By Virginia Scholomiti
In looking for materials for their next creation, fiber artists and craftsmen seek to purchase raw fleeces to use “as is,” or to process themselves by hand.
Shepherds with small flocks are producing a wonderful array of wool fibers in a palette full of colors and textures. Taking that fleece to a local wool festival to sell, or marketing it directly to customers can be difficult for the shepherd who has no experience in the world of fiber arts.
This niche market is quite different from the bulk wholesale market where wool is graded and packed up with other fibers of similar qualities and then heads out to large industrial mills.
Fiber artists judge each fleece on its individual merits and characteristics and each must stand on its own.
Here are some tips and suggestions for making sure you put your best fleeces forward to represent you and your flock.
Breeding for Value & Demand
OK, it may be too late for you to take advantage of this first tip, but knowing your wool breed, registering your stock and breeding to a breed standard is really the best way to get a head start on producing great fleece.
Registered breeds have standards towards which they’re bred. With wool breeds that includes putting a priority on the characteristics of their specific fleece.
Breeds exist to reliably and consistently reproduce. Pedigree and registration help track important traits and work to make them reliably duplicate in each generation. Good breeders adhere to goals and standards set for them. There’s a lot to be gained from producing a specialty product, something with superior qualities that can be reasonably reproduced and marketed to the end user. Producing fiber from a recognizable registered breed, renown for certain characteristics may come with devoted followers and consumers looking for that specific fiber.
Demand is increasing for specific high-quality wool, identified by breed, throughout the individual fiber arts community and the local markets that supply them. People are beginning to ask about the fiber and if the animal it comes from is registered with a breed association. This is understood to be a marker of superior quality and standards.
Anytime a consumer recognizes the fiber from a breed, that breed is being promoted. Your fiber will be judged against the standard for that breed, so you will want to be sure you’ve done your homework.
An added note – Experimentation with various crosses can produce amazing individual fibers and animals that often are truly outstanding in many ways. Their fiber meets their producer’s individual needs and goals, which may be used in creating their own art. And may very well develop an outside market for their own fiber.
To reach very far beyond your own needs, you must be well versed in the fiber arts, or be working with a strong and helpful fiber arts community, so you know the specific customer demands for your product. You then need to decide exactly what fibers you want to work with and develop, not to mention years to commit to the experiment, inconsistencies, failures and evolution of traits within your flock. This can be a successful road for some, but difficult for others.
If you’re not sure what breeds your flock comes from, you can do a bit of research to see if you can identify whether they’re a fine wool, medium wool or long wool type, or a mix. It’s hard to market fiber that can’t be categorized, but it’s not impossible.
Meat breeds historically weren’t bred with fiber as a priority, but still produce good usable fibers. Many breeds were developed as “dual purpose.” Mainly for meat and fiber.
Are Your Raw Fleeces Salable?
Take a look at your newly sheared fleece to decide if it’s a candidate for marketing to consumers who want a raw fleece.
As you take your fiber off the shearing floor, it’s best to skirt it right away, if you can.
Skirting means removing all the short, inconsistent, contaminated and otherwise undesirable parts of the fleece. Even if you can’t give it a good heavy skirting, at least remove the really soiled stuff and the bits that are damp or heavily contaminated with vegetable matter (VM). Shake out the second cuts, which are the short bits that come from the clippers when they go back over an already cut section. Your shearer will strive to have few if any second cuts.
Tip: Right after shearing, always leave your bags open for a while, so that the fleece can breath. Store them out of direct sunlight.
Most fiber is at it’s best soon after shearing. The sooner you offer it to consumers looking to purchase raw fleece to use for their fiber projects, the better. After a year’s storage, fibers tend to lose some of their superior qualities. They may dry out a bit and sometimes even felt a bit.
That doesn’t mean they’re unusable, but you’ll have lost the window of opportunity to present your fiber at its very best. There are fleeces that can be stored raw for longer periods, but in general it’s best to market them while fresh.
Here are some things to check before thinking of offering your fleece for sale in its raw state.
Sheep, naturally will always have some hay or other things stuck in the fiber. How do you know how much is too much? For commercial producers, the price declines when the fiber contains about two percent or more of VM.
The individual consumer will have different tolerances, but no one will want a raw fleece that’s contaminated with a lot of VM.
Some bits will fall out when you pick the fiber, card or comb it—and also in the process of spinning it. Large pieces will have to be picked out by hand, piece by piece. Now imagine just how very tedious that is.
Does your fleece have “canary stain” or excessive yolking or staining? Do you notice that some of your wool looks yellowish, or brown?
Some discolorations are completely natural and will wash out, however there are some that will not.
Yolking is a term frequently used when referring to yellowish fiber. Technically, this yellowing is from lanaurin, pigment that’s produced by suint glands. Much of the yolking will wash out, but sometimes not all of it.
Canary stain is caused by bacterial action in the wool and will not wash out.
Tip: Take a small handful of fiber and lightly wash it and if it comes clean you are good to go.
There are other stains—for instance, from urine—that affect a fleece. It’s not unusual for some fiber in a fleece to retain some staining.
Put a handful of washed fiber from the fleece on the top, to show customers how it washes up, so they can see that the discoloration washes out.
Check your fiber for tenderness and breaks. Tenderness is a problem of weakness and causes the breaking of the fiber.
Check the integrity of the fiber by picking up a small section from a lock of wool; hold it firmly and begin pulling evenly apart. You want to pull quite hard—up to seven pounds of pressure is suggested—and the fiber should not begin to break apart.
Put it up to your ear and see if you hear the crackling of stands breaking with applied pressure.
Also test the fiber by grabbing each end and snapping it. If the wool has a “break,” it will break apart in one place all at once, indicating a weakness in one specific spot in the fiber. These breaks are usually due to a problem that the sheep had at a specific point in time while growing the fleece. It might be due to illness, stress, nutrition, or other environmental factors. It will not be suitable for hand use.
Is your staple length too short? Some breeds, mainly the fine wools and some of the down breeds, grow a very short fleece. That’s perfectly fine and standard for these breeds. However, if your staple length is under two inches, it will probably not be one that will grab the attention and adoration of a hand spinner. This does not mean the fiber is useless. It simply means that for this market, it will probably not be gobbled up. Some breeds can grow a very long fiber and it stays wonderfully intact and usable.
Feel & General Condition
Put your hands into your fleece and feel it. How a fleece feels is called its handle.
A dry or brittle fleece will feel just that, very stiff, very dry and sort of lifeless. Overexposure to the elements, sickness, poor nutrition or other factors may occasionally produce this sensation. Fiber artists and crafters will be handling your fleece just as it is. If it feels “generally unpleasant,” you’ll have few buyers.
Again there are other purposes for this fiber, it’s just not for the raw market.
Is your fleece cotted (matted)? This sometimes happens when fiber grows too long, or sustains too much friction from rubbing against something, or rubs inside ill fitting coats. The fibers have begun to interlock themselves together.
Cotting can also be due to genetics. Grab a hunk of your fiber and try to separate the locks or staples. Do they pull apart fairly readily or do you have to really tug and pull on them with a lot of strength. For hand spinning, fiber needs to separate easily.
Tip: Some felters seek out a fleece that has started to cot, they want to further full, or felt it. And they may want this fleece. So don’t despair, but be sure to mention that it’s partially felted when you market it.
Does it contain a lot of kemp or hair fibers? (Remember we are not talking here about dual coated, or primitive breeds.)
Look closely at your fiber. Does it have longer, stiff, brittle fibers that sort of stick out?
If your fleece is white, does it have individual black fibers here and there?
These may be kemp or hair fibers.
They generally have a different “handle” from the rest of the fibers. They don’t take dyes the same way regular fibers do.
Some people will not purchase a fleece if they see kemp and hair fibers.
There are sheep breeds that are supposed to have hair and others that have double coated fleeces. Again, we’re not talking about these primitive or dual coated breeds.
Wool breed fiber is generally consistent and uniform in crimp or curl. It’s not hard to understand why consistency is important. But you might not realize that the inconsistent curl or crimp in a fleece will affect the final project and definitely be noticed by the person working with these fibers. The fibers not only look different but feel differently and will act differently when used.
Some parts of the fleece that grow in various areas of the sheep are expected to be different from others. This is part of the reason we skirt fleece: Wool from the legs, head and belly are quite different from the body of the sheep. The britchy fibers around the leg are frequently less curly and sometimes coarser.
It’s not news to you that your sheep lie down. And of course their fiber is affected by this repeated pressure. But genetics also play a large part in the consistency of fiber and the amount of britchy wool an animal has.
You can skirt out all but the most consistent and similar parts of each fleece and offer a smaller volume with a superior consistency.
High-Value Raw Fleece Production Options
If your fleece didn’t make it through your inspection, it’s time to re-evaluate and decide if it’s a candidate for one of the many other markets for wool.
Don’t blame your sheep if your fiber is not up to snuff. They can only produce a reflection of their genetics and their environment.
Some people say fleece is a reflection of the health of the animal, however there are many variables that create a great fleece. Nutrition, environment, health, ease, genetics, breeding and several other factors allow sheep to produce the best fiber they can. Some breeds haven’t been bred with an emphasis on fiber, others were created and/or have evolved to put a high priority on the type of fleece they produce.
Don’t despair, there are many other uses for wool, but for today we’re only focusing on the market within the craft or handiwork community of fiber artists.
The good news is you can decide whether producing a better fleece fits into the goals you have for your farm. You can begin to work now on a plan to improve your fiber, if that’s a direction you want to take your flock.
The most active and supportive breed associations keep an ad presence in sheep! So do the most supportive individual pure breeders and handlers of purebred stock. These breeders are often more supportive than a breed association, especially where the only associations for the breed are in foreign lands or don’t exist.
Virginia Scholomiti is a sheep breeder, hand spinner and her business explores and promotes the unique textures, characteristics and value of fabulous wool fiber.
Originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of sheep!.