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Getting to know your wool.

So, you raise sheep? Now to learn more about the fiber they grow. Being a producer and wool buyer, I have visited with many people about their wool. Let me tell you not all wool is created equal. I hope this will give you just a glimpse of information to set you on the right path to grow beautiful wool. First look at the breed, do your research to learn what the specific standards are for that breed. Then surround yourself with people in the know who also love wool. Find a good shearer. (S)he will be indispensable in teaching you more about your sheep, their health and that direct line to fiber that provides you with a yearly, healthy fleece. Invite your wool processor to your shearing day, or maybe a member from your local guild. They can provide very useful information. And lastly, find your fiber tribe. Those who have gone before you and lived it will be your best source of information. Get your hands in the wool! Touch, feel, analyze, look at the overall fleece closely. As you are examining your wool you can ask yourself these questions. The first thing is to see if the fleece is sound? Does it break? You might be wondering what a wool break is? It is an area of the fleece where the staple is thin and weakened, making the staple break when you test.

If you find a break in the fleece, this fleece would be considered bad. The first concern is the health of that sheep. Make sure your ewe doesn’t have a bad bag (mastitis). Most the time I have found this is the cause of the break due to the stress caused during the time of growing that section of wool or lacking some sort of nutrition, typically minerals.

If the fleece does not break that is good! Now look at the staple length. That is the length of the fiber from cut end to tip. Not all tips are created equal, but that’s a subject worth and entire blog post all in itself. Are your sheep growing their fleeces to the average length for the breed? Mill spinning typically requires at least a 3” staple and some won’t spin under 3.5”. Hand-spinners always love a longer staple, because longer makes it more enjoyable to process and spin.

Next look at the overall fleece. Is it full of hay, grass or straw? Does it have burrs? How about poop or mud and grease tags? This is when we start skirting the fleeces. Skirting is where you remove all the unwanted. Second cuts, VM (vegetable matter = Hay, grass, stray, burrs, etc.), poop and grease tags. Not all fleeces come off of the shearing floor “perfectly” so don’t worry just do your best. I always recommend skirting the fleeces at shearing, because by the time the fleece is rolled up and tossed into a bag it just spreads the VM throughout the fleece more. A handy tip at shearing time is to have a trash can for belly wool. To make things easier, toss that belly wool right away. Please don’t roll it up inside your lovely fleece to be store away and unwrapped as a surprise later.

Next you will want to weigh your fleece I always weigh after skirting. This gives you a true, usable raw weight.

The next step is to decide what grade of wool you have. I always recommend sending in samples to be measured. But this isn’t necessary. This can help you know exactly the microns that you can expect from your sheep. When you measure yearly it can help guild you as a producer. Is your program working or does it need to be adjusted? If micron isn’t something that is important to your marketing go ahead and skip this step.

The final step now that you have all the information gathered. Is to ask yourself these questions

What can be done with the fleece? Time to start researching some more.

Will you keep the fleece? If so, how will you store it?

Will you sell the fleece? If you sell, what form will you sell? Raw, Processed into Roving or Top maybe have it spun into yarn?

Will you process it yourself? Will you send it to a mill? How do you find a mill to work with?

This is where making connections and asking question is very important. Start by talking to your local connections. Other producers, shearers, fiber guilds, your local mills, or extension agents.

Show them your fleece ask what they recommend, ask them how to improve your wool to make the final product better. Remember all wool has a value and a use. It is up to you to find out how to get the most from each one.

By Kami Noyes


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