Raising Sheep for Excellent-Quality Wool, Part 2

Creating excellent roving, yarn, and other wool products starts in the field with the sheep.

Reader Contribution by Kat Ludlam
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by Kat Ludlam
Two colors of fleece baled after shearing and cleaning.

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how choosing your sheep, selectively breeding them, and feeding them properly greatly effects the quality of wool and value of your finished wool products.

How you handle the wool during shearing and afterwards also has a big impact on the quality and value. Many a beautifully grown fleece is ruined after it is removed from the sheep due to improper handling. But before considering how to handle your fleece, it is important to understand breaks in the fleece.

Breaks in the Fleece

A break in the fleece is a section of each fiber that is thinner and more fragile than the rest of the fiber. They are caused by stress or poor nutrition. If there is a time during the growth of the fleece where the animal undergoes a lot of stress (moving to a new location, giving birth and lactating, being chased by a predator, etc.) the fleece won’t grow as strong during that time, thus creating the “break,” or weak spot, in each fiber.

If there is a time during the year where they are not getting adequate nutrition, that can cause a break as well.

A break can decrease the value of the fleece, or potentially make it nearly unusable. If the break is near the center of the fiber, then as the fiber is being processed it will break at the weak spot and can ruin the ability to make it into the finished product you are hoping for. Breaks are sometimes unavoidable, but how you time your shearing can help you manage the breaks better.

Shearing

As stated above, birthing and lactating can, and usually does, cause a break in the fleece. The best way to manage this inevitable occurrence in your breeding flock is to shear eight weeks before they are due to lamb. By doing this, the break will be located towards the tip of the fiber and thus won’t affect your finished product like it would if the break were in the middle of the fiber growth.

Other reasons to shear before lambing include that it keeps the ewes from being too hot during labor, it keeps the back end of the ewe cleaner after birthing, and it helps the baby find the udder and nurse easier.

Another important aspect of shearing, after timing, is hiring a good, professional shearer. Using a skilled professional can make all the difference in the world. A good shearer will give a clean shearing with minimal second cuts (short pieces of wool caused by running the shears over the same area twice). They will also be able to shear each sheep in about five minutes, thus decreasing the stress on the animal. A fleece that is cut evenly and doesn’t have many second cuts will process into much nicer, consistent roving and/or yarn.

Skirting

Skirting the fleece is the process of removing the undesirable portions of a fleece from the good portions. The obvious undesirable portions are the rear end, legs, and belly wool because it is not an even length, is full of vegetable matter (VM), and is very dirty. Sometimes the neck wool needs to be removed due to large amounts of VM. And in some long wool breeds that have wool that parts along their spine, the spine might need to be removed as well since it can accumulate a lot of VM right along the part.

Another thing to look for and remove during skirting is the second cuts (described above) that can happen during shearing.

Most people think that you skirt once, after shearing time. While this is somewhat true, the way to get excellent fleece is to have a primary skirting and a secondary skirting. The majority of skirting should happen during shearing. This is the primary skirting. As the sheep is being sheared, someone should be squatting near the sheep (without being in the way of the shearer and his/her ability to maneuver the sheep around), grabbing the undesirable fiber as it is being sheared off, and putting it in a separate pile away from the good fiber. This really helps because when you pick up a full fleece after it has just come off the sheep, the VM and undesirable fiber from the belly, legs, and rear end start to mix in with the good, barrel-fiber and it is much harder to remove that all later.

Removing rear end, legs, belly, and potentially neck and spine wool (if needed) right there on the shearing floor will go a long way towards cleaning up the fleece. Once you have done the preliminary skirting during shearing, the fleece can be taken and laid out somewhere to air and dry (especially if the sheep are hot and sweaty during shearing) and then bagged.

Secondary skirting can happen any time after shearing. Take the fleece and lay it out on a table. The best option for a skirting table is one made with the top surface being hardware cloth or some other open mesh. That way, the VM and smaller pieces can easily fall through while you work. If you don’t have a skirting table, it is fine to just use any table.

When I use a regular table, I like to put a sheet over it and then skirt the fleece on top of that because it makes clean up a lot easier. Work through the fleece a small portion at a time, removing VM, obvious guard hairs (guard hairs will also fall out during the milling process), second cuts, and any fiber that isn’t the high-quality that you want.

If you are seeing significantly different lengths in your fiber, you should separate the fleece into two piles, one of the shorter fibers and one of the longer. This is also the time to separate it by color if you have a multi-colored animal and want it to be separated out by color. Skirting one fleece can take hours, depending on the quality of the shearing and the amount of VM you are dealing with. Good skirting greatly increases the value of your raw fleece and the finished items if you are having it processed.

Storing

When you are finished skirting, it is important to store your fleece properly. It should be in a plastic bag that is tied closed and has no holes in it so that wool moths cannot get in and ruin the fleece. Some people choose to put moth balls in with their fleece. Don’t do this. The chemicals and smell can be nearly impossible to fully remove from the fleece, and many mills will not accept your fiber for processing if it has had mothballs in it.

You can research more natural options for protecting your fiber from moths that are quite effective if you don’t think you can keep the bags sealed.

Don’t forget to label each fleece with the animal identification and the year, either by writing on the bag or including a paper inside the bag with the fleece. You might think you will remember later, but when life happens and you don’t get around to processing them right away it can be hard to remember not only which one is which, but also what year it came from.

You can also weigh the fleece now and mark that on the label to help you know exactly what you have and how much.

Store your raw and/or skirted fleece in their sealed bags in a climate-controlled environment. Do not let them get direct sun and do not let them get hot. If a fleece is subjected to extreme heat, it melts the lanolin (the natural oils from sheep skin) and will ruin the fleece.

Your fleece is now ready to be sold as a raw, skirted fleece, or it is ready to go on to processing, either by hand, or by mill. By following these guidelines about raising and caring for your sheep, as well as proper handling of the fiber, you can take your wool production from good to excellent and increase the quality and value of your fiber and fiber products.

Kat Ludlam has been homesteading in Colorado for 15 years now. She and her husband, Daniel, are the owners of Willow Creek Farm, where they breed specialty wool sheep, milk sheep, chickens, and crops that thrive in their location. They also own and run a custom fiber processing mill, Willow Creek Fiber Mill . Kat loves to feed her family from their land, and teach others to homestead as well. Read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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