Learning how to spin wool using a commercial mill is an option. When we first began raising fiber and wool animals, I had grand dreams of producing yarn myself. I saw a full sheep to yarn vision. I thought it would happen right on our farmstead. After lovingly shearing the animals ourselves, the fleeces would be sorted and skirted. Bagging each individual fleece separately, in order to name the yarn produced after the sheep that produced it. Then, each bagged fleece would be stored in chronological order to be spun or sold to another crafts-person. But wait! How did all those fleeces get piled in bags and boxes? How did it all become so disorganized? That really can’t be the baby fleece from the now three-year-old wether, can it?
I can tell you how it happened. We run a farm. The farm has lots of different animals and also gardens to tend to. There are approximately 10 to 12 hours of good daylight to work with. The weather gets brutally hot way too soon. Sorting and skirting wool is not fun during high humidity days! So the wool is bagged and placed in the shed, with other bags of wool, waiting for those all too seldom perfect days. The days where you only want to be outside. Perfect weather with low humidity, perfect temperature and not too many bugs. Yes. That is why the fleeces pile up. So I had to let go of one dream in order to fulfill another. The end result is the same. We have our farm blend yarns and roving available for sale. I can use our own yarn to make gloves, scarves and gifts for friends, or to stock our shop. And I no longer have fleece in bags and boxes taking over the shed.
How to Spin Wool with a Fiber Mill
In the past years, I have tried out six different fiber-processing mills. It is important to know what you are looking for in terms of a final product. Figure out if your product (the raw fleece) matches the abilities of the fiber mill. Talk to the owner and get to know his or her style of production. Even though a machine will be processing the fiber, the mill operator has a technique that is unique. Everyone has their own style and preferences. Finding one that works well with your product makes the entire process more enjoyable.
Sorting and Skirting
The first step in using a fiber mill to process your yarn is to sort and skirt the fleece. Sorting separates the dark fleece from the natural. It is often done during the shearing. The shearing will remove the fleece and push it aside. We gather it into bags or piles depending on how it will be sent to the mill. For a true farm blend natural, I only want the “white” fleece. I will separate the dark out at this point for a dark blend of fiber.
Skirting removes any soiled, poopy, matted or gross parts of the fleece. The fiber mill does NOT want this. Learning this is the first step in how to spin wool using a fiber mill. First, it’s gross. Second, it can really damage the equipment. Remove the britch area from between the legs and around the rear end. Often the legs are messy and sparse, so I don’t keep much from the legs either. Wool-yielding animals tend to collect debris in their fleece.
The rest of the fleece will need to be skirted for food, random pieces of manure, vegetable debris from leaves and plants, thorns, stickers and more. The best way to skirt the fleece is to lay it out flat on a large table top or frame. The frame allows short pieces of fleece called second cuts to drop through to the ground. The second cuts are too short to be spun on a machine. No matter whether you are shearing from suffolk sheep or spinning wool by hand, second cuts are not helpful. Try using the short second cuts for felting projects instead.
Some people raising fiber animals choose to use lightweight coats on their animals. The coats are made of a breathable fabric to help keep the animal from overheating. In addition, the coats have the intended purpose of keeping the fleece cleaner and free from debris.
Should You Wash the Fleece?
Should you wash the fleece before sending it for processing? This varies from mill to mill. Most mills take an incoming weight on the fleece for an initial estimate. This estimate will change after washing, as the dirt and grease is washed out. On the other hand, you may not want to gunk up your washer or have a suitable outside space to wash a fleece. I prefer to let the mill scour my fleeces. The fiber comes out snowy white and clean. To me this is worth a bit more. Talk to the mill operator about washing the fleeces. I have usually chosen to go with the mill’s recommendation when discussing how to spin wool using a commercial mill.
If you are processing the fleece yourself, washing often occurs before learning how to spin wool. Each type of fiber reacts differently to being washed. For example, fine mohair tends to felt easily if the least bit of agitation occurs during washing. You must take care to only squeeze the water out gently and not twist or ring the fiber. Wool is a little bit more forgiving but still needs to avoid any agitation during washing. If you have a top load washing machine you can wash the fleece in the tub with the top open to keep the cycle from switching into the agitation or washing mode. Let the fleece sit in the tub in the hot water and cleaning detergent. Use a soap specifically made for cleaning wool fiber. You can let the machine spin out the excess water between rinses but take care to not let the water rush into the washer tub while the fleece is in the tub. Set the fleece in a separate wash basin, refill with hot water and push the fleece back into the tub. Repeat until the fleece is clean. Spread the fleece out to dry.
Spinning in the Grease
Spinning in the grease is a term referring to spinning directly from the raw fleece. Many hand spinners prefer this method. When learning how to spin wool, spinning in the grease may be something you want to try.
What Questions Should you ask the Fiber Mill Owner?
The best way to interview a mill operator is to take your fleece to the mill on an appointment. Sit down and discuss your vision for your fleeces. Then, listen. The best way to learn more about your fleece is to listen to a knowledgeable mill owner explain the good points and the not so good points of your fleece. Is there a lot of wool break or other damage? How well is it skirted? The mill I am working with now, took the time to discuss what products I could hope for if the processing was done there. Some of our staple lengths were too short to be spun commercially. I was offered the option of making it into pin drafted roving that could be sold to hand spinners. Hand spinning can make beautiful yarn from a shorter staple length. I was also shown some products that were similar to what I could expect. The mill owner understood my concerns and answered my questions honestly. Sometimes the answer to what we want from a mill is, no. I learned valuable information from my sit down intake interview. The time was well spent. Learning how to spin wool and work with a fiber processing mill is worth the investment of an extra hour or two.
If you don’t live near the mill you want to work with, you should still be able to accomplish much of this by phone. Sending samples of your fleece and then discussing the possibilities may work well for you. In many cases when our yarn was processed out of state, I sent the fiber to the mill and then the owner called me to discuss what they could do for me, along with an estimated job cost. There is no harm in asking for samples of their work or references from past customers.
How to spin wool using a fiber mill requires some understanding of fiber qualities, yarn characteristics, and yarn weights. The terms Fine, DK, Sport, Sock, Bulky and Lace are some of the terms you will hear discussed. These yarn terms refer to the weight of the yarn and somewhat describe the thickness of the strand.
Learning how to spin wool and processing wool into yarn, either by hand or by commercial mill, is a journey. The amount of information that needs to be considered can be daunting. I believe it is better to have some beautiful yarn from our wool-bearing animals than to have a shed full of bags waiting to be processed here on the farm. I hope you will find the perfect place in the range of learning how to spin, that works for you and your farm.
Are you learning how to spin wool? Do you process your wool yourself or use a mill? Let us know in the comments below.