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You’re about to do it. You are at a fiber festival. You’ve found yourself just outside of the fleece tent. All the wool fumes have finally gotten into your head and made you decide that you need a fleece. In fact, you need one right now!  But you don’t want to take home the wrong fleece or a bad one…

I’ve come up with a check list for you. Something that you can take with you to the fleece barn and make sure you aren’t getting the wrong fleece.

Before you can start through the checklist, knowing what breed or type of fleece you want is important. You don’t want to indiscriminately go through and start checking all fleeces.  Start with figuring out what you want from a fleece. Pick a breed or a few breeds. Here’s a quick guideline that obviously doesn’t cover all the breeds you’ll find, but it has some of the most common ones.  Don’t discount the cross breeds; the combination of two breeds often gets you characteristics in one fleece that can’t be found in a single breed.

Super Soft: Merino, California Variegated Mutant (CVM), Cormo, Blue Faced Leicester (BFL)

Curly locks: Cotswold, BFL, Wensleydale, Mohair

Shine: Cotswold, BFL, Wennsleydale, Mohair

Hard wearing: Romney, Coopworth

Naturally superwash: Shropshire and Dorset (meat breeds)

You will find many more than this. It all depends on the festival or farm you are visiting.  I’ve got an amazing Cormo/Romney fleece that I’m hoarding.  Each sheep is at a different end of the softness spectrum but the 2 together really is lending itself to a beautiful fleece.

When I shop for a fleece, I know what I want by look and feel. When I touch a fleece I think I need, that’s when I stop to do a few tests. Here is a list of things to think about when interviewing a potential fleece:

  1. Look.  Is it a color you want? Has it yellowed? (this can be bad because the yellow doesn’t always wash out and can mean a problem) Does it have the shine or luster you want?
  1. Sometimes a bargain is not really a bargain. I admit to buying the fleece with the low price tag. It’s pretty, it’s nice, it’s cheap…. It has a ton of VM but that won’t be so bad…..It’s still sitting there.  If you have patience for VM then by all means, take the deal. If not, pass it by and get a fleece you will actually want to use.

Here’s an extra thought on VM and dung tags:
The outer parts and edges of a fleece are generally rolled to the inside – meaning the inside is the side that has all the dung tags and all the VM (vegetable matter).  I’m not a fan of dung tags and if I see too many, no matter how nice the fleece is, I’ll walk away. Same for the VM. Dung needs to be picked off but VM is picked, washed, or carded out.  VM is inevitable but some of the sheep are not coated and have a ton of it mixed within the fleece.  Know your limitations of patience.

  1. Feel. Is it soft? [photo –cormo] Don’t worry if it’s dripping with lanolin. It will come out when you wash it. What are you expecting from your fleece? Harsh, long wearing or soft and buttery?  Somewhere in between? Your eyes and your hands are going to be the best method to give you an idea of what you want.  Once you settle on something and the look and feel is good to you, this is when we get really picky.
  1. Look at the farmer’s tag. See the breed. Is it on your list of desirables? (though this shouldn't be a deal breaker if it passes your other tests). Has the farmer made any notes? Notes like “lovely fleece”, “Great for a beginner” only mean something if you are familiar with the farmer and her evaluation methods of a fleece. More important are “coated sheep” (which means less VM), “sheep was sick” at some point (walk away now), “high (or low) VM”.  These are all the kinds of helpful notes that will help you decide. Not to mention the tag will have a per pound price and notation as to whether the farmer will allow you to buy by the pound, the half fleece or the whole fleece.  Knowing how much fleece you want is a good thing in this situation.

So far, so good, you are still loving this fleece. Let’s give it the final tests.

5. Lock test #1: crimp
Pull out a lock. You want a full lock from the tip to the base, at least a thumb-sized sample just to be able to clearly see the crimp.

What does the crimp look like? Is there a healthy crimp to it or does it sag? A nice healthy crimp is what you are looking for. Crimps vary from breed to breed but there is a huge difference in uniform crimps and limpness. Limpness or uneven crimp could mean the animal was ill at some point while the fleece was growing or is ill still. (if it’s uneven crimp, sometimes if you look at it while holding the lock taught, you will see a lighter area where the animal was sick and the fleece was compromised; it will break at this spot making for a poor yarn)

Length. Is it super short or super long? Either one could present problems in spinning or how you are planning on preparing the fiber.  Neither one is necessarily bad, just be aware of what you are getting yourself into.

A note on second cuts:
This is the point where you can see second cuts. Second cuts are very short pieces that were cut in a second pass over the sheep after cutting the long parts (the majority of the fleece) off.  Many fleeces have some second cuts, but you don’t want a lot of them. Second cuts need to be thrown away since they’re far too short to be included in a good yarn, so you don’t want to see a fleece riddled with them.

  1. Lock test #2: sound
    The ping test.  This one may seem silly but it works.

    Get a smaller section of the lock you pulled out, hold it taut between two fingers ---> and using another finger, flick the lock. Does it snap or make twangy, snappy noises when you do this? Or does it have a ping? Healthy fibers will make a ping noise.

    If this ping test takes too much coordination, you can get the same result by snapping the lock between two hands [see below].  You're still looking for the same pinging sound instead of a snap or a fizzle. 

    Once you do this a few times, you'll know what I mean by the sounds.

This may seem like a really lengthy and time-consuming way to pick out a fleece. But as you do it more, it really doesn’t take that long. A lot of fleeces get weeded out quickly in the first 4 steps. Once you get used to the techniques in steps #5 and #6, it will go faster.

CHECKLIST

__ Look (color, shine, VM)

__ Touch (softness)

__ Read (helpful notes and pricing)

__ Lock tests (remember to look for second cuts)

__ Crimp (uniform)

__ Length (the long and short of it)

__ Ping test (how does it sound)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy King is a crazy homeschooling mom by day, whacked-out dye maven by night.

All her exploits can be found here.