Hand Spinning wool

Selecting your fleece

When choosing a fleece for hand spinning there are a few points to remember.

Hand spinning is time consuming so it makes sense to make the most of your fleece.

A few useful terms:

Fleece - the wool from a sheep (or a goat, alpaca etc) as it comes off after shearing.

Staple - the length of the wool (measured from the cut end to the tip) varies according to age and breed.

Shearling - a sheep that has been sheared for the first time, usually in the summer after the year they were born, so 12 - 18 months old. A shearling fleece will generally have a longer staple than an older sheep's fleece as it will have grown for longer.

Kemp - hairy fibre keeps sheep warm and dry, but brittle and coarse. Will produce a brittle and quite hairy, hard yarn if you can spin it hard enough! Best used for carpets or hanging basket lining in my opinion.

UK Sheep Breeds and their wool

Merino wool is produced in the UK, but not in huge quantities. Sheep in the past have been bred to produce wool. Nowadays, they are bred NOT to produce wool, or atleast not to need shearing (Wiltshire Horn/ Easy Care)! Both the weather and the health of the sheep can affect the quality of the wool. It also follows that the best wool tends to come from the area of the sheep giving the poorest cuts of meat. The exception being a diamond in the middle of the back which is soft wool. See diagram below.

Fleece quality

Jacob - prized by hand spinners because of its versatile fleece and colouring 60:40 white:black.

Down breeds of sheep such as Hampshire, Suffolk, Dorset and Texel produce a soft wool fleece with medium staple - 2-3 inches ideal for handspinning to produce a woollen yarn.

Long wool breeds of sheep such as Lincoln Longwool, Teeswater and Wensleydale have very long staple - 6 inches or more making the fleece very heavy, but unsuitable for spinning a woollen yarn from rolags. More suited to spinning from the fleece to make a worsted or semi-worsted yarn which is smoother, but harder than a woolen yarn.

Upland or hill breeds such as Welsh Mountain, Derbyshire Gritstone and Swaledale sheep produce an altogether coarser fleece. Kemp which is more hair than wool is prevalent on the back legs and often throughout the fleece. Mainly used for carpet wool, but much of the fleece can be used to produce a good woollen yarn provided you spin to make the most of the fleece attributes. A thick yarn can be very soft whereas a thinner yarn from the same fleece would be more like string.

So what am I looking for in a good hand spinning fleece?

Avoid faults

If you start with rubbish you will end up with rubbish. When I bought my spinning wheel, I was 'given' a free fleece to start me off. In my ignorance I did not realise it had a "break". This meant the wool was brittle and would break half way up the staple. This made carding difficult because I got lots of short bits of wool stuck in the carding combs. Trying to spin it was very frustrating as the yarn fell to bits because the staple was too short.

Cott - a cotted fleece is best avoided. It usually happens if the sheep is old or has been stressed, they are a nightmare to shear because the wool is literally matted and comes off like a carpet. Parting it is almost impossible and the best use is for hanging basket lining as it is ready felted together. I forgave old Mrs Lucy for her cott - she was over 20 years old!

"Second cuts" are caused during shearing, if the shearer goes back because they have left too much wool on the sheep. You get short bits of fleece on the cut end. You have to pull them off if you want to use the fleece, but best avoided if you have a choice.

For a beginner wanting to spin a reasonable wool yarn of double knitting thickness, choose fleece from a Jacob or down breed. Suffolk, Suffolk cross, Texel. Crossbred fleece may be ok, Mule or Halfbred, just make sure staple length is around 2.5 - 3 inches (6 - 7.5cm).

No breaks, second cuts, spray colour markings or string/burrs/twigs. Burrs etc will come out on carding, but they make washing etc more difficult. Pull off any really dirty lumps from the tail or belly areas, deal with them separately if you must or put them in the compost!

Colour

If you want to dye your wool or yarn, choose a white fleece. Otherwise, natural colours can give anything from black through greys and browns. Spinning two different colours and plying them can give a flecky yarn, while blending before spinning gives a totally different effect.

First shear your sheep