Skirting is done to remove inferior outer edge pieces. This is often done at the time of shearing. The fleece is then rolled with in inner cut surface on the outside. It is advisable when purchasing a fleece, to request that it be unrolled so you can see the overall condition of the fleece. This allows for further inspection. Is the outside portion of the fleece matted, or excessively dirty? Vegetable matter (VM) is used to describe seeds, burrs, thistles and twigs. When purchasing a fleece for handspinning, the less VM - the better.
The fleece staple should not have a break along its staple length. Illness, lambing, drought or other adverse conditions, can cause weakness in the fleece staple. During an educational seminar on fleece judging, Judith Mackenzie Cuin indicated a good technique for assessing a fleece for soundness, is to use the 3 tug test. Grasp the staple at either end, and give it three quick tugs. If the staple remains intact the fleece is sound. If it breaks it is called a broken fleece and is not suitable.
It is also advisable that you avoid purchasing a fleece that is discoloured or stained, as this will likely not wash out. Avoid yellow staining. If possible ask to wash a staple to see how it washes up – a clean fleece will wash up almost immediately with very little handling.
Storage: There appears to be as many ways of storing fleece, as there are people buying them. In my own informal poll of both experienced handspinners and wool producers (Canspin – yahoo group) I was not able to determine a single common practice, other than the fleece should be protected from the elements, pests, and condensation. Each handspinner and producer had their own personal preference for fleece storage.
Some always wash their fleece before storage; others prefer to leave it unwashed. Fleece was stored in boxes, plastic bags (with holes for ventilation) in cold rooms, garages and freezers. It is safe to say however, that the longer a fleece is stored, the greater the risk for pest infestation, and deterioration from the elements.
In the Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning, the author recommends the following:
- Store wool clean, or as clean, spun yarn. Raw fleece ages quickly.
- If you do store a greasy/dirty fleece, store it in cold storage.
- Plastic bags are one of the surest ways of ruining a fleece (moths love the environment created by this).
- Muslin bags or sheeting bags allow for ventilation. Use a choker tie to secure shut, and keep moths out. Slip a plastic food baggy over the neck (and choker) and secure it with freezer taper.
- Don’t store wool for years and years. Rotate your stock.
Sorting: Because each section of the fleece has its own characteristics and quality, it is advisable to sort the fleece prior to spinning it. This will maintain the standard of yarn produced throughout the spinning process.
To sort a fleece, first begin by ensuring you have a large area in which to roll open your fleece. This can also be done outdoors. Unroll your fleece (tips side up - cut side down), trying to disturb the fleece as little as possible. Shearers often fold and roll the fleece in the same manner. This can make it easier to determine the orientation of the fleece (neck, sides, tail etc).
(Rolled fleece drawings courtesy Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Limited website: http://www.wool.ca )
Once you have determined the orientation of the fleece, you can begin sorting. Your handspinner fleece should already have had an initial skirting, when it was first sheared, however you may want to remove any remaining heavy, greasy, or discoloured edges that may still be attached to the fleece.
- Neck: The neck portion of the fleece is matted and seedy.
- Leg /Britch: The leg and britch portion (located on the buttocks hind legs). The wool here has the coarsest crimp of the fleece.
- Shoulder and sides: This is often where the best wool of the fleece is located, with the shoulder having the finest crimp.
- Back: Because this wool is most often exposed to the elements (wind, rain, and sun) the tips may be weakened and brittle. The back may be used for felting.
- Belly: Although some people may use it for felting, belly wool is the least desirable section of the fleece for handspinning. It is routinely discarded on the shearing floor.
- Haunch: The haunch sits just above the lower leg (britch) fleece and posterior to the side fleece.
The belly, neck, leg and tail are the least desirable sections of the fleece for handspinning, however may be used for reinforcing socks or felting.
Coloured fleeces: Black or coloured fleeces, can also be sorted based on colour variations that may be present within the fleece.
(originally posted February 12 / 2006).