They say keeping sheep is easy, and they’re right most of the time. Sometimes, however, keeping sheep is easy like, say for example, keeping velociraptors and hippopotami. Here at Ivy Hill Farm shearing time was one of the latter. We’ve only had sheep a few years and shearing is one of those tasks that once you see it done you think to yourself that it can’t be that hard. Not to take away anything from skilled professional shearers, there is definitely an art to it, moreover making it go quickly, painlessly, and successfully, but for the few ewes we have I figured I could handle it this year. With a pair of grass shears. Nope, I’m not kidding, I have a set of grass shears that look exactly like manual wool-shearing snick-snick shears. There must be some unknown crucial difference though because after kneeling on a poor ewe’s neck for about half an hour and only disrobing the smallest part of her belly and back end as the shears refused to go through more than 2 millimeters worth of fleece thickness at a time, I realized it just wasn’t going to work. And so, to make a long story short the professionals were called in and with electric clippers in hand my small flock was shorn and bleating at their sudden nakedness in about forty-five minutes. To the shearer’s credit, he didn’t even say anything about the butchered fleece on the girl unfortunate to have been subjected to my inept shears (or the inept shearer).
And now, fleece! We’ve got a dog’s breakfast of a flock. Some Suffolk, some Rideau-Arcott, and some hair (obviously these were my decided favorites come shearing time as they could be ignored). Their fleeces are of average quality. Not fine enough (and plain sheep’s white to boot) to interest any handspinners other than myself, they nevertheless make very serviceable yarn which is wonderful to knit up and then felt. Felted trivets, rugs, slippers, purses, you name it. The uses for felt are many, especially in a northern clime where wool-warmth to the nth power is a great thing. So now I’ve rambled enough and here’s a fleece to yarn treatise. I don’t purport to be an expert on the subject. There are many more knowledgeable, competent people than myself in this realm, but in the the spirit of self-sufficiency and to show that anyone with the raw materials and some time can make their own yarn/fabric/clothing, here’s how it goes for me:
After you score a fleece from somewhere (or shear your own, smugly) you’ll have to remove the belly and butt and leg bits, which usually are fairly easy to spot as they have manure tags all over them; smelly dreadlocks. This is known as “skirting”, and if you paid money for a fleece, it’s to be hoped that the vendor already performed this step. Next, you’ll have to decide if you want to wash the fleece first (to remove vegetable matter, dirt, and the natural grease present in the fleece called “lanolin”) or if you’ll merely pick out the vegetable matter and skip straight to combing or carding to spin “in the grease”. As my girls were a bit dirty, I went with the first scenario. Ideally you will go through 2 or 3 washings with quite a bit of detergent and fairly warm water. The trick is to gently submerge the fleece and leave it for an hour or so and remember NEVER TO AGITATE (or you’ll felt it and it’s hard to think of a creative use for a lumpy dreadlocked mass of smelly wool). As you go through your wash changes try to keep the temp of water constant. I’m told the best way to do this is in a top-load washing machine (just soaking, again, no agitation), but as I don’t have one, some sawed-off barrels work for me. I’m a big fan of the old WWII ditty “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”.
After the washes come the rinses, as many as it takes to get theoretically clear water. I say ‘theoretical’ because perhaps I’m just impatient, but I never manage to get really clear water; I figure because I’m felting the product later and it’ll be washed and agitated there’s time enough to remove any soap/lanolin residues.
A wet fleece is VERY heavy and it falls apart somewhat so try to wash in a place not too far from where you’ll spread it to dry as it’s difficult to carry intact. If it’s a sunny day sheets spread out in the sun work well, turning the fleece for even drying.
After it’s dry you tease out some locks and begin carding or combing. If you’re trying to get lots of VM (vegetable matter) out a couple of large combs work well, or if you’re getting ready to spin you want to align all the wool fibers in the same direction and tease it apart by using carding combs. Now I’m sure there are some cheap ones out there, but not around me. A (very) brief internet search revealed carding combs for $40-60 (!?!). Necessity being the mother of invention it is to be noted that carding brushes bear a very striking resemblance to pet slicker brushes (those usually square or rectangular, flat pet brushes with many thin wire teeth angled downwards) and so that’s what I use, because it’s what I have. The mechanics of carding are simple, but beyond the scope of this post, however if you’re unclear YouTube always has everyone doing anything, so I’m sure you can see it there.
The carded wool now has a fluffy cotton-candy like consistency and is ready for spinning.
I happen to have a wheel (a good internet find) but I have also used spindles, which can be made from about $1 worth of material. Traditionally the wheel is spun in a clockwise direction as small sections of the “roving” (carded, fluffy wool) are pulled out (“drafting”) and twisted, making a continuous (hopefully) even thread. Typically 2 or 3 of these are plied (spinning the wheel counter-clockwise) resulting in a finished yarn.
From our sheep I get a sort of nondescript sheep’s-gray yarn, which in this case I decided to dye. I have all sorts of plans of hunting out materials to make my own dyes from what Nature has to offer out here on the farm, but in this case went for instant gratification and used the gel-type food colorings that pack a huge color punch.For reasonable color fastness a mordant is required. Some sources claim vinegar (although I haven’t had much luck with it) but alum works much better and is generally available with pickling supplies. In either case the yarn is submerged in the dye bath and heated for a while (a slow-cooker set on low for a couple of hours works reasonably well). I find it interesting that the dye I used was “cornflower blue”, in the bath the yarn looked almost indigo, and yet the yarn (and rovings I’d dyed concurrently) turned out magenta to teal colored. After dying rinse in cold water until the water runs clear, hang to dry and voila, your winter projects await.
Sue Dick homesteads with her family in Manitoba, Canada. More of her farm and philosophy can be seen at www.ivyhillfarm.ca or for pictures and stories http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ivy-Hill-Farm/192357360777879