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.


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


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.


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 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.



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 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 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.


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.


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.

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