces (usually referred to as scouring), but what I describe here is what works best for me and my purposes and also avoids tragic felting mistakes. I give detailed washing information for each breed category, though the washing methods are similar from one category to another.
My methods are specifically for small-scale scouring. I wash fleeces in small batches of about 8 to 24 ounces at a time, depending on the size container I'm using. When choosing a container, it's important that there be plenty of water around the fibers so that the dirt and grease has plenty of room to move away from the wool. For years, I washed fleece in ordinary kitchen dishpans that hold about 2 1/2 gallons of water comfortably (before fleece is added). These pans accommodate about 8 ounces of a high-volume fleece, such as a Down type. I now use larger containers that hold about 4 1/2 gallons of water before I add the fleece, so that I can wash 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of fleece in them.
I prefer somewhat shallow, flexible containers, sometimes called trugs, which are available at feed, hardware, and garden stores. Their flexibility and convenient handles make it easy to empty the water without removing the fleece and still control the fleece from escaping into the sink. These containers are also easy to move from one spot to another, since I generally work with multiple containers at the same time. I have three containers and a counter next to my sink, so I can wash up to 4 1/2 pounds of fleece in about 2 hours. For many breeds of sheep that means a whole skirted fleece can be done without too much hard work and without water up to my elbows.
You'll need to experiment with washing techniques, especially to ascertain what works in your water. City water differs from well water, and well water is different from place to place, depending on whether it's hard or soft. The water itself doesn't necessarily affect the outcome, but your detergent and the way it reacts with the minerals in your water can have a big effect on how clean a fleece gets.
I always use a wool scour that was formulated specifically for removing lanolin from wool. Though such a scour may seem more expensive than detergents and soaps you can get at the local grocery store, the amount required to scour the wool is much less than the amount of household cleaner needed. I've tried almost all of the scouring agents on the market, and my preferred wool scour is Unicorn Power Scour, made by Unicorn Fibre. Other experienced fiber people recommend other detergents, but Power Scour is the one I find consistently gives me great results, regardless of the fleece's grease content. It can be used at lower temperatures than the other scours (which means no boiling water is necessary), and I use a fraction of the amount required by other detergents I've tried.
In a pinch, household dish soap also works and may seem like a less expensive way to go. In order to remove the grease, however, it's important to use enough soap so that the water feels slippery, and it may not be as inexpensive as you think. In addition, soap creates quite a lot of suds, which means you'll need many rinses to remove the soap. In contrast, Unicorn Power Scour cuts down on the amount of rinse water required by at least a third.
The final word is experiment! Try every recommended method that you come across and discover what works best for you. I've made many mistakes and lost some fleece to tragic errors, but I rarely experiment with more than a pound at a time, so my losses are minimal. Once, I put a whole fleece in the washing machine, and another time a whole fleece in the bathtub. While neither experience felted those fleeces, they made me realize that I wasn't comfortable working with more than 1 to 2 pounds at a time. Experimenting with various washing and prep methods resulted in the approach I use now, and I'm very comfortable with the whole process.
How Clean Is Clean?
Although the tips of your fleece may not look completely clean after scouring, they will open up during the fiber prep step, and anything that looks like dirt will be gone with whichever processing method you choose. Be aware that certain breeds produce bright white fleeces, whereas the "white" fleeces of other breeds may appear more off-white or even yellow. If your problem is stains, however, you'll find that these aren't necessarily easy to get rid of. Yellow in color, a canary stain, for instance, will not wash out, although it does not affect the strength of the fiber. (For more information about canary stains, see Canary Stain.) If staining is your problem, sometimes overdyeing is the only solution.
Keep in mind that the final rinse may not run completely clear. Your main goal at this point is to remove the lanolin so that the fibers move freely past each other during spinning. You don't have to get out every bit of dirt during this initial scouring, because you'll wash the skeins after spinning, as well as after finishing whatever you make with your yarn. By then, all of the dirt will be gone.
Storing Raw Fleece and Processed Fiber
You can store fleece for years. Over time, the grease will harden a bit, but hot water will come to the rescue. If stored well in an appropriate container, you should have no worries. Good containers include cloth bags, such as pillowcases or canvas sacks. Paper bags also work, as do dry-cleaner bags meant for storing bedding. Any of these options should protect the fleece from moths, but if the fleece happens to be contaminated, other fibers stored in the same area will be protected if you keep them separate in appropriate containers. Plastic bags are not optimal for long-term storage. Wool is always trading moisture with the air around it, and plastic traps the moisture, possibly resulting in mold or mildew problems. Large plastic containers are usually not airtight, so the worry about mold or mildew isn't really a concern.
Processed fibers can get compacted and matted over time, so it's better to give them a bit of space no matter what way you decide to store them. I like plastic containers as a quarantine measure, but if you have the room, open shelving is best. Moths don't like light or fresh air; they love dark corners. Optimally, your fibers will be stored in a well-lit place with lots of room for air to circulate around it. If this isn't possible, then the next best thing is to go through your stash frequently and move things around often.
An Overview of Fiber-Prep Tools
Before I go into specifics about fiber prep tools, I'd like to climb onto my soapbox for a moment here and talk about tools in general. I encourage you to get the best tools your budget allows. Many people use pet-grooming tools as an inexpensive alternative to tools built specifically for fiber preparation (see Using Dog-Grooming Tools). Although these give you an idea of how real fiber-prep tools work, they don't give you the true results. There really is a difference between just using two dog slickers in contrast to handcards made with carding cloth designed specifically for wool.
Tools made specifically for wool processing provide the results you're looking for in less time and with less effort than do other options. Although they may seem expensive, properly cared-for wool-processing tools will last for many years. I have seen 25-year-old handcards that are still usable. I purchased my favorite set of handcombs used, at least 10 years ago. Bang for the buck, it's much better to spend more money at the start and have tools that will last a lifetime, as opposed to buying tools that need to be replaced on a regular basis because the pins can't stand up to the stress that fiber prep puts on them.
I always recommend trying any tools before you buy. This includes everything from spindles to flicks, hand combs, and spinning wheels. In my perfect world, there would be a spinning supply store in every town. Sadly, we aren't there yet, so while we wait for that to happen, many of us will have to take a few risks in the tool-buying department.
When you're making buying decisions, it's good to go with tools that have a solid reputation and have worked for other spinners you know. This method of purchasing may mean that you will have to order two or more different brands or styles until you find one that fits your hands, body, or style. The good news is that there is a thriving network for used tools on the Internet, including several websites devoted to selling just fiber tools (see Resources for suggestions).
Some tools take a lot of practice in order to perfect the technique. In person lessons are the best choice and the fastest way to success in these cases. There are also online sources for videos and instruction that can get you on your way until that in-person class is available. Different instructors use different techniques, so don't give up if that first try doesn't get you where you want to be.
Wheels or Spindles?
Most of the techniques described in this book can be done with any spinning wheel or handspindle. I don't describe drafting methods in depth, beyond defining woolen- and worsted- spun (see Worsted and Woolen Spinning Basics, below). The twist in woolen-spun yarns is allowed to enter the fiber supply, whereas the twist in worsted-spun yarns is not allowed into the fiber supply. This means that these yarns, and anything on the spectrum in between, can be spun on a spindle or a spinning wheel. It also doesn't matter whether your wheel is Irish tension, Scotch tension, or double drive. Although those drive systems can make a difference in your yarns, I'm not dealing with those differences in the context of this book.
Your Choice Matters
The main purpose of any style of fiber preparation is to straighten and align the fibers, and to open the tips to make the spinning easier. Your decision about which tool to use to accomplish this is based on the end result you would like reflected in your yarn. For instance, handcards and drumcarders do align fibers, but combing aligns them to a greater extent. The carding process doesn't remove short fiber, and when you card, you aren't trying to keep butts and tips heading in the same direction. If you spin worsted yarn, you take pains to keep the alignment combing provides. In contrast, when you spin a woolen yarn from carded fibers, you do your best to preserve the air you've built in by spinning from rolags or by spinning long draw so that air is trapped by the twist.
Next, I will give you an overview of wool-preparation tools. A description of how to use each one is covered in subsequent chapters according to fleece category.
A flick card, also known as a flicker, is designed to open the fibers in each lock of wool. This is one of the least expensive tools you can purchase for fiber preparation, and you can use it for almost any wool. I say almost any because the longer-stapled (meaning longer lock length) longwools may be a bit difficult to open in the center of the lock. In addition, any wool that has a staple length of less than 3 inches may be difficult to flick without drawing blood, because it's hard to get your fingers out of the way enough and still maintain a strong grip on the lock.
Excerpted from "The Spinner's Book of Fleece"
Copyright © 2014 Beth Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Deborah Robson Introduction: Spinning with Purpose and Confidence Chapter 1 THE VALUE OF RAW FLEECE A Consistent Yarn: Fantasy or Possibility? An Introduction to Hand Scouring Chapter 2 BUYING A FLEECE: DOS AND DON’TS Deciding How Much to Buy First Consideration Chapter 3 GETTING TO YARN Spinning Yarns for Knitting or Crochet Spinning Yarns for Weaving Spinning Singles Chapter 4 FINE WOOLS Washing Techniques for Fine Wools Preparing to Spin Fine Wools Spinning Flicked Locks Merino Chapter 5 LONGWOOLS Avoiding Stereotypes Appreciating Yarn Differences Washing Longwool Fleece Combing the Longwools Making Top after Combing A Short Lesson in Worsted Spinning Wensleydale Romney Lincoln Bluefaced Leicester Chapter 6 DOWNS AND DOWN-TYPE BREEDS Skirting a Fleece Scouring Down-Type Wools Handcarding Techniques Drumcarders Suffolk Southdown Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset Black Welsh Mountain Chapter 7 MULTICOATED BREEDS Working with the Multicoats American Karakul Scottish Blackface Shetland Icelandic Chapter 8 OTHER BREEDS Hand Prepping Your Fleece California Red Jacob Tunis Glossary of Terms Metric Conversions USDA Standard Wool Specifications Reading List Resources Acknowledgements Index
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Whether you are a spinner who starts your preparation directly from the fleece or spins from commercially prepped fiber... this is a must-have book for you! Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced Spinners included. Aside from the beautiful pictures and samples... this book is thorough, relevant and endlessly informative on the characteristics of wool from choosing your fleece through producing a lovely handspun and finished yarn. This read truly goes hand in hand with Deborah Robson's book of Fleece & Fiber, who also wrote the foreword for this incredible book. There is so much to learn from this knowledgeable expert and author. I promise, you won't be disappointed! In fact, buy one for yourself and another for a friend. Spread the good word of spinning wool.