Buying the perfect fleece for handspinning

All the fleeces cleaned, bagged and ready to do
All the fleeces cleaned, bagged and ready to do

All my fleece buying for this year is now done. I have 10 fleeces all clean, bagged and ready for processing into whatever they will become over the autumn and winter.

2 Jacob (from Jason the Shearer)

1 White faced woodland x Jacob (from Ickworth, Suffolk)

3 Norfolk horns (gifted from Oliver in the village, one of which I have gifted on),

1 Shetland (moorit – ginger – not my favourite but it does dye really nice muted autumny shades, from Paulines Norfolk friend at Guild)

1 black Romney (the lovely Arabella)

1 Wensleydale (bought from Marion in Acle)

1 Massam (gifted from the lovely Lorraine)

1 BFL mule (ditto)

1 unknown lawn mower meat fleece (bought on a whim as it’s very soft and very beautiful and more than a little Shetland like)

1 kid alpaca (bartered for a discount on a couple of leather armchairs I sold)

Do you think I have enough?

I think they are all very fine fleeces, each one beautiful in its own way.

But it causes me to reflect on what exactly is the perfect hand spinning fleece and the mistakes I have made. For a spinner the perfect fleece is clean, uncontaminated by pests and vfm, well skirted, few second cuts, is sound, and not discoloured. It has the right fineness and the perfect staple length for its purpose. It is open and just falls onto the card or combs, taking but a moment to prepare it to spin. Heck it is so open and clean that it can be spun straight from the fleece with nothing more than a quick flick. In short one that comes from a sheep that has been kept in good health, in a good environment and sheared well.

Sadly, these wondrous beauties seem to come along quite rarely. But since I bought my first raw fleece five years ago my lucky strike rate does seem to have improved.  I’ve become one of those very picky, awkward customers. I am no longer embarrassed or afraid to say no thank you to a generous offer if the fleece is less than desirable. I am quite prepared to get stuck in and open out a fleece pull it to bits and then reject it, bundling it back up as I found it. Non spinners have a belief that all sheep fleece is spinnable. In a way they are right but… most spinners do not have the time to rescue a bad fleece that will spin up into a bad, rough, just plain nasty yarn. Unless of course that is what they wanted.

I have made just about every mistake there is.

There are 5 questions I now know to ask of a fleece and to ignore at my peril. These are:

Is it matted?

Is it sound?

Is it clean?

Does is have any staining or strange colouring?

How good was the shearing?

The first thing I do is to open out the fleece as much as I can. Matting or cotting is fairly easy to spot. Does that fleece want to fall apart or does it already look like it’s halfway towards a good felted sheepskin rug? I have paid good money for fleeces that gave me blisters and made me weep tears of frustration trying to tear them apart to be able to card the fibre before giving up on them. They did however make very nice sheepskins by felting the backs, sewing up the weak spots and dyeing them. I now sit on one when I spin.

Massam felted on the back and stitched to make a rug
Massam felted on the back and stitched to make a rug

By soundness I am talking about structural weakness in the fibres. For soundness test by giving a random staple or two the tug test. Take a staple and hold it firmly at each end. Then give it a firm steady substantial pull, do this by your ear as well to hear any tell-tale snap, crackle and pop of breaking fibres. If the fibres break then walk away. If the fibres randomly break along the shaft then the fleece is ‘tender’. If it is tender you will hear the snap, crackle and pop. If the break happens across the staple at the same point then this is a ‘Break’. A break is caused by some type of trauma such as diet, weather, illness or shock of some kind.

IMG_20160819_130136970

An unsound fleece is not good for spinning. Carding or combing will break the fibres, the yarn will be lumpy, bumpy and will pill. However, all is not lost if you have one like this. It can make great felt or stuffing or insulation, rugs whatever. Just not great yarn.

felted collar (wool, silk and wensleydale locks)
felted collar (wool, silk and wensleydale locks)

All fleeces will have a certain amount of contamination of vegetable matter, bits of seeds, grass, insects, burdocks, and thistles whatever. This is the dreaded vfm. But some will have more than others. VFM means more work in preparing. Work is time. How much time do you have? How picky are you? Most of my yarns will have a bit of the field in them. It’s all character to me. But some are so contaminated that the more you do to get it out the worse it gets as the vfm breaks down into every smaller fragments. My advice. Walk away. I once watched in horror as someone shook out a lovely chocolate brown alpaca fleece onto an unclean stable floor. The stray, sawdust, hay, feed dust and just about every other particle of crap on the floor seemed to be attracted to the fleece like metal fillings to a magnet. I still took it, I was too embarrassed not to.  (Will add a picture when I can find one as I don’t have any in my stock)

Staining or discolouration, such as the yellow ‘yolk’ or ‘canary’ stains found towards the base of the staple, can be due to many different factors.  Staining or discolouration is not a problem if you plan to dye the fibre at some point. If you want a uniform colour then walk away as the discolouration will not wash out and is a characteristic of that fleece. For me I tend to ignore them. What I don’t ignore is the spray can of blue or fluorescent green or red that has been painted all over the fleece. This stuff will not wash out and will come through when dyeing. These I will walk away from if the shepherd has painted his sheep like it was a wall in a dulux ad. (again will add a picture when I can get one as I don’t have one in stock, unless you have one you would like to share)

Which brings me on to my final check. Badly shorn fleece. Second cuts. I once bought a fleece that looked ok. I did all the tests.  But when I got it home I shook it out and the thing peeled apart like 2 slices of bread where the fleece had been cut first halfway up the staple and then the shearer had gone back in to finish the job. Second cuts will make a bad yarn in the same way that breaks will. All fleeces will have some second cuts. But some will have more than others.  The one I bought was good for nothing but mulching the veg patch and lining my baskets…

My luck has improved with experience.  But I am not complacent or smug about it. Even now I make mistakes. That lawn mower fleece. Its feels like the one Jason and his Argonauts ought to be searching for. It’s so soft, open and glows with a lustrous golden light to it. I did do the tug test, honest, but I ignored my gut feeling. It really is very pretty fleece. But yes, it does have a break. So very sad. However it has meant that I am playing with wet felting and it is making the most wonderful felted things.

shredded cobweb felt scarf made with unsound fleece, silk and wensleydale locks
shredded cobweb felt scarf made with unsound fleece, silk and wensleydale locks

So what I have learnt over the years is that every fleece has its uses. Mistakes aren’t really that, just that you have the right fleece but for the wrong job.

Hope this helps you get lucky when it comes to finding that elusive perfect fleece.

I would love to do a follow up post with some of your horror stories so please get in contact and share…

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3 thoughts on “Buying the perfect fleece for handspinning

  1. I am learning through trial and error the truth of all you have written, but since I get my fleeces for free, there is little I can say about it. The shepherd brings a large bag with about 15 ‘backs’ all jumbled up, filthy like you wouldn’t believe and smiles saying ‘ I got you the long bits right?’ they are meat and milk sheep and in general the wool goes for mattress stuffing. But bits of it are incredibly soft. I am learning how to make the most of them, but it is time consuming. I live in rural Spain btw.

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  2. loved your explanations and loved what you did with the felted rug. How did you felt the back, did you use an iron on the back of it to felt it. Your rug came out fantastic. By the way so did your scarf’s. Just gorgeous.

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  3. Your workshop at the forum has inspired me so much, I’m now sitting here with my first raw fleece, a pretty golden hued Border Leicester shearling from Hilda….found what you wrote really interesting and very helpful in what to look for with a fleece.

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