Fiber artists love finding dependable sources for their wool and other fibers. The breed name will give a fiber artist some idea about the characteristics of a particular fleece, but within each type there is a range of possibilities. How well you describe your flock’s wool and what project it’s best suited for is invaluable and can gain you faithful customers.
Animal fibers are divided into 2 main groups: hair and wool. Wool comes from sheep while hair is harvested from all other fiber producing animal, i.e., angora goats, llamas, alpacas, angora rabbits, camels, etc. Wool has so many important attributes, including durability, good insulation, absorbency and non-flammability; but we’re going to discuss the characteristics that fiber artists are concerned with – wool type, texture, staple length, loft, luster and color.
Wool is classified into 4 main categories or types: fine wools, longwools, down wools, and double-coated.
- Fine wools (like Merino, Rambouillet and Corriedale) are known for their softness.
- Longwools (like English Leicester, Coopworth or Romney) are known for their strength and luster.
- Down wools (like Tunis, Cheviot and Suffolk) are known for their elasticity and loft.
- Double-coated sheep (like Icelandic, Karakul and Navajo-Churro) are known for their long, coarse outer coat and soft, downy undercoat.
You can describe the fineness or texture of your wool by micron count or spinning/Bradford count, or simply by the terms – fine, medium or coarse. Micron count can be measured by sending wool samples to companies such as Yocom-McColl in Denver, CO or the Texas AgriLife Research facility in San Angelo, TX. This gives your customer a great snapshot of your flock but new measurements should be taken at regular intervals since wool diameter changes as sheep age. The spinning or Bradford count originated in Bradford, England and is used mostly in the UK and USA. This number is calculated by the maximum number of skeins that can be spun from 1 pound of clean, combed top. Fine wool will yield more skeins than coarse wool and will, therefore, have a higher spinning count.
Texture also determines how fiber will spin. Fine fibers are usually slippery and coarse fibers tend to cling to each other (thus making them easy for those learning to spin). No matter what the texture of the fleece, it should be uniform from butt end to tip. If there is a thin or weak spot in the staple, the fleece has wool break. This is a major fault and can affect the artist’s final project.
The length of each fiber from cut (or butt) end to tip is called the staple length. Staple shape will differ by breed: some, like down breeds are flat-tipped and others are V–shaped. Excessively V–shaped staples are call tippy and can give the fleece a harsh handle.
When choosing a fleece, fiber artists prefer one that has a uniform staple length, whether it’s long or short. Fiber with longer staple length is easier to spin because the fiber needs less twist to stay together. When spinning fiber of a shorter staple length, you have to keep your hands close together and put a lot of twist in your yarn.
The crimp, or waviness, of a fleece should be consistent along each staple. The crimp pattern is unique for each breed, but is ultimately determined by each individual animal. Crimp can influence what yarn each fleece is best suited for making, i.e., finely crimped fiber is best made into a fine yarn.
The airiness and elasticity of a fleece is called loft. Wool types known for loft are the down wools, fine wools and the undercoat of the double-coated sheep. These wools make springy, lightweight yarn.
Luster and Color
Luster is the shine that fiber has. The longwool breeds generally have high luster fleeces, as does the outer coat of double-coated sheep. Although these fibers are coarse the same properties that give them luster usually make them very silky to the touch.
Wool is produced in such a variety of natural colors that can be used in projects as is or dyed with natural or chemical dyes. No matter what color fleece a fiber artist is searching for, he or she will be looking for one that is free from various unscourable stains (such as a yellow “canary stain”).
Some people will ask you about the handle of a fleece. This term refers to the softness of the fiber or how it feels in your hand. It’s dependant on many of the above characteristics and how the mesh together. A fleece can have a soft or coarse handle; a crisp (springy but slightly stiff) handle; a strong or weak handle; or a silky or dry handle.
When describing a fleece to a potential customer, use the list above as a guide. Here’s an illustration of one of my Tunis fleeces as an example:
2.5 lb cream-colored Tunis fleece from a 2 year old ewe; medium texture; down-type fleece with a little vegetable matter (VM); 4” staple length; medium to strong crimp pattern; lightweight and lofty; crisp, slightly dry handle. This fleece would be best-suited for a project that isn’t going to be next to the skin – maybe a sweater that you would wear over another top. It would also be great wool to blend with a longwool fleece to give this lustrous wool more loft.
When offering a detailed description of your wool, fiber artists can know what to expect even before they touch the fleece. Whether you sell your fleeces on the farm or online – through email groups, etc. – your customers will come to trust your guidance to help them their newest project.