January 14, 2011

When In Search of Local Fleece

Want a local fleece experience?  Determined to unplug from the industrial machine and know your clothes on a sheep's-first-name basis, from the pasture up?  Crave raw fleece in your hands right now with no waiting for a parcel to arrive?  Curious what fibre animals exist in your locale?

You can use any of my advice in my previous post about finding fleece to find local fibre, by focussing on listings that fall in your area.

Expect to expend time and effort establishing a good supply of fleeces close to home.  You don't uncover every possibility instantly.  I once travelled to a fibre festival in an adjacent state and wound up buying roving from a shepherd who belonged to the same local guild as me.  In other words, I could have bought the fibre at a guild meeting close to home if I'd known about her products, and saved the fibre the bother and the carbon expenditure.

In light of all the good benefits of local fibre, you'd think I would have done much more than I have to find local sources.  The trouble is, my stash is plump enough with the oddments I bought before I knew what I was doing.  The thought of going on a mad hunt rousting fleece sellers all around the countryside?  That makes me queasy.  Either I will end up acquiring more fibre or I will rudely raise the sellers' hopes for nothing.

When I hear from other guild members about the sources of their latest fleeces, they are more likely to be talking about a fleece from far away than they are about a local fleece, so I haven't been learning as much by chance about local fleece there as you might expect.  

Experienced handspinners don't limit themselves by geography.  They search for what they want.  Chaff in wool is so obnoxious to handspinners that they won't abide it.  Scratchy, coarse wool is in low demand.  A handspinner considers his or her time to be valuable and only worth spending on fibre that is a pleasure to handle.

This selectiveness may strike non-spinners as elitist, overly-choosy, and unthrifty, a gross waste of material and a lost opportunity.  Resist thinking this.  Modern handspinners do go a bit far in search of the softest fibre and they neglect some breeds simply because they are knitters uninterested in weaving rugs.  However, they know what they're doing.  You can go a little scratchier and a little more peppered with chaff for the sake of getting a local fleece but I don't think you need to settle.  Keep looking and you should find a good fleece.  Local is a good quality to insist on.  Dismiss a handspinner's priorities altogether, though, and you will get frustrated trying to spin fibre that feels like steel wool.  The only handspinners that have to do that are living history museum interpreters.  They demonstrate wool spun from museum flocks kept to conserve breeds that once were economically significant and whose wool went into rugs, tapestries, and outerwear.

Resist the impulse to skimp.  Go halves on a quality fleece with someone if you have to economize, rather than picking a cheaper breed's fleece.  When a reputable shepherd is selling two breeds of fleece and one costs one and a half times as much as the other, you can be confident that the more expensive fleece is that much more desirable to spin.  Desirable for spinning should translate as easy to spin, and that should make for a more worthwhile purchase than fibre that's cheap and fights you all the way.  However, you don't need to splash out on cashmere, bison, or qiviut when making a first purchase.  Those are really costly, and they are short staple fibres which are difficult for beginners to control and spin fine. Besides, from what I read there is no bison and qiviut fleece as such: the fibre is sloughed off the animals in sheets.

Overall market price varies by area, just like anything.

While travelling, you can get local fleece as a souvenir purchase.  Perhaps you want a gnarly trophy to remind you of your trip to Soay, North Ronaldsay, Shetland, Isle of Man, Gotland, or Iceland where they have primitive breed sheep of the same names.  Buy it and wash it if you like–and start rehearsing the explanation you're going to give the customs inspector when you present yourself at the border with fleece in your knapsack.  However, same as for heritage breed or meat breed, I recommend you delay experiments with primitive breed fleece until you acquire good handspinning skills and develop your understanding of wool types.  A primitive breed sheep's wool is going to handle differently and wear differently than a modern, improved breed's.  You can get an Icelandic fleece and take out the tog (long hairy outer coat), leaving the thel which is as soft as any modern stuff but I can tell you, this took me considerable effort when I did it.  Icelandic thel and Shetland are short-staple fibres, which require enough skill to spin fine yarn and do them justice.  I've seen prepared Gotland from Louet; the fibre was rather coarse.  I could have gotten some out of a gourmand sort of desire to sample an unusual fibre but decided to pass because I doubted there was anything I would want to make out of Gotland yarn.  I do want some North Ronaldsay wool someday.  How can you resist a sheep that eats seaweed?

Local fibre should ideally relate to the local climate.  This is why it's easy to get wool from Romney sheep on Vancouver Island: the breed does well in the rain, it was bred to live in the Romney marshes in Kent, England.  If you vow only to spin yarn with local wool and you live on Vancouver Island, you will probably have trouble getting wool from sheep that thrive in dry climates, like fat-tail sheep types.  But, never say never.  Shepherds, like gardeners, can push the limits of what gets raised under local climate conditions.

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