Whether buying a fleece or
skirting and accessing your own fleeces there are many factors to consider.
Here at Morro Fleece Works we get both ends of the spectrum coming in.
Skirting a fleece is very subjective, so we really do not like doing
this service. Knowing what the fleece will ultimately become is a huge
factor in skirting. Is this a next to the skin baby garment? Or will
this be thick spun and woven into a rug for the floor? Even purchased
fleeces from a wool show have been skirted with someone else’s
standards; not yours. Some fleeces arriving here are a spinners personal
pet animal and they simply want to spin and create something from this
beloved family member. Often times these fleeces have some flaws or
not so desirable traits. Maybe heavier vegetable matter (VM) than another
client would accept or perhaps canary stain or kemp. This might all
be perfectly acceptable for the client. I don’t feel that it is
for me to judge in this case. Other fleeces arriving here were purchased
from a wool show or a farm and the client is assuming that the fleece
has already been skirted. And it may have been – but to who’s
standards? We have seen some pretty scary things in purchased fleeces.
Sometimes they are full of second cuts or felted on the back or quite
tender. We see fleeces with award winning ribbons in the bag that have
some of these defects. I am extremely hesitant to get between the show
judge and the buyer! That is a no-win situation for me. Please take
the time to go through your fleeces before you send them to us. For
those of you who are not sure about grading or skirting your fleeces,
these are some things to look for and help with your decision about
the use of the fleece.
This is the visible waviness of the individual fibers. A good,
consistent crimp allows elasticity, memory, resilience and loft in your
yarn or finished garment. Crimp is measured per inch and graded by how
many waves or crimps per inch on the fiber. Wool with larger distinct
and deep curves is referred to as bold crimp. The down type wools (Cheviot,
Southdown, Montadale, etc.) will have good resilience and loft. Long
wools such as Lincoln or Wensleydale will have more of a curl than a
crimp. Fibers with minimal crimp and a short staple length (less than
3”) will be difficult to card and challenging to spin into a yarn
that stays together.
3” to 6” is ideal. Staple length is measured from a relaxed
lock of the fleece. For some fleeces the lock pulled straight will become
a much longer measurement due to the crimp or curl. Because of crimp,
the average fiber length will be greater than the staple length. With
a staple length (relaxed) of less than 3”, the fleece should have
exceptional other qualities such as crimp (elasticity) and fineness.
Over 6” and you need to watch out for breaks or tender fibers.
Also most fiber processors machines cannot accept a staple length of
more than 6”. Here at Morro Fleece Works we can card as short
as 2” only if the fiber has excellent crimp and when pulled straight,
measures 3” or more. The longest staple we can card is 6”
unless it is a dual coat with good crimp and loft in the undercoat.
With this dual coat characteristic, we can card a 7” outer coarse
Micron or fineness is how soft and fine the fleece fibers are. There
are two measuring methods for fineness and these are micron count or
the Bradford count. A fine fiber would be something close to a 20 micron
or a 70 Bradford counts. In micron measuring the lower the number the
finer the fiber. For Bradford measuring the higher the number the finer
the fiber. Refer to this chart Fiber Gauge
for more about micron measurements. Coarser fibers that are not soft-to-the-skin
are great for outer wear and blankets. Exceptionally coarse fibers make
excellent durable rugs. Very fine and clean fleeces can become lovely
next to the skin garments. We tend to see the more tender or break fleeces
in the fine wools and alpaca. Be sure to check for this.
Tender and Breaks:
A break occurs in one portion of the staple due to a thinner area in
the fiber. These usually occur during fiber growth at a time when feed
is changed, an animal changes owners and therefore feed, a stressful
time for the animal, such as pregnancy, over heating, illness, dog attacks
or transporting. The normal fiber growth is interrupted and becomes
temporarily thinner. Tender also means a weak point in the wool staple.
You can check your fleece for this problem by holding a small lock of
fiber with your fingers at each end and snapping or pulling it. The
fibers should hold and not break or tear. We don’t like to card
tender fleeces here because the short broken fibers create noils in
the roving. Basically, the carding action breaks the tender fibers.
Furthermore these short pieces can cause shedding or pilling in a finished
garment as they work their way out of the yarn. A tender fleece is useable
for felting but I would not recommend it for yarn.
Kemp or Guard Hairs:
Guard hairs are the extremely coarse fibers that poke out from the softer
undercoat of the fleece and detract from the value of the finer undercoat.
These can be tediously removed by hand or sent to a fiber processor
with a dehairing machine. Unfortunately, dehairing machines remove a
lot of the fine fibers too so the loss is significant. Morro Fleece
Works does not have a dehairing machine. Other coarse hairs in a fleece
are called kemp or belly wool or medullated fibers. No matter how soft
the main part of the fleece is, these coarser fibers will make any finished
garment prickly and scratchy. If you are making a rug then these stout
hairs can just stay in the fleece. Some breeds are more prone to these
hairs than others. Guard hairs are common in llamas and Karakul or Navajo
Churro sheep. Kemp hairs are regularly seen in Navajo Churro, Scottish
Blackface and Shetland sheep fleeces. Belly wool is common in alpaca
and llama fleeces and in Jacobs wool.
Stickers, hay, leaves, sticks and poop in the fleece is called vegetable
matter (VM) or chafe. Too much of this in even the super fine and super
crimpy fleeces makes them nearly unusable. An area in the fleece where
VM is excessive creates matting and felting which is also deemed unusable.
A small portion of the VM comes out during washing, picking and carding
but never all of it. As a fiber processor, I find that fillery and burr
clover are a few of the worst stickers. In the huge commercial textile
mills a process called carbonization is used to remove all of the VM.
This is a chemical bath that dissolves everything except the wool. It
is a pretty harsh process and most small mills do not use it. The only
way to remove all of the VM is to hand pick the fleece. This is extremely
time consuming. Usually covered (coated) wool fleeces or any very clean
fleeces command top dollar and for good reason.
Matting and Felting:
This is where the fibers all entangle together into one solid piece
or pieces while still in the raw fleece form. Basically, if the fibers
can not be pulled apart somewhat easily with your bare hands then it
is too felted. Heavy VM in the fleece can cause felting. Shearing anything
less than annually can cause felting. Felted and matted parts of the
fleeces should be removed and disposed of. Here at MFW, we usually see
felted or matted fiber from llamas, the dual or double coat sheep breeds
and mohair (goat) fleeces. The two most common fiber types rejected
here are mohair and llama due to matting or felting, lice nits, dander
and too much VM.
When farm animals get lice in their fiber, part of the lice life cycle
is to lay an egg or “nit” onto the fiber strands near the
skin. These tiny eggs attach firmly and are wrapped around the hair
shaft. Even if the sheep, goat, alpaca or llama only has lice for a
short time before being deloused, the dead egg or the nit shell is still
attached to the fiber shaft. These are easily visible on the darker
fleeces but harder to see in the whites and lighter fibers. For some
fiber processors, like myself, these lice nits make successful carding
very difficult if not impossible. We will reject a fleece with too many
nits. I can wash it for you but we will not want to try to card it.
Hand carding is an option and can be done successfully. Lice nits won’t
make your fiber unusable but they certainly devalue it. The lice are
host specific and will not transfer to humans. You will generally see
the first signs of them in the leg/arm pit area of the animal or on
the rear haunches. We definitely see more lice nits in mohair (goat),
llamas and alpacas than in sheep.
Dander or Scurf:
These are little dried skin flakes similar to dandruff that are mostly
found in the dual or double coat sheep breeds. Dual coat sheep tend
to molt at the start of warm weather, releasing their fine undercoat.
This is called rooing and is a natural occurrence. Dander can also be
caused by lice in both sheep and goats. This scurf or dander can be
seen near the cut end of the fiber and appear like shed skin pieces.
We also see this on alpaca, llama and mohair fleeces. Usually the skin
pieces are attach to the shaft of hair and quite difficult to remove.
Unfortunately, we cannot card nor pin draft fleeces with dander here
at Morro Fleece Works. The skin flakes do not wash out and then they
stick to the exit rollers on the carding machine causing wrapping.
We affectionately call these dingle berries. These are poop blobs hanging
in the fleece. Generally found at the back end portion of the fleece,
these should be removed. We see poopy fibers or dingle berries on all
animal fleeces – sheep, alpacas, goats and llamas. It’s
just part of the barn yard life.
These are short little pieces of fleece that have two cut ends. These
occur during shearing when the shearer goes over the same area on the
animal twice, creating a “second cut”. If you lay out the
fleece with the cut side up, you might see these little short fiber
bundles on the fleece. These should be removed or shaken out because
you want a consistent staple length. Furthermore these short pieces
create neps during carding and can cause shedding or pilling in a finished
garment as they work their way out of the yarn.
Of all the disgusting things that we see in fleeces, I find the skin
cuts are the hardest to stomach. These are actual chunks of skin with
fleece attached that were cut off of the animal by mistake during shearing.
These can be as small as a sequin or as large as a fifty cent piece.
Some are long skinny strips of flesh. If the fleece has been stored
a while than the skin is dried up and shriveled. These occur more often
with an inexperienced shearer, a wild and unruly animal, the wrinkled
and very difficult to shear Merino breed and animals with skin abscesses.
We cannot card these so they need to be removed.
Also called yolk or yellow is usually seen in white wool fleeces. Canary
stain is an unscourable yellow stain on the wool. I am not a scientist
nor a shepherd so I am not completely sure the cause of this. I believe
it is due to the sheep becoming overheated and sweating before shearing
time. This suint or sheep sweat stains and discolors the wool. Some
fleeces will only have it in certain areas while others will be fully
yellowed. Unfortunately, many wool fleeces appear yellow or yolk in
the grease but wash up into a pure white. Therefore, canary stain cannot
really be determined until the wool is washed. If you are suspicious
of canary stain, wash a lock to check it.
Bleached or Brittle Tips:
These are fibers that are a bit damaged on the growth end tips. Watch
for excessively pointed, discolored or dry tips. These brittle tips
tend to break off in processing which can be problematic. Our particular
carder, here at the MFW mill, will generally release these broken pieces
in one area and we just vacuum them up. However, other mills will have
different carding equipment and the tippy fleeces may react differently.
Some folks tediously trim off all of the tips with scissors before processing.
We do not offer this service. Many baby fleeces (lamb, cria & kid)
will have tippy fleeces on their first shearing. A hogget fleece is
a first sheared lamb fleece with fuzzy tips.
And a Note About Rolled Show Fleeces:
The proper way to prepare and enter a fleece for a show is to roll it
up with the growth tips inside and the fresh cut side exposed. This
is the correct, standard and required method for fleece presentation.
So just to be clear; the shepherd is NOT trying to hide anything. They
are required to enter their fleeces into shows in this manner. However,
as the buyer or shopper, you need to look inside the fleeces for any
imperfections and to really see the fleece characteristics. Any vegetable
matter or bleached tips will be better visible on the growth side. Check
for tender/break in a few separate areas. Observe overall staple length.
The cut side of the rolled fleece should easily show canary stain, second
cuts and any kemp. Look closely in several areas for any nits or signs
of previous lice, any dander, dung tags or felted areas. Anyone can
enter a fleece into a show. You will see the most stunning and exceptional
fleeces at these shows but buyer beware; not all of the fleeces are
Just For Fun:
These are some of the things we have found in customers fleeces
over the years: Many pairs of scissors, a half knit sweater,
a bag of marijuana, a dead bird, a 4’ length of barbed wire, a
large crystal egg, lots of toys – a Tonka truck, many little plastic
animals, Lincoln logs, a Barbie doll and several stuffed animals, a
dog collar, wire snips, a foot long piece of heavy chain, several shears,
many pairs of knitting needles, one sneaker and a padlock. Most all
of these things were returned to the customers with their processed