Friday, 13 March 2015

Preparing and Spinning an Exmoorino Sheep Fleece

The very name Exmoorino sparked my interest - it sounded so commando.  When a friend brought a fleece back from a Wool Fair last summer, I crawled enviously around the huge thing displayed on the grass. Experienced spinners pronounced it 'a dream to prep' and fingering the long, crimpy white staples, I started to dream of spinning miles of soft, bulky yarn.

Of course, there are no military associations outside the homonymic.  Exmoorino is the name given to a cross between Exmoor Horn and Merino sheep. Exmoor Horn is described in the Fleece and Fiber Source Book as a meat breed of sheep that has been grazing in the Exmoor National Park for a couple of hundred years.  I vividly remember watching white lambs leaping about when I visited Exmoor decades ago, long before I took any any interest in fleece. The wool fibers are rated quite coarse, but full bodied and easy to spin. Having owned plenty of jumpers labelled Merino, I knew these sheep had particularly soft, fine wool, but til I read the Source Book, I never realised the breed originally came from Moroccan rams shipped across as stud for Spanish ewes, nearly a thousand years ago.  This proved such a successful match for wool production that subtypes of Merino sheep have spread through Europe and beyond.  Two things have put me off buying Merino to spin.  The first was inverted snobbery.  Why would I want to spin my own yarn from a wool anyone can buy from the shops?  The second was a more crucial and harrowing experience.  In my early days of spinning, I ruined the most expensive fleece I had ever bought - a Merino X Shetland - while trying to wash it. When an opportunity came up to buy an Exmoorino fleece online, I jumped in, hoping that preparing it to spin would be more of a dream and less of a nightmare.  You can see from the photo at the top of this post, I paid postage on an awful lot of grub.  Another reminder to me that it really is better to get to a Wool Fair in person.   

The whole fleece was a great deal smaller after skirting off the wool I did not think would repay the washing and carding it needed.  Staples varied in length from about 7 to 11cm. More problematic than the natural grease plus dirt, was the significantly coarser quality at the britch compared to the soft locks around the shoulders. After sorting, the good part of this fleece was lovely, no weaknesses or breaks, fine to rub between the fingers with lots of lanolin, but no significant staining.  This picture shows about 500g of open locks of fairly uniform length, with both bounce and softness.  Since the initial fleece had been so big, I still had over 2kg suitable for my project.  I washed it carefully, in four portions, using hot soaks with Unicorn Power Scour and three hot rinses to remove the moderately heavy grease and dirt.  A dreamily successful scouring, if I say it myself.

This was all done last autumn, when we had a long mild run, good for drying wool and not cold enough to kill off my Japanese Indigo plants.  Even in November, there seemed to be far too much foliage on them to dump on the compost heap with all the waste fleece, so I spent ages chopping up leaves for a dye bath, following these instructions on the Wild Colours website.  
Theresina is quite right to say July and August are the best months for harvest.  All I got for my trouble was a modest amount of bluish fleece and not a wildly attractive blue at that.  I put some of it in a pot of yellow cosmos dye, adding in dissolved alum to act as the mordant, simmered it up to overdye and got an even more matted lump of yellowy green.   
And thus I learned that Exmoorino felts easily in a hot dye bath.  Well, no, I only made this deduction after I had wrecked the rest of the blue wool, unable to resist seeing what would happen if I simmered it up with the last of a dish of fermented Evernia prunastri, blown down in the winter storms. Mangled clumps of purplish pink fleece, for the record.  These educational experiences came to an abrupt halt as Christmas approached and I noticed what a state my house was in and realised how little time was left to finish making presents.
Well, how lucky this began as such a huge fleece.  In the New Year, I found I still had about 1.5kg of unadulterated, clean Exmoorino.  Using the dog brush to flick out the butts and open the dusty tips, I fed 25g at a time into my small drum carder, drafted out the initial batt and carded it through one more time to make a really satisfyingly full and bouncy batt of soft, cream coloured fibres.  Spinning a nice even skein of chunky weight yarn was easy, as Exmoorino does share the Exmoor Horn virtue of good tempered handling and the wool really is soft and gentle on the skin, if more cosy than silky. 

I did experiment a bit, spinning finer yarn, though I had thought from the start this would be just the stuff for some really bullky knitwear.  My sister loves a huge jumper to hide in.  She likes plenty of colour too, but that wasn't happening.  The best I could manage was brushing out a few of the least matted dyed locks and laying a couple of bits of each shade onto sections pulled from the length of the plain batts.  Rolling each section up into a sort of rolag, the coloured locks drafted through in random lumps, giving a slub effect.

Each skein of yarn has uneven twist and variable thickness, but Pip enjoys that sort of thing. Trouble is, the process has got interspersed with spinning fine yarns from other fleeces, as an antidote to the endless round of drum carding Exmoorino batts. Given my decision to spin bulky, one batt gave hardly any spinning time, using short forward drafting and no fussing about exactly how much fibre got drawn through. Two batts from 50g scoured fleece made one single and since a fair amount of waste got brushed out, one thick skein of two ply weighed just over 80g. Somehow Spring is arriving and I have ended up with one white chunky and six superbulky slubbed skeins, but some are almost as heavy as four wraps per inch while others are nearer seven. I am working on the eighth skein at present and have noticed that there is only enough fleece left for two more. Grand total of spinning will be 700m. 

I name this yarn Summer Slubbing.

Now to knit a close fitting jumper. Where did that huge fleece go? Good job my sister is skinny.


  1. Lovely yarn, a little like marble.


    1. Brilliant thought. I shall call the jumper I knit with it 'Elgin' - for all the lost marbles.