Normally when I buy a whole fleece, it comes looking something like this beautiful Shetland fleece on the left. It unrolls, and I can lay it out on the skirting table. It’s easy to see the different areas of the fleece, break it into similar types of fiber, skirt what needs skirting, & check for short cuts and weathered locks.
This shetland fleece is not disorganized! It’s also worth noting that the shepherdess manually sheared this sheep on shearing stand. She’s a rock star!
When I buy fleece by the pound, or if I’ve purchased from someone who manually shears and isn’t intentionally keeping the fleece intact, the fleece tends to look more like this:
There will be lightly attached strips or rounds of similar fiber mixed in with small groups of dissimilar locks. It’s hard to tell where the fiber came from on the sheep, esp. if it is really intermixed. For some fleeces, it doesn’t matter. If the fiber is fairly similar across the fleece and it’s been well skirted, I can give it a shake and put it in to wash.
Sorting & Problemsolving:
This fleece needed some extra care. As I laid it out on the table, I could see the fleece had all sorts of fiber lengths and textures. The shortest pieces were 1″ the longest 4.5″. Most were in the 2.5-3.5″ range, so I separated into three groups: under 2.5, 2.5-3.5, and over 3.5. This got a bit tricky as I went along because there were at least 4 distinct crimp types: a corkscrew with 2-3 crimps per inch, a side to side with 3 crimps per inch, two different tightly crimped wools. All of these had fairly different textures, so I decided to split by texture and length. I like to use as much of the fleece as possible, so I made piles for all of the oddball bits- even the little 1″ super curly leg locks to dye up for felting projects and for making tweed yarns.
While pulling locks, I noticed some tip and cut end areas had issues. Sheep live out in the world, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes, it can be hard on the fleece. This fleece had its share of weathered, cotted, and/or muddy tips. That doesn’t mean the wool isn’t worth the work! This fleece has some gorgeous fiber. It just needed some TLC. I ran thumbnail over the cut end and tips to remove weak tips and second cuts.
Muddy tips will feel hard- especially if the mud, lanolin, and sheep sweat all came together to make a little brick-like piece.
The fiber can be brittle under the mud, so it’s worth taking the time to give them a tug. Some times muddy tips will magically open up if you put the fleece in water to soak overnight. Sometimes, they are stubborn, and you’ll need to cut or flick them off the lock. These tips were quite weak and came right off when I pulled on the lock tip.
If your fleece has weak tips, you’ll have to either flick the tips off or trim them with scissors. It’s worth taking the time to flick or trim the locks before carding. Otherwise, you’ll end up having to pick those brittle ends out from your roving.
Spinning weak ends into your yarn can make your yarn weaker and rougher. Weak tips are caused by weathering. Sun, rain, & friction all wear away the protective coating on the outside of the fiber. Without that coating, the fibrils that make up the fibers fray, weakening the fiber and making it feel scratchy.
If I see some weak tips, I do a quick test card on different areas of the fleece before starting a big carding project. It’s the fastest and easiest way I’ve found to see if I need to flick the fleece first.
Sometimes, I find felted/cotted tips on the locks. It happens. It’s more likely if a sheep has been coated, but it can happen on any sheep. Some sheep like to scratch up against posts in the barn. All it takes for wool to felt is heat, moisture, and agitation.
This wasn’t a coated sheep, but this is most likely from the britch area which has a lot of movement and moisture. Depending on lock length, I’ll either trim the felted bit off with scissors, or I’ll just throw that lock into the plant pot liner bag. (Wool makes fabulous plant pot liners, so don’t throw it away if you like hanging plants!)
Second cuts happen when the shearer takes a second pass with the shearing blades to even out fleece that was missed during the first pass. This leaves little bits of cut fleece behind. You can identify a second cut because both ends of the lock (or bit of lock) will be cut. Frequently, these will shake out. If you have an intact fleece, you can lay it out cut side up and run your hands over the surface of the fleece to remove any short pieces. This fleece also had some partial second cuts- the short pieces are still attached to a small section of the lock by a few strands of wool. These are a nightmare because they don’t shake out. If they come apart during washing, they can felt into the cut end of the lock. If you find them, you are going to need to check the cut ends for soundness as you pull locks.
I washed like locks with like by putting them in a mesh bag with the tips all in the same direction.
Wouldn’t it be great if I had a picture of the wool in the bag here? Fortunately, I’ve got another pound of so of this fleece to wash, so I’ll make sure to take it when I put it in to wash!
I made two rows of locks and separated them by running a length of crochet cotton down the center of the bag using a weaving needle. (tip: Don’t make a new string each time. After washing the locks, store string inside the mesh bag until the next time.)
20 minute soak with Power Scour in 130F water followed by two 20 minute hot rinses. That was all! This fleece didn’t have much lanolin so there wasn’t much need for scouring. The dirt came out easily except for stubborn muddy tips. These, I flicked out while picking and prepping for the drum carder. Depending on the lock bundle, I either used the flick carder as a teasing pad- or I picked it up and flicked the ends open. This fleece opened really nicely into a beautiful, silky cloud. It would have been a wonderful to spin this from the cloud for a textured, locky yarn.
To card, I ran the wool through my drum carder, keeping the locks sideways for the first two passes and then pulling into thin sheets and running those from the end. (I’ll link to a how to card fluffy batts here later)
The fiber was so pretty on the drum that I decided to pull it off into rolags for spinning.