Friday, 12 July 2013

Skirting and Sorting a Sheep Fleece

I understand the theory of sorting a sheep fleece.  I have read books and looked at diagrams.  I also understand the theory of gravity, but I still don't really get why it doesn't make the moon plummet to earth. Both the subtle curvature of space/time and differentiation of one part of a fleece from another require considerable study.  On the fleece front, these are the basic 'apple falling' ideas.  Locks from the centre line (spine) tend to be longer and more weathered, coarser further back. The locks round the edges, which were on the legs and tail and belly, tend to be short and grubby.  The best quality wool feels softer and just looks better. 

Above is my latest acquisition, a Lleyn hogg.  On the left, the coarse wool from the rump, on the right, a softer, finer section.

Skirting means pulling the most matted and short locks from round the edges. Experienced spinners might then discard another third, dividing the remaining wool according to its quality and thus suitability for for different purposes. Considering all the time invested in the preparation and spinning of a single ball of wool, this is entirely logical.  However, I have yet to muster the mental toughness to part with much of any fleece.  Ah, the heart has its reasons.  Newton ended up a lonely old sod. 

I spun my first two fleeces into uneven, thick wool, with immense enthusiasm, but no patience or skill to do more than grab the nearest locks to card.  The Lleyn has been properly shaken then picked over, to get the grass out.  Second cuts are clumps of loose wool a few millimetres long.  They result from the shearer running the clippers back over part of the sheep in a second pass, to cut closer.  These are no good for spinning and have also been shaken or picked off.  I even brutally abandoned some skirted wool on the compost heap, before putting the fleece in the suint vat.  It is rinsing presently and should give me a fairly clean, tidy bundle to store away for winter. 

My third fleece was a big Zwartbles, gorgeous chocolate brown with golden tips. Unrolled on the floor, I stared at it, groped it, pulled a bale of hay out of it, but ye Gods and little fishes, could not make out which end had been on the head or tail.  All of it seemed thick, matted and 'sprongy'.  I selected what seemed the softest bits and had a bash at carding, which was bloody hard on the wrists.  The yarn I managed to spin had me stomping off to walk the dog and kick stones.  A bit of private primal screaming into the March wind proved cathartic.  No chance of creating  that brown jumper I wanted to make for my daughter, for going to University in September.  In the end, there turned out to be so many other uses for this wool that I have become a Zwartbles fan.

My fourth fleece was in much better condition.  A lovely soft Jacob, with very little grass, no matted or felted bits, hooray, hooray, now I shall spin fine yarn, well aran rather than chunky, and make a stylish jumper. Determined to get this one right, I spent hours and hours inspecting and sorting each lock for quality and colour.  Hell on the knees, it entailed staggering upright with pins and needles in my feet several evenings in a row. Eventually I had the best wool sorted into three bags full.  Brown, white and neither, a colour called 'lilac'.  Look how beautifully I spun it (compared to previous projects).

First, I spun all the white wool and dyed it with daffodils, ready to do the pattern.  Half way through the bag of brown, I realised there was definitely not going to be enough for the main colour for a whole jumper.  When I mentioned that the sleeves would be done in variable tones of lilac, my daughter said anxiously 'It's not going to look like poo, is it Mum?'  

Evidently, the rustic look is not retro, not chic or 'sick' or even 'groovy, baby'.  Fair enough.  In the seventies, purple hotpants were my favorite clothes.  Totes amazeballs, babes.  

Who would love and use my handmade offerings, no matter what? Someone who still has a penguin I carved in school, even though the beak has fallen off.  That Jacob fleece became a birthday cardigan for my Mum.   


  1. I love this post! Really useful info and it made me smile too, thank you. Re the moon, it doesn't fall to earth because its moving forwards as well as being pulled towards earth - the result of these two is that it follows a curved path around the earth - you probably didn't need or want to know this but I couldn't resist explaining, sorry!

  2. Glad you liked the post. It may not surprise you to hear that was in the remedial maths class in school.