I had an email request from my website asking if I sold fleeces, to which I replied I did, though I find its hardly worth the effort of skirting (taking off the smelly bits) and getting bits of vegetable matter out of the fleece which can take ages.
However, I said the only fleeces I had were four which had sat in plastic dustbin liners since last June, as I usually use them for covering my dahlias during the winter.
I photographed all four and this lady chose one which I sent to her. She is a handspinner and was very pleased with the fleece. This was spun and knitted and a sample was sent to me. This fleece had not been stored properly and was not as good as the fleeces I have this year. I am breeding for ‘woolliness’.
I asked this lady if she would kindly do an article for our newsletter which you will read below. – Marie Clarke
My name is Margaret and I’m a hand-spinner. I learned to spin when I was quite young, but put it aside due to the demands of career and family. Since reaching the relative peace of retirement age, I’ve started to spin again; and recently I became interested in the sheep which grow the wool I love to spin.
My curiosity was piqued when I wanted to knit a Shetland shawl, and I decided that the best way to make an ‘authentic’ shawl was to spin my own Shetland yarn. Through Ravelry (www.ravelry.com), an online social network for spinners, weavers, knitters and crocheters) I was put in touch with a company in the Shetland Islands and obtained my first fleece. It was wonderful, and I so much enjoyed preparing fleece for my own spinning that I started to look into buying fleece instead of commercially-prepared ‘top’. Perhaps because of my good experience with the Shetland fleece, I started to investigate ‘primitive’ breeds, and this led me by degrees to the charming and diminutive Ouessant. I had visited the island of Ouessant several years ago when I was ‘guest crew’ on a tall ship that moored there, but I hadn’t seen any sheep. (I know now that the sheep are mostly preserved by shepherds in other areas.) I had no idea where to buy a Ouessant fleece. So I went online, and found the website for ‘New Forest Ouessant Sheep’. I emailed asking if there were fleeces for sale, and the owner—Marie Clarke—responded that indeed she had fleeces but had never considered selling them to the hand-spinner market.
One email led to another and in the end I bought one of Marie’s fleeces from last year’s clip. I’ve already committed to buying another fleece when she shears this year. Apart from that of customer and provider, I have no other commercial relationship with Marie; she asked me to write a short article for this newsletter to let other Ouessant breeders know about the potential for selling fleece in the hand-spinners’ market and I agreed to do in the hope that this will help out both spinners and Ouessant breeders.
My experience with the fleece of New Forest Yew has been a very pleasant one. Marie has been breeding for density and softness; the fleece is quite heavy and thick. Ouessants, like many primitive breeds, have two or even three coats: a soft downy undercoat, longer more wiry guard hairs, and what are also sometimes know as ‘heterotypes’, which combine the characteristics of the other two. Judging from Yew’s fleece, the heterotype tends to be softer nearer the skin and more hair-like towards the outside of the fleece, tapering to a point like the guard hairs do. In Yew’s fleece I’ve found mostly heterotypes with very little guard hair or down. The fleece washed up nicely and I prepared it by carding with hand cards, for spinning ‘woolen’ style. There are two basic styles of spinning—woolen, in which the fibres are somewhat mixed up, and worsted, in which the fibres have been combed out to lie parallel. In woolen spinning, fibres of different lengths are spun into yarn, while in worsted spinning, the combing process ensures that the final preparation has fibres of the same length. Because of the mixed-up fibres, woolen spinning traps more air into the yarn, making the yarn light, puffy and bouncy, and also very warm because the trapped air acts as insulation. A worsted yarn is smoother and more compact, without the trapped air; it will make a good woven fabric but won’t as warm as an article made of woolen-spun yarn.
I combed out some of Yew’s fleece for worsted spinning but found that the procedure tended to result in a rather harsh, hairy fibre. I much preferred the carded woolen prep, which spun up into a bouncy yarn of approximately double-knit weight. I knitted it up into a sample swatch using 5mm needles and it made a nice fabric suitable for an outer garment such as a sweater or jacket. It’s a bit too harsh for next-to-skin wear but might also make a nice hat. At the moment I’m spinning up some more yarn into an Aran/bulky weight for more sampling.
I don’t consider myself an experienced spinner but neither am I a beginner. I know that primitive breeds are very popular with some hand-spinners. Indeed, I first heard of the Ouessant from one of the leading lights of the Ravelry spinners who mentioned that a friend keeps a herd of Ouessants for him—that was what sent me off looking for Ouessants, because I figured if he liked them they would be very worth looking at.
Marie asked me what a spinner would look for if they were considering buying a fleece. Since I live in Malta, I have to do all my buying online; and what I would like to know is:
• What is the weight of the fleece?
• What is the average length of the staple?
• Has the fleece been skirted (short and dirty bits around the edges removed)?
• Is there a lot of vegetable matter (VM) in the fleece? Spinners know that sheep live outdoors and there’s bound to be some VM, but if there’s a lot it becomes a chore to pick it out. It helps if sheep are sheared in a clean area.
• Has the fleece been professionally sheared? I know a lot of shearers in UK deal with flocks where the fleeces are going to be sold to spinners, as opposed to simply shearing for health reasons.
• In the case of a primitive breed such as the Ouessant, is the fleece more ‘woolly’ or more ‘hairy’?
Farmers or smallholders with fleece to sell can get some useful information from the Woolfest site: see http://www.woolfest.co.uk/whats-on/fleece-sale.htm for three very helpful downloadable PDF files on producing and selling raw fleece for handspinners, grading and sorting a handspinning fleece, and washing fleece for handspinning. (Woolfest is an annual, and hugely popular, fibre festival in the UK.) The Natural Fibre Company (www.thenaturalfibre.co.uk) offers fleece processing services and also free downloadable information. (Again, I have no commercial affiliation with any of these.)
Hand-spinning is a rapidly-growing craft with many practitioners in the UK; and we’re always on the lookout for good fleeces. Speaking for myself, I also want to support smallholders and shepherds who are working to preserve primitive and endangered breeds. I hope the information I have provided is useful for those of you who might wish to consider selling fleeces in the hand-spinning market.
Victoria, Gozo, Malta