Daniel is a Llanwenog x Oxford Down Cross. Ever since I started working with Daniel’s fleece I’ve been singing Elton John: “Oh it looks like Daniel… must be the clouds in my eyes!” Just wanted to offer that little ear worm to anyone reading this blog post. I’m going to talk about where I went wrong choosing my first fleece, and what faults it had and how I could have detected it. There’s also links to resources so you can avoid my mistake or also work with problem fleece. All may not be lost. “Lord I miss Daniel, oh I miss him so much.” This post became a bit long. You can skip down to the bit about how to actually choose fleece!
Deb Robson’s 2 day “Introduction to Wool Types” last weekend in Fibre East started off in the Down breeds. In her book “Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook” she says Oxford is, “Like all Down wools being overlooked as a fiber resource for spinners.”
I had only worked with commercially prepared tops before (and some Gotland locks). When we got the various down breed samples I was amazed by how springy and elastic they were. I had never tried yarns like that.
Diving into the cloud
You can skip down to the bit about how to actually choose fleece. But I wanted to record, more for myself than anything, how I ended up in this mess! I’m gonna be honest with you, I thought people buying bags and bags full of fleece at the festival were a little bonkers. How were they going to get them home? How would they clean them? What a mess, how nutty! On day 2 of the workshop, I finally learned how to use combs. Deb did a very patient demonstration, and once I got the swing of it, I realized how lovely lovely it was. It was fun to do, and the “nests” were amazing.
I went over to the Griffith’s Mill van, and bought some of the nice wools I had tried in the workshop, and some Deb recommended to me. Kerry Hill, Lleyn, Border Leicester and Polwarth. But it was already carded, already pulled into nice combed top…. I wanted to prep it myself. But how could I clean it myself in our tiny bathroom?
One of the nice Griffith’s Mills ladies said I could buy a fleece from Michael of Shear Sheep, and they would wash it. I totally misunderstood, because they meant wash and card it. I wanted to comb it myself.
I was overcome with this incredible desire for BIG DIRTY FLEECE OF MY OWN.
Through the workshop I had started to develop a taste for certain wools, they puffed up with body. However, I also liked longer locks because I liked the smoothness of the combed preparation. So when it came time to look for a fleece I had a sort of idea of what I was looking for:
- Disorganized crimp, lots of crimp
- Long staple
- Soft to touch
- A little crispy (not floppy/drapey or smooth)
And Daniel seemed perfect. When I spoke with Michael from Sheer Sheep, he brought me over to one sheep, pulled out a lock off the her back, and it wasn’t right. It was crimpy, but short. Then we went over to try a lock from Daniel’s and it looked exactly right. He was also enormous! I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of him. Oxford Down is one of the largest breeds.
Thing is we were rushing about in the heat, and also.. I had done ZERO research about “how to choose fleece” beforehand. Sadly there seem to be some faults in the fleece which I only discovered as I started working with it.
- Bright yellow in parts which didn’t wash out.
- The long locks broke in half when I combed it.
- The breakage turned into little neps as I spun and swatched. Probably not a bad thing, but “dizzing” was more like “tearing”.
In fact, when I called Michael, who sold me the fleece, he said it sounded like something was wrong too. He said even he had missed it.
Must be the clouds in my eyes! So sad.
So what could I have done to check for soundness before buying?
Choosing fleece: what to look for
When I say choosing fleece, I’m not referring to the qualities of the breed, or attributes of the crimp, fibre thickness… but just “is this fleece OK to buy?”
So Ravelry to the rescue! I didn’t know how to identify what was wrong, or was I just imagining all this. The Fibre Prep group has been very helpful in identifying the faults. They looked at my pics, and also added advice about clues I could have detected before buying.
- Health of the animal: The health of the sheep affect the fleece quality.
- Sadly, Daniel had fly. Even Michael was disappointed when he discovered it. Later, he would sheer Daniel’s dad because he found fly there as well. The heat was taking its toll.
- Listen to the locks: I didn’t know about the “Ping test”. Hold two ends of the lock. Do you hear a “ping” sound? Well I would say *doing* sound.
- And sure enough, another fleece I bought from Michael, a lovely Corriendale passed the ping test. And Daniels’ fleece sort of made a crunchy sound.
- Colour: Cream isn’t the same as yellow. Yellow could be a sign of a fault. I was advised if a fleece is particularly yellow, it’s best to wash a lock in just water in the tap. If it’s scourable, the yellow will come out in the same.
- From Merinonoir on Ravelry: “Unfortunately some very bulky fleeces (often poor staple structure) don’t drain particularly well and if they stay wet in humid, warm conditions they can go very yellow, this usually has an unpleasant , musty smell which often attracts flies – hence the fly strike that the shearer remarked on.”
- Daniel might not have the “Canary stain” fault, but this yellow wasn’t washing out.
- Lock structure: If the fleece is “webby” this could indicate damage. Webby apparently means that the lock pulls apart easily.
- Daniel’s seemed to hold together ok.
- Lock strength or level of “unsoundness”; Does a lock break with little pressure? Does it break under little strain?
- This is called a tender fleece. It could be used for felting or something else, but you will have wastage with combing or carding.
- Daniel’s was not strong and broke in half with combing.
- Vegetable matter: How much stuff is mixed in with the wool? Can you clean it out with prep? Combing gets out VM.
- Daniel’s fleece was pretty clear of VM. I was bedazzled by how clean it looked.
If you’re reading this, and you think “WAT?!” because I got something wrong, your feedback is appreciated!
Anyway, I should have done some BASIC research before choosing fleece, or maybe asked someone with more experience to help. I get struck by shyness sometimes and forget to ask for help.
The jury seems out on Daniels fleece: Some folks said they’d work with the fleece; others said they’d not put the energy into processing if the resulting yarn was going to be weak. In fact Deb has some tips on “Working with imperfect fleece”! For Deb, there was no question that a certain rare breed fleece could be rejected because of imperfection. It was worth working with it.
- Working with imperfect fleece: part 1, initial evaluation and washing
- Working with imperfect fleece: part 2, carding
- Working with imperfect fleece: part 3, spinning
I’m also waiting to hear back from Michael who might have a replacement fleece, or he’s going to see if the sample I pulled was maybe from near the fly-affected section. Anyway, I’ll have to wait.
Book recommendation: Spinner’s book of fleece by Beth Smith
This book only came out on August 1st, so I can’t be blamed for not having read it. But if you’re thinking of buying fleece this looks like the ideal resource, and you’re in luck!
I literally ordered it when I saw the table of contents. It seems to be the missing connection between “Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook” (covers breed type and prep/spinning recommendations), “Spinners book of yarn designs” (covers prep/spinning but not breeds) and “Respect the Spindle” (covers spindle spinning). The book covers fleece selection, quality, as well as preparation recommendations and spinning tips. Absolutely the missing link for me.
So! I will be sure to give a proper review