Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Selecting a Raw Fleece

By Kathy Kravits


Fiber is available in different forms from raw wool to roving and yarn. There are times when fiber artists may choose a particular fiber and fiber preparation for a specific project, and there are times when the fiber alone drives the choice. This article will address the fundamentals of selecting a quality wool fleece suitable for producing yarn that can be used to create textiles.

Selecting a Fleece


Most of us have had the experience of falling in love with the appearance of a fleece and the feel of it against our hands. While these are important signs of the potential of a fleece to make a wonderful product, they are only the first indicators of the suitability of the fleece for the project planned by the fiber artist.

The characteristics that should be assessed in order to determine whether a particular fleece has the potential to produce a yarn that can be successfully used to create a particular textile product. These characteristics include:

  1. Health and Hand
  2. Staple
  3. Character
  4. Contaminates

Health and Hand

A healthy animal is more likely to produce a quality fleece. When selecting a fleece, it is important to understand that many things can affect the wool, such as the breed, age (the younger the animal the more likely the fleece is to have desirable characteristics), gender, breeding activity including recent pregnancy, nutrition, coated or not, and environmental factors such as weather extremes, over-crowding, etc. The smell of the fleece should be considered as a healthy sheep will produce a fleece that smells pleasantly “woolly”. A sharp off-putting scent would suggest that the fleece may not have been stored properly or that the animal was not healthy.

Hand is a subjective experience of softness and fineness that is pleasing to the fiber artist. It is an important characteristic because it prompts the artist to consider the feel of the fiber and whether or not it is right for the intended project. It also can indicate that the fleece is healthy. A fleece with an unpleasant hand (e.g. the fibers feel dry, coarse, etc.) may not be suitable for the planned project.

Staple


The staple is the length of the fiber from the cut end to the tip of the lock.

Length


The length of the staple is influenced by breed, age of the animal, time between shearing, nutrition, and other environmental stressors. Most hand spinners find that a 3-5 inch staple length is suitable for home preparation and hand spinning. Longer staple lengths may be successfully prepared at home and by the hand spinner with some modifications in cleansing strategies. Shorter staple lengths may also be prepared by hand spinners with careful attention to the method of carding/combing used.

Strength


The fiber must be strong in order to produce a yarn that will be sturdy and capable of being used in a variety of different projects. Staple strength may vary across the fleece. For example, along the top of the back the fiber is exposed to direct sunlight which may dry it out and weaken it. There is a reasonably simple technique for testing staple strength. After politely requesting to see the entire fleece rolled out, ask permission to select fibers for testing from the blanket (one sample from each side of the blanket), one from the neck, and one from near the belly. Never open a fleece or remove fiber without asking permission.

Hold the fibers with one hand at the cut end and one at the tip. Place your hands together and then pull them apart sharply. The fiber should feel strong and resilient and make a sound that is clear and resonant. Should the fibers from the body of the fleece break, then it should not be selected. Breakage at the tips does not necessarily mean the fleece cannot be used, but will require thoughtful preparation.

Breaks


Breaks in the fiber occur for several reasons. They can reflect poor health of the sheep, nutritional deficiencies, and environmental stressors such as prolonged heat, overcrowding, and competition for grazing. Breeding and pregnancy can affect the fleece of both males and females.

A fleece with breaks in the staple distributed throughout will continue to break during processing and will not make a strong yarn. Breaks limited to certain areas of the fleece such as along the back and at the tips may be considered, but will require aggressive skirting and sorting in order to result in strong usable fiber.

Character


Crimp


Crimp is a configuration of the individual fibers of the fleece. The fibers with crimp form waves that can be tightly or loosely organized. Crimp is measured by the number of waves per inch with the increased number of crimp being associated with increased fineness. It is desirable to have a well-organized, consistent crimp throughout the individual staples and fleece.

Crimp is associated with the elasticity of the fibers. Elasticity is a special quality of wool fiber that allows the fibers to be stretched and then to return to their previous length. From a project point of view, this allows garments made from wool to tolerate and recover from all forms of stretch and use.

Luster


Luster is the ability of the fiber to reflect light. Luster is associated with the breed, less crimp in the fiber and a larger diameter of the individual fibers.

Color


Color is associated with breed. White ranges from creamy to bright white. All colored fleeces should be consistent with the breed standard. Many sheep have a variation in color throughout their fleece. It is the artist's decision how to respond to this circumstance. By combining all the variations in color, a richly variegated yarn can be produced. The artist who has a specific project in mind may elect to sort the different colors into separate groupings in order to accommodate the design goals of the project. It is important to approach the preparation of colored fleeces with design goals in mind.

Contaminants


Fleeces that are contaminated with large amounts of vegetable matter, insects, or other contaminants should be carefully considered before being selected for a project.

Key Points


• Choose a fleece you love.

• Consider the requirements of the product to be created when choosing a fleece.

• Objectively assess for health and hand, staple, character, and contaminates across the entire fleece.


About the author

Kathy Kravits has been involved in fiber arts since teaching herself to knit at nine years old. She has developed a love for all aspects of fiber arts including spinning, weaving, and knitting. Spinning is particularly fascinating to her because it allows her to create unique yarns for specific projects. Kathy has taught basic spinning courses and tapestry weaving.

References


Austin, P. (2018). Sheep Fleece: Nature’s Best. Hand Spinning: Essential Technical and Creative Skills. Pp. 49-67.

Fournier, N. and Fournier, J. (1995). About Wool. In Sheep’s Clothing: A Hand Spinner’s Guide to Wool. Pp. 15-21.

Larson, K. (2015). The Fine Art of Selection. The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Wool. Pp.10-16.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Shepherd Profile: Steve and Sonja Pyne


Steve and Sonja Pyne of Queen Creek, AZ, began raising Tunis sheep about ten years ago on The Farm at the End of the Road, and today they are fiber providers for other shepherds as well. Their flock name is Woolhalla.

Why did you decide to raise Tunis?
They had all the qualities we wanted – dual-purpose, striking good looks, polled, good mothering ability, and docile. What tipped the balance in our choice of breed was that Tunis are a Livestock Conservancy Watch List breed.

But the fleece and wool project grew beyond our own sheep as we began networking with folks in Arizona and other Four Corners states and realized how many of them kept, for various reasons, between 1 and 10 sheep of assorted breeds. Many considered the fiber to be a liability, feeling that a single fleece or two is more trouble than it’s worth, and so ended up discarding the fleeces, or even shearing the sheep only every other year. As I learned more about their flocks and was certain the sheep were not crosses but single breed sheep (if not registered or perhaps LC Priority listed), I offered to pay for the shearing and occasional other expenses for the health of the animal and take the fleece in payment, developing access to a wide variety of fleeces and fibers, far greater than what we could grow ourselves – it’s the ultimate spinner’s flock! Where we have permission from the shepherd, our packaging always reflects the name of the farm, as well as the name and photo of the sheep.
How many adults in your flock?
We have 13 ewes, a ram, and a wether.
What state are you in?
We are located in Queen Creek, Arizona between the Superstition and San Tan Mountains.


Why should a breeder sell their wool?
From a producer’s perspective, selling the wool allows the farmer to realize a bit more income and helps balance the scales for what it costs to raise that animal. From an environmental perspective, harvesting and actually using that resource means that it doesn’t go into a landfill. From an artistic perspective, single breed wool allows fiber artists to accentuate various qualities in their crafts, and a properly chosen breed of wool will highlight all the qualities the artist is looking for.
Why have you chosen to sell your wool in the form you do?
In the Southwest US, fiber mills and shearers are at a premium. Generally speaking, roving can be returned from a mill to a grower much faster than yarn can. In addition, unless you are independently wealthy (which we certainly are not!) there is a tremendous amount of money tied up in yarn at any given time, and choosing what kind of yarn to have made is always a scatter shot. At various times I have tried lace, fingering, sport, DK, worsted, bulky, all in both 2-ply and 3-ply and it didn’t matter which grist or ply I had chosen, it was the “wrong” one. I still have some beautiful yarn that I had made 5 or 6 years ago, and that represents money spent that cannot be used for some other farm and animal related project. I can’t out-guess what yarn will be most appealing, and roving fits just about all spinners.


What is one important thing you have learned about sheep management as it relates to selling their wool?
Clean well-kept wool from well cared for animals sells product. Period.
Why do you or do you not coat your sheep?
We do not coat our sheep. Temperatures here can reach 118 degrees during the summer months. Sheep don’t need another layer of anything on them, and they certainly don’t need the stress of having coats managed and changed during hot weather.
What is one surprising thing you learned about having sheep that are not coated?
We have discovered that through good husbandry and careful management, it is possible to work around the perceived need for coats on sheep. We feed about 50% grass and 50% alfalfa in the summer. The sheep are fed at specific times in specific ways, and my husband specifically designed feeders that minimizes the possibility of the sheep spreading veg on themselves or each other, and maximizes the efficient use of the hay which ends up saving us money, as well.
What is one important thing you learned about selling your wool?
I have to give you two important things! First, we compare ourselves to an indie bookstore – there is no possible way to complete with the Big Box stores and discounters, but we will offer you the best and most personalized customer service there is. The second thing, however, is that the support and commitment of fiber artists means everything. Of course I acknowledge the financial support in the form of buying product, but perhaps even more important is the social and emotional support we feel from artists who are invested in the farm and the sheep and honestly value what we do, as we value what they do.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fiber Artist Profile: Candace Tresnak


What fiber art(s) do you participate in and for how long have you done each one?
I started my journey into fiber arts about 4 years ago. I wanted to learn how to weave because I was really into babywearing my youngest daughter. I wanted to learn how all these threads became cloth. Then, I bought some fiber that wasn't plied and I bought a spinning wheel, because "it needed to be plied". That was in August of 2016. Then, I needed something to do with all the yarn I was (sort of) making. So, I learned how to crochet in the summer of 2017. Then I realized I didn't want to "waste" my yarn by using it for crochet, so I learned to knit in December odf 2018. I have tried a little felting here and there as well.

When did you start working with fiber from rare breeds of sheep?
I bought quite a few fleeces before I went back to work - so in the summer of 2017. I purchased some Black Welsh Mountain, Jacob, Romedale (I have a number of entire fleeces from that breed), Shetland, as well as some Clun Forest. The first raw fleece I ever purchased was a Lincoln x. So, not eligible, but I think it retained much of the Lincoln traits.

What was your biggest surprise when you purchased your first rare breed wool?
Nothing really. I have probably over 100 pounds of wool sitting around waiting for me to process it, so I think it would take a lot to surprise me.

Have you had any challenges purchasing wool directly from shepherds?
Yes. I have had some difficulty locating certain breeds - the hair ones for sure. And Lincoln at the moment! The rest I have already purchased and it's washed or in progress.

What do you love most about working with rare breeds?
Learning about new and different wools!

What is your favorite wool from sheep on the Conservation Priority List and why?
I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying Karakul. I washed it, and when I went to comb it, things didn't go well. My go-to is combing, so I had to ask for tips. I ended up flicking the ends, running it through my picker, and I am going to card it.

What bit of advice would you give another fiber artists who is just starting to explore the world of rare breed wools?
Be flexible! Understand that fleece is going to be different from one shepherd to the next. If possible, try to get two sources and see how much different they are! Also, sheep are dirty. You're probably not going to get coated fleece (and if you are - it's going to cost a lot more). Enjoy and embrace the process!