This is probably where I am least familiar on wool, especially how to judge and rate quality. There are full time jobs of people doing noting but rating and grading wool. So, with that being said, much of my information is going to come from external sources and added references.
Some animals have a single coat, some dual an inner and outer layer. In some cases you use the inner layer, in some the outer, and depending on the animal it may be difficult to separate the inner and outer layers. Hair sheep are not shorn but their fiber naturally falls out for summer. That isn’t to say it cant be used, but it doesn’t exhibit much if any of the qualities in fiber production.
Use this glossary of terms if there is a term you are not familiar with and it already doesn’t have a link.
Fiber is graded by many qualities, and depending on the final use and some may be more in demand than others. Use is a whole different topic which we will cover in Part Four. The main ways fiber is graded is by length, staple, crimp, fiber diameter, color, cleanliness, and yield. I will try to explain the best I can each.
Suggested categories for sorting and packaging wool
|Wool breeds||American Cormo, Booroola Merino, Debouillet, Delaine Merino, Rambouillet|
|Dual or general
|Columbia, Panama, Corriedale, Targhee, Finn cross, Polypay|
|Cheviot, Dorset, Finnsheep, Gulf Coast Native, Montadale, North Country Cheviot, Texel|
|Clun Forest, Hampshire, Oxford, Southdown, Tunis, Shropshire, Suffolk|
and carpet breeds
|Blueface Leicester, Border Leicester, Coopworth, Cotswold, Lincoln, Perendale, Romney|
|Double-coated or hair sheep crosses||Barbados Blackbelly, California Red, Icelandic, Karakul, Katahdin, Navajo Churro, Romanov, St. Croix|
Black or naturally colored
Other animals are listed in the link on wikipedia.
Cleanliness is an important part especially for shearing. VM or vegetable matter is all the things that can get tangled into the fiber. Sticks, leaves, twigs, grains, etc. For the longest time when hearing people talk I always thought they were saying BM. When having kids in daycare the daily sheets would record bowl movements, BM, so I assumed they were talking about bowl matter i.e. how much poop is in the fiber. This is just grouped into the VM, as well as urine, sweat etc. A better term would be to call it Foreign Organic Materials as this would cover all the bases, and leave fiber and lanolin in tact for discussion. Having a variety of animals (see Our animals) we have come to appreciate low foreign organic material in the fiber. It is easier to shear, easier to clean, and takes a whole lot less time to process. We find all kinds of things from thorn bushes, to leaves, we have even found sprouting grains in the fiber where a sheep had feed grain on her back, it rained, then it started to sprout. Usually the other sheep smell the grains and pick it out like a walking lunch plate. To minimize foreign organic materials you can coat your animals. Yes, they wear a lightweight coat as long as the fiber is growing, and take at least three coats a season. Different animals have different lanolin content. Lanolin is an oil the animals produce, similar to oil in a persons hair. Some people have oily hair, some very dry, and it impacts the condition or quality of hair. Using wool without cleaning the lanolin is called greasy wool, or wool in the grease. We will talk more about cleaning the fiber in Part Three about processing
The chart below came from Wikipedia
|Common Name||Part of Sheep||Style of Wool|
|Fine||Shoulder||Fine uniform and very dense|
|Near||Sides||Fine uniform and strong|
|Downrights||Neck||Short and irregular, lower quality|
|Choice||Back||Shorter staple, open and less strong|
|Abb||Haunches||Longer, stronger large staples|
|Seconds||Belly||Short, tender, Matted and dirty|
|Top-not||Head||Stiff, very coarse, rough and kempy|
|Brokes||Forelegs||Short irregular and faulty|
|Cowtail||Hindlegs||Very strong, coarse and hairy|
|Britch||Tail||Very coarse, kempy and dirty|
Length of the fiber is another part which may or may not be determined by the fiber grower (plant/animal). If it is an animal the shearer has a lot to do with the length of fiber, probably as much as the animal itself. On our first couple of sheep we sheared, we were so scared to cut the animal we left quite a bit of fiber on the animal making the usable fiber shorter. As we got more confident and experienced we were able to shear closer and closer without any injuries to the animals. Generally the longer the length of fiber the better. That isn’t to say short fiber is bad, but it can still be used but maybe not for spinning, or carpet/rugs, instead felting, which we talk about in Part Four using fiber.
The most important quality is fiber diameter, also called micrometer. Wool is not hollow. However, it can absorb 1/3 the fiber weight in water. Due to the lanolin on the fibers, it can also make wool water resistant.
Some examples of micrometer size of various animals (wikipedia)
Here is a sheep table of wool micrometer from Wild Fibers.
Bradford cound is a new term for me which I learned from Wild Fibers.
Bradford or English Spinning Count System is the number of hanks of yarn, each of 560 yards in length that can be spun from one pound of clean wool. The finer the fibre is, the more hanks that can be obtained from one pound of wool. The higher the number, the finer the wool, and therefore 64 is finer than 48.
|Icelandic||22-28 (55-65 outer)||70-46|
|Black Welsh Mountain||28-35||56-48|
Crimp is another critical criteria for fiber. Hand spinners, like to have higher crimp. Fibers with a fine crimp have many bends and usually have a small diameter. So think of a corrugated roof tin or the inside of cardboard. The waves back and forth. Such fibers can be spun into fine yarns, with great lengths of yarn for a given weight of wool, and higher market value. The crimp allows the fibers to interlock with each other. If there is little to no crimp the fibers wont grab each other.
Below are some examples of sheep for comparison.
This is Ramona a Rambouillet ewe who has dense fine wool with nice crimp. This is the equivalent to merino wool.
This is a picture from Pixie one of our Finn ewes who has high crimp but not as dense or fine fiber
Below is Olaf a Shetland ram who had medium crimp, dense fibers but a larger diameter
This is Scotchie who is a Scottish Blackface and has little crimp but long coarse fiber. She is also double coated.
These are just examples of sheep and they can be blended together for the final intended purpose. More on use of fiber in the next article. But you wouldn’t use a fine wool with good crimp to make carpets, it would be a waste and wouldn’t hold up compared to a coarse larger diameter fiber. This link and associated article from Northwest Alpacas has more information than you ever wanted to know about crimp. Initially I thought there was no, light, medium and heavy crimp. I was way wrong.
Wool staple is a naturally formed cluster or lock of wool fibres and not a single fibre. Very many staples together form a fleece. The cluster of wool fibres is made by a cluster of follicles. The natural cluster of wool is held together because individual fibres have the ability to attach to each other so that they stay together
Lastly color. Color can ultimately be tied to what you want to do with it. Personally, I find white fiber to be more desirable, as you can color it easier. There is a downside, that it shows dirt and foreign organic material much easier and thus must be cleaned more thoroughly. If you were to get a colored fleece, then again, personally I would want it uniformed in color, because there is less blending needed to be done to get a uniform color. This is my personal preference, BUT, having a fleece with varying colors and used int eh right way, can give some amazing looks to hand crafted items. Because multi colored fleeces are unique, then the shearing, cleaning, carding, spinning, and use of the material will never be able to be duplicated, you can have something truly unique. In the end what one person things of as poor quality, another my find high because of the end use. You can see some of the color patterns of our animals on the Our Animals page.
Part Three will be on fiber processing. I thought I knew the process, but more like I knew the 10,000 foot view of it. I will give you the 10,000 foot view and maybe 1,000 foot. There is a LOT to processing. When you realize what goes into the fiber, to get it from animal to what you wear/use you would be shocked.