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Skirting a Fleece and What to Look for in Raw Fleece

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.

Staple Length:
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 coat.

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.

Vegetable Matter:
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.

Lice Nits:
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.

Dung Tags:
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.

Second Cuts:
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.

Skin Cuts:
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.

Canary Stain:
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 good quality.

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 fiber.