By Adrianne L. Shtop
The morning sun wakes you to icy-cold air and 30 inches of overnight snow. You spend 10 minutes layering, wrapping and capping yourself before you dare step outside the door.
You trudge as fast as you can to tend your flock of sheep, shivering through the high, bright drifts, but when you reach their pen, there’s not a sheep in sight--just a field of snowy mounds.
Your soft call causes the mounds to quake and as each drift breaks apart to reveal a yawning, stretching sheep, you whisper to yourself, “I wish I had a coat like that!”
Envy your sheep’s warm, wooly coats no longer!
Transforming wool fleece into toasty, water-resistant hats, scarves, socks, sweaters and jackets is not some magical alchemy beyond your reach. All that is required is the willingness to learn new skills, the time to practice them and a few simple tools. And, of course, some sheep.
Types of Fleece
The first step in going “sheep to shawl” is evaluating your flock.
There are more than 1,000 breeds of sheep in use worldwide, but not all produce fleece suitable for making garments at home.
Most sheep are dual- or triple-purpose, producing meat, wool and/or milk, but breeds usually excel in one area or another.
Sheep bred for wool production, such as Rambouillet, Delaine Merino and Bluefaced Leicester, grow the best-quality fleece.
The meat and wool breeds, Columbia, Corriedale and Romney, for example, also produce fleece that is excellent for handspinning.
Useful, although not as fine in quality, is the fleece of sheep raised primarily for their meat, such as Suffolk, Dorset and Southdown.
Hair sheep, the “easy-care” breeds including the Dorper and Katahdin, shed their coats annually and never need shearing. They are raised mainly for meat and skin, and do not produce a spinnable fleece.
You can work with the fleece of any sheep that produces wool, but the particular characteristics of each breed affect the quality and type of yarn you can make and the purpose to which it can be put.
Wool is commonly categorized as “fine,” “long” or “down.”
Fine wool is soft, but wears less well than coarser wool. It is often worn next to the skin as its extremely thin fibers tend not to itch. Fine wool is perfect for any garment requiring a soft hand or good drape.
Fine wool fleeces are very dense.
The length of the lock, or “staple length,” falls in the short to medium category, from 3 1/2 to 5 inches. The locks are rectangular and well-defined, sporting many crimps per inch. It’s this close crimp that gives fine wool its superior elasticity. The fine-wool breeds include Columbia, Cormo, Corriedale, Delaine Merino and Rambouillet.
Long wool fleece has a wavy crimp pattern, a 5- to 12-inch staple and runs medium to coarse in fineness.
This wool wears well, has excellent luster and is generally very lofty. It is perfect when you want high durability and warmth without weight. Long wools are often used for outerwear, carpets and upholstery. Typical breeds in this category are Romney, the Leicesters, Cotswold and Devon.
If your herd is comprised of Cheviot, Dorset, Suffolk or Tunis, you have down wool, likewise any breed with “down” in the name.
This wool runs fine to medium in grade with a short, 2- to 3 1/2 inch, poorly defined staple. The crimp is spiral in pattern, making the wool feel quite spongy, and giving it great resilience and insulating power. Down wool is used primarily for sweaters, socks and blankets.
The Wonders of Wool
Wool is an amazing fiber. It is extremely flexible and elastic, able to be bent back on itself over 25,000 times without breaking; compare this with cotton, which breaks at 3,000 bends. It can be stretched up to 30 percent of its length when dry (double that when wet) and still snap back to its original shape. This makes for a very durable, tear-resistant fabric that won’t wrinkle when made into a garment.
The rough, scaly surface of wool fiber excels at trapping air, making wool fantastically warm. In addition, wool can absorb up to one-third of its weight in water without feeling damp. This means wool keeps moisture away from your skin, providing extra warmth in winter and helping you cool down in summer.
Every fiber of wool contains moisture, making it naturally flame resistant. Although it can catch fire, it usually only smolders; when the source of the flame is removed, wool will self-extinguish. It does not melt the way most synthetic fibers do, so wool will not stick to the skin if burned.
From Their Fleece to Your Wool
O f course, before you can begin preparing fleece for spinning, you must remove it from the sheep.
Shearing for handspinning can be done with scissors, hand blades or electric clippers; the important thing is to remove the fleece in one piece and minimize second cuts. Many handspinners prefer to hire a professional to shear their flock, as this step has such a dramatic effect on the quality of the wool. Sheep-breeder associations or other local clubs may offer shearing classes and often can recommend professional shearers.
Whether you shear the sheep yourself or hire someone else, here are a few things to remember:
- Use only scourable marking crayons or sprays and don’t use any insecticidal chemical for six weeks before shearing
- Make sure your sheep are kept dry in the days leading up to shearing
- Remove obvious foreign material from the fleece and take off collars from pet sheep
- Warn shearers of any ear tags
- If possible, don’t feed or water the sheep for at least four hours before shearing to minimize fecal contamination of the fleece
- Keep the shearing room as clean as possible and sweep well between each shear
- Coat or cover your sheep afterward unless the weather is very warm
Once the fleece is removed, it needs to be “skirted,” or picked clean.
The object of skirting is to remove anything you don’t want in your finished yarn, including vegetation, dung and inferior wool.
The initial skirting can be done on the barn floor as soon as the fleece is removed, but out of the way of the next sheep being shorn.
Simply pull away any fleece that is obviously stained, soiled with manure or matted with plant material. At this stage, one can easily remove several pounds of unusable fleece; the tail, neck and belly wool are usually quite soiled. Save what you remove to mulch the garden.
The next stage of skirting is best done on a table made of wire netting.
Commercial skirting tables with built-in scales are available from specialty shops, but making one yourself is simple and instructions are readily available on the Internet.
Basically, you want to support the wire mesh at hip height for ease of viewing and cleaning of the fleece. Wire with 1- by 2-inch rectangular openings works well, as does chicken wire. The mesh allows short pieces of wool, dirt, seeds and hay to fall through to the floor, leaving the more desirable wool for spinning.
Getting Close to Your Wool
Lay the fleece out cut side down and gently give it a shake to loosen dirt and short cuts.
It’s important to get to know your wool, so examine your fleece carefully. Check the luster, staple length and crimp of the fiber. Are the locks defined or indistinct? Pick out a lock and pull from both ends. Is it elastic or does it break? If your sheep were ill or subjected to very bad weather, it will show in the fleece as weak points; fiber that breaks mid-staple will be very hard to spin.
Look at the color: naturally occurring lanolin is a pale, soft yellow. Bright yellow indicates a bacterium known as “canary stain,” which will not wash out and must be discarded. Pick out burrs and other vegetation you missed in the initial skirting, as well as felted tips, dung tags, sweat points and stray pieces of skin. Clip and comb tips that are simply mudded.
When you have finished skirting, you should wash or “scour” your fleece. While some spinners advocate “spinning in the grease,” that is, spinning with the lanolin intact, most prefer working with clean fiber. Dirt or waste product left on the fleece will be impossible to remove once it is spun into yarn.
Favorite scouring methods differ. Generally, if your fleece is very high in lanolin or very dirty, use hot water with plenty of soap. If your sheep were coated all year and naturally produce only a thin film of lanolin, washing can be a quick rinse in cool water. Either way, handle the fleece as little as possible to avoid felting the wool. Some spinners use a basket or net lingerie bag to protect their wool while washing.
- Fill a sink, large bowl or the washing machine with water, add your soap and swirl it in.
- Submerge the fleece in the soapy water bath and allow it to soak for 10 to 15 minutes, but no longer or the water temperature will change, hardening the lanolin onto the fiber.
- Gently squeeze or swish the fleece and drain the water.
- Repeat until your wool looks clean.
- Rinse in the same manner to clear the soap.
- Be sure to use water of the same temperature throughout the washing and rinsing process.
- Dry flat, out of direct sunlight and away from strong wind. It may take several days for the fleece to dry completely.
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About the Author: Adrianne L. Shtop is a writer, photographer and avid knitter and knitwear designer. Passionate about nature, crafts and community, she offers workshops on herbs and wild edibles, knitting and energy healing.
The author wishes to thank Karen Wallace and the Essex County Handspinners, Julie Gerow of Foxcross Farm, and Marlene Halstead of Rocky Top Farm, for their generous assistance and invaluable inspiration.
This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2006 issue of Hobby Farm Home magazine.