What do you look for in a fleece?

By Amelia © September 1, 2009

[ See the end of this article for an update on Productive Spindling: The Treasure Hunt! ]

It's the season of fall wool shows, with plenty of fleeces available for purchase. But, how do you decide?

Sockpr0n had a gorgeous post recently
about this very thing, and her thoughts echo my own. The snaps she took of the posters the judges had are excellent, do check them out as well (on the post and on her flickr ... start here).

If at all possible, sit in on the judging -- an open judging is very educational. You'll learn what the judge is looking for, to guide your purchases of non-judged fleeces, and you'll know which are the ones the judge really liked and why -- so you'll know if you'd like them, too.

What's the judge looking for? First off, I'm not a qualified judge, all of my knowledge is school-of-experience and listening to judges myself. But, to start, they are looking for faults in the fleece:

  • weak tips -- a bleached tip might be weak, easy to break off. Pinch the very end and tug on the tip of a small lock. Try it in several places on the fleece before you conclude its tips are fine -- the top of the back gets the most sun
  • breaks -- the entire length of the lock should be strong. Take a lock, pinch each end in your fingers, and holding it near your ear, snap it out; bring your two hands together and snap it out -- you should hear a twang, not a rip. It's a bit like a tuning fork, each fleece has its own tone. If you hear a rip -- it's weak. Again, spot checks over a fleece are a good idea.
  • scurf -- dandruff like flakes in the fleece. They don't wash out, they stick around; I've heard of some folks getting them out in the dye bath, but there's no guarantee.
  • VM -- hay, seeds, and other Vegetable Matter. The more there is, the harder it is to process the fleece. Burrs and thorns are an extreme (and a painful) thing to have in a fleece. Large seeds can wreck carding cloth (not to mention what they do to the fleece when they break into a million tiny pieces - bleh)
  • Canary stain or yolk -- yellowing of the fleece caused by bacteria. It doesn't wash out. You can dye over it, but the bacteria's discoloration is not a surface effect, so the wool likely isn't as strong as it could be, either.
  • Inconsistent staple length -- fleeces should generally have a consistent staple, or length of fibers in the fleece. Yeah, hair on the sheep's legs may dwindle down to nothing; but those shorter pieces should be removed before it hits the sale table. Some breeds, like multi-color Jacob, may exhibit "quilting", where one color is longer than another -- that can be hard to process and spin.
  • Tags or incomplete skirting -- skirting is the removal of all the less lovely bits of a fleece. Tags are, well, the "tags" that hang off the butt of the sheep because he or she doesn't have toilet paper out there in the field (or hands to use it ... right Benny?)
  • Odor -- ram fleeces can be rather "rich". Improperly stored fleeces could develop mold or mildew -- the nose knows.
  • Second cuts -- these are short cut pieces found at the base of the cut wool -- from the shearer making a second pass with the cutters on the same location, closer to the skin. If you don't get them out of the fleece with careful skirting, youl'l end up with short bits in your fiber that are likely to make noils in your yarn. (Thanks to Marcia, comment #1, for reminding me of this!)

Once they've cleared their checklist of faults, the judge is looking at the fleece in terms of its breed. If it's a meat breed like Southdown, then really all you want to see is health in the fleece. But if it's Wensleydale, you're looking for lovely crisp locks. Merino should be fine and soft with small crimp, Romney should have a more medium hand with a more open crimp. Some breeds (Merino, Cotswold) run to lots of lanolin, while others have less.

The best way to look over a fleece is to have a large table or clean, clear surface (last thing you want to do is introduce foreign matter in the fleece yourself) and take the fleece out of the back. Most fleece are folded in thirds like a handtowel and then rolled up like a sleeping bag --- if you can find the end of the roll, unroll it and open it up. Usually that puts it cut side up (if memory serves me ...). A good quality fleece usually hangs together in its sheepy shape pretty nicely.

If it was shorn and rolled without respect to saleability (those free fleeces you keep getting offered...) then it's likely the belly wool is stuffed in the middle of it -- that's trash, and also that the fleece is completely unskirted, so the outer edges may be really short, coarse fibers and/or full of mud and muck. See if you can tell the neck from the tail by the amount of tags on the fiber ... if so, then it's not skirted enough.

Once you have the fleece unrolled, you can check it for faults, for consistency, for breed qualities.

Now, at fleece sales, often it's a bunch of fleeces in large black plastic sacks. No opportunity to unroll them. Yeah, it's a crap shoot. What do I do then? Well, I look at the information provided. How much time did the shepherd invest in selling their fleece? a farm writeup, the sheep's name/breed/caring (was it coated? that helps reduce VM), details on how they recommend washing it, a washed lock from this fleece or even a yarn sample -- all show the shepherd understands their market. You might be able to check a lock for soundness or tippiness, and color along the lock for yolk, that's about it. If you can track the seller down (at some fleece sales, they're right there; at others, they're busy with their animals, too, and can't be available at the fleece sales), you can ask about unrolling the fleece for a more thorough look.

Now, as to price ... what's fair? The market decides, right, classic economics. Here are some things to consider. Most fleeces are sold at a "per pound" price. That's why it's handy to make sure it's well skirted, no belly wool wrapped in the middle either. The weight of the fleece depends on the breed (Romney fleeces are easily 10 pounds, while Shetland fleeces might be 7) and how thoroughly skirted it was. Muck is heavier than fiber. Okay, so assuming it's a nicely skirted fleece, consider this too: processing. You're likely to lose at least 25% of the weight in washing the fleece -- the dirt and lanolin; I've lost 30% in some, 20% in others. And then processing loses more. If you send a fleece to a mill for carding, you can expect the finished weight to be about 40% of the weight you sent in. So the price per pound you paid gets pretty magnified -- rather than $8/pound, you've paid $8/9.6 ounces of fiber, not considering processing costs. If you process the fleece yourself, you are still likely to lose a little more in processing -- combing loses more than carding.

All of the above was about wool fleeces, shorn from sheep. Cashmere, Mohair (goat), angora (bunny), llama, and alpaca are a different kettle of fish. There's no lanolin (or, not much -- some Huacaya alpaca can have some oils in them) to hold the fleece together, so typically they are more disorganized and not unrollable into animal shape. The same checks might apply for faults. Llama fleeces in particular have a tendency to hide tree branches and small rocks (okay, maybe that's just mine...); mohair fleeces from the rams can be quite odiferous. For cashmere, it's helpful to know if it is shorn or combed from the animal -- a shorn fleece has more hair in it by weight than down, while a combed one is likely to be less than half (by weight) hair.

Oh, and -- llama seconds, alpaca seconds (or thirds) are the shorter staple or coarser fibers from the animals. Sure, you could spin them, but check them over and see if you feel you can manage the staple length. The longer staple of the prime blanket of the animal (basically, where a saddle would be if they were horses) gives a stronger yarn; that's why they separate out the shorter fibers.

In closing ... if you are buying a fleece without getting your hands on it first (eBay, FleeceForSale list, or website), all you can do is ask questions; check the shepherd's reputation; and, check on their return policy, but consider: if the fleece does not measure up, will you be able to afford mailing it back? Now, I don't mean to scare you off of this. Some fleeces I might never have had the opportunity to try without buying them sight unseen, untested reputation and all. Some fleeces from reputable shepherds have clearly been from off years. It is hit-and-miss. But I am glad about what each fleece I've had, has taught me.

So, you dived in and purchased a fleece (carefully, using all my advice, right?) What next? Luckily, I've already worked on that, so here are some follow-up posts for you to wander through with your fleece next to you, planning out its path:

What is a skirted fleece?
How do you skirt a fleece?
What is kemp?
How do you get hay and twigs out of raw fleece?
How do I wash raw fleece?
How do you get muddy tips in raw fleece to come clean?
How much weight will a Shetland fleece lose in washing?
What tips do you have for keeping fleece washing water hot?
How old is too old for a fleece?

There was a list of the fiber processors I've used recently in a past issue of Bellefeathers -- they all do nice work. Or, you might look at whether you want to Card or Comb your washed fleece.

If you have some fleece shopping advice to share, please post it in the comments on this article -- I'm always picking up new tips from my fellow shoppers, and may indulge myself with a nice Cormo fleece at Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival this fall ... I wonder if Morro Fleece Works is doing whites or colors right now ...


Productive Spindling: The Treasure Hunt has reached its date for the treasure! Final cut-off for receiving the discounts for submitted answers will be September 30th.

What are the discounts? 5% of purchases at The Bellwether through 31 Dec 09 for a reasonable attempt, 10% for getting at least 12 correct ... and 3 are always right, if you've given an answer, so that's only 9 to "hunt" for ...)

Curious to known the answers? The answers will be posted here on Ask The Bellwether, October 1.

I appreciate the response, it's been great! And it turns out the quiz was really hard ... so all the entries I received will be entered in a drawing for the prizes ... I'll contact you in email later this week if you've won, so keep an eye on your inbox :)

© 1 September 2009 by Ask The Bellwether, posted at http://askthebellwether.blogspot.com/


Marcia Cooke said...

I attended the fleece judging lecture at Massachusetts Sheep and Wool this spring (a man named Ford, who is supposed to be one of the best judges around) and spotted a gorgeous gray Corriedale that had a blue ribbon on it. I managed to get the fleece and discovered that it had also been given Grand Champion for the show. Sounds great, no? Well, when I started separating the locks for washing I discovered that it was FULL off really bad second cuts. I mean, maybe a quarter of that otherwise beautiful fleece was ruined! I took the word of this judge and got burned badly! I found out later that the breeder is VERY young (still in his teens) and probably sheered this sheep himself! I debated about contacting him, but then decided not to. I was able to get enough out of the fleece to end up with about 3 pounds of fiber, but what a disappointment!

artsyfish said...

I bought a partial fleece at Maryland Sheep and Wool and didn't do too bad. Luckily the seller walked me through a lot of what you wrote. I've also tested the "sound" of it and its very tuneful! The tips are a little disappointing, but she did mention something about them. Its combing and spinning into a very nice yarn.

I thought the quiz was a little tough, too. Thanks for the raffle!

aija said...

Thanks for the link! Reading your post has me itching to go fleece shopping again, even though I haven't washed my new ones yet :)