CHOOSING A WOOL FLEECE FOR HANDSPINNING
Whether you are a complete novice, or have been spinning for years, there is nothing nicer than opening a new bag of fleece. There is a huge variety of wools to choose from here in the UK, but if you have access to wools and fleeces worldwide, you should find at least one which is perfect for your needs.
I have put together this basic guide to help you choose your next fleece, and hope it will be useful to spinners at every level.
Pure British sheep fall into two main categories:
This category includes Ryeland, Norfolk Horn, Dorset Down, Suffolk, Southdown, to name just a few. Downland fleeces are soft and springy, with a staple length of around 3 - 5 inches (7.5 - 12.5cm). They are generally a good choice for novice spinners, as they can often be spun straight from the raw fleece. They will produce a lovely yarn for handknitting, in a variety of thicknesses.
- Longwool and Lustre
This category includes Wensleydale, Romney, Cotswold, Lincoln, Bluefaced Leicester and many others. Longwool and Lustre fleeces have a much longer staple length which can reach 12inches (30cm) or more. The raw fleece will have a beautiful golden sheen, particularly on the inside (the side which was nearest to the sheep). These wools are more challenging to spin, as they need careful preparation to achieve the best results. The very long fleeces will have to be combed before spinning using a worsted style. Yarn spun from these wools will be lustrous (shiny) and strong. They will not be as bouncy as the yarns made from Downland fleeces. Such yarns can be used to make garments which will drape, such as shawls and scarves. It is an ideal weaving yarn.
Within both of the above categories there is a wide variation in terms of softness and length of the individual fibre (staple length).
In addition to these basic categories of British sheep, you will come across Merino type sheep and many crossbred sheep.
Are you looking for a soft wool for handknitting or a coarse wool for rugmaking? The softness of wool (and indeed any fibre) is indicated by the micron count or the wool quality numbers (sometimes referred to as the Bradford count). The micron count is a measure of the average fibre diameter throughout the fleece; a fine soft fleece such as a Merino will have a micron count of less than 20, while a coarser fleece suitable for rugs will have a micron count of over 35. The Bradford count is the opposite of this - a fine Merino fleece will have a Bradford count of over 80, while a coarse fleece such as a Dartmoor will have a Bradford count around 34-38.
The next consideration for a handspinner is the length of the wool fibres themselves. This is the staple length. For a beginner, a staple length of around 4inches (10cm) is the easiest to deal with. However, the length of staple can vary from under 2inches (5cm) on the primitive Soay sheep, through to 12inches (30cm) or more on a Wensleydale sheep. Such fleeces require some experience to get the best results.
RAW OR WASHED
The next decision is whether to buy your fleece washed or unwashed (raw). If you buy raw fleece you will have full control of the whole process from fleece to yarn. Many spinners prefer to buy washed fleece, leaving the mucky processing part to somebody else! Try spinning both raw and washed fleece, and see which you prefer.
HOW MUCH FLEECE WILL YOU NEED?
It is always tempting to but whole fleeces, particularly when you seem to be getting a lot of fibre for not much money. However, a whole fleece is an awful lot of wool. An adult longwool sheep such as a Cotswold will produce a fleece weighing in the region of 5kg - that is a lot of spinning (and knitting). The smaller fleeces such as Shetland (often less then 1kg) are a more managable size for handspinners. Some sellers will split a fleece, but may charge a little more per kg for it. You can also find washed and sorted fleece available in smaller amounts. This is a perfect way to sample new wools and is ideal for small projects.
When choosing a fleece, don`t be afraid to ask to see it out of the bag. Some unscrupulous sellers will show a very good part of the fleece on top, and may find the rest of the fleece is dirty, felted and full of VM (vegetable matter) including hay, straw, thorns or worse. This is obviously not possible when buying through ebay or other online shops, but you can still ask the seller for an honest description of the condition of his/her fleece.
Remember, the final yarn will only be as good as the fleece you started with.