January 13, 2011

How to Find a Fleece

At fibre festivals you will find an area where shepherds leave fleeces on consignment for sale directly to handspinners.  You'll also find a booth or two for custom mills that will take in your new fleece for processing and mail it to you.

Raw fleece is more or less a seasonal product.  Shepherds time their shearing around the weather and lambing.  Once a shepherd has sold the flock's fleeces that's it until the next shearing, usually the following year.

Raw fleece is more or less a regional product, as well, an aspect I will discuss in my next post.

Perhaps there are no upcoming festivals, it's nowhere near springtime, and you have this desperate need to locate a fleece.  There are a few different tacks you can take.

You can look up breeders' associations and use their member directories to find sellers' contact information.  For example, you want alpaca fleece so you find the alpaca breeders association that operates in your region.  Same for mohair-producing goat, or angora-shedding bunny, or sheep.  If you are very fortunate, you will find links to individual member websites which have current listings of available fleeces.  Farm pages are often a couple of years out of date.  These will still give you an idea of their type of animal stock and husbandry practices.  Phone a farm to ask about fleeces, as emails can go unanswered.

Look too for associations specific to one breed of sheep or goat.  A region may have few sheep overall, too few to warrant an association, but a national association dedicated to Blue Face Leicesters, for example, could list a few flocks there.

I would narrow the search by the breed of sheep in order to match a suitable type of wool to your project and the finished object you want to make.  Like Tigger in Milne's The House At Pooh Corner, it took me many tries to find what I like best.  Additionally, what I like best isn't always the most suitable: I chose a different breed to get a very squishy hat, for example, and if I make a rug I will choose a breed whose wool is coarse and strong.

First you can eliminate breeds raised for products other than fibre.  No dairy goats, no pet rabbits, that sort of thing.  If the shepherd's website prominently features deals on locker lamb, look to see if they keep other animals specifically bred for handspinning fibre, or if they at least exhibit some understanding of handspinners' requirements.  Pass on breeds like Suffolk, Dorset, and Columbia unless you know that wool is what you want.

A handspinner requires sound, clean, and (usually) soft wool.  A shepherd should keep the pasture clear of burrs and keep hay off the animals' coats.  The animals should be nourished and unstressed, to give strong wool with no breakage.  Pull on a lock to make sure there is no weak spot that gives way.  Feel the tips for sun damage.  Some shepherds put coats on sheep to protect wool, changing the size of the coat as the wool grows.  Softness comes from the particular breed.  Lambs give softer fleeces, so if you want a fleece from a coarser breed and want it softer than usual, try to get wool from a lamb.

Books that discuss selecting fibre for handspinning give the characteristics of fleece from purebred sheep.  Shepherds may raise crossbreeds.  A good shepherd will be able to tell you what the crossbreeding will mean for handspinning, what sort of yarn you'll be able to spin.

You can find umbrella organizations for rare breeds, which provide member directories.  Examples include Rare Breeds Canada, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.  These associations cover more than just fibre animals, so when searching for a fleece you will have to bypass the fancy chickens and old-fashioned geese–unless you want to incorporate feathers into your handspun.  I've seen it done for accent.  Can't say I liked the effect.

Agriculture directories available from tourism offices list shepherds for a province, state, or region.  These are the same sort of publications you use to find u-pick orchards.  For example, there are wool producers listed in the Island Farm Fresh listings for Vancouver Island.  At least one wool producer in Duncan displays the Island Farmers Alliance logo, the distinctive Fresh From the Island red rooster sign you may have seen at farm gates.  The Fraser Valley Direct Farm Marketing Association's Farm Fresh reference guide currently lists alpaca products but other categories come up dry with only dairy goats, meat goats, lamb and mutton, and sheep on show once a year in a Bethlehem pageant.  The Virginia Grown guide lists wool producers.  (If you think the combination of British Columbian and Virginian resources is strangely random, the explanation is that I am from Vancouver Island, B.C., Canada, but I live right now in Virginia.)

Agricultural fairs might get you some leads on fleeces.  I found meat sheep clipped close, to better display conformation, and sporting stretchy little coats to keep off the dust.  Amusing, but not what I was looking for.

Suffolk ready for judging
Instead of looking for a fleece from anyone and everyone who raises fibre animals, you can start with just those who sell fleeces to handspinners.  Get ahold of the list of vendors at your regional fibre festival, either from the festival website or from an old programme.  Ask for leads from handspinners' guilds and workshop leaders.  See if a spinning supply shop can bring in fleece for you on approval or connect you with a shepherd.  A custom mill might be willing to act as a middleman and find a fleece on your behalf during shearing season, but is unlikely to have fleeces in stock year round.

Try, as much as you can, to examine a fleece in person before you buy.  There can be considerable variation in quality, even in the same flock.  For wool with natural colour, you want to be able to inspect that in good light.  One of the members of the guild I belong to recommends that you have the fleece weighed in front of you before you buy, to make sure the advertised weight is correct so that you get full value.

Fleece is sold in large plastic bags.  I've seen condensation form on the inside of bags sitting outside in a festival fleece tent.  Make sure your fleece is dry before you put it away at home.

Methodical handspinners keep a record of the shepherd they bought from and the name of the animal that gave the fleece, in case they want to buy the same again next year.

I think that's as far as my advice goes, as I am not much for raw fleece myself.  The best thing you can do is to find someone who relishes a chance to select fleeces.  Arrange to be around them when they are looking at fleeces.  Ask what they pick and why.  They will be looking at cool stuff like Bond, California Variegated Mutant, and naturally-coloured Shetland.  Ask them to show you common beginner fleeces like Romney.  Tell your fleece mentor what sort of equipment you will use to process and spin, what your experience level is, and what sort of item you want to make so they can match you up with suitable fibre.  You wouldn't buy a Border Leicester fleece to card and spin on a charkha.

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