Fleece to Yarn on the Farm

| 6/11/2012 2:46:59 PM

Tags: sheep, fleece, shearing, spinning, dyeing, yarn, sue dick, Sue Dick,

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).shorn ewe 

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”.fleece soaking during first wash 

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.water after the first wash 

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.fleece drying in the sun 

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.

Jennifer Brownlee
6/13/2012 3:54:05 AM

I use the liquid food colorings in my crock pot with about 3/4 cup or so of vinegar and I get really nice results. I will start with hot water, add vinegar, then add my roving/yarn, *then* I will squirt *lots* of the food color in. I use 2 to 3 different colors at the same time and will make stripes on the yarn with it. I will very, very gently poke/swish the yarn to make sure the color is seeping to the bottom then put the lid on for 2 hours on high. Turn off and let cool then rinse. :-) Love it every time!!

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