By: Tricia Hardin, owner of 3rd Creek Fibers
Let’s compare fleeces from 3 different types of fiber animals. I have an alpaca (Pink Diamond), a Hog Island sheep (Ingrid with lamb, Ithaca), and a Romney/Corriedale sheep (Genevieve) for comparison. These fleeces will be referred to by animal name and abbreviation for breed throughout the rest of this post: Alpaca (alp.), Romney/Corriedale (R/C), and Hog Island (HI).
From each animal, I have a loose fiber sample, a skein or ball of yarn, and a finished knitted piece. Left to right are Pink Diamond (Alp.), Ingrid (HI), and Genevieve (R/C).
Now, let’s take a closer look at the fiber. Amateur fiber enthusiasts, like myself, can use 4 of our 5 senses to compare fleeces:
The visual appearance (is it moldy or full of short cuts, discolored, or damaged?)
The physical feel (softness vs. coarseness)
The sound (hold a lock beside your ear from lock end to lock end and pull - the closer to a violin string sound you get, the better the fiber is. You can identify breaks in a fleece this way.)
The smell (does it smell moldy or putrid?)
We will leave out tasting, as you get nothing but a tongue full of fiber.
Everyone likes a fleece that looks good. A complete washing helps all fiber look better. It’s amazing how much improvement in appearance occurred after washing the Hog Island fleece. It turned almost white.
Also, picking and carding a fleece improves its appearance. The Romney cross fleece, even after washing, was a clumpy mess. But, a gentle carding of its’ long fibers produced a very nice easy to spin rolag.
The alpaca fleece definitely improves in appearance after washing. The North Carolina soil turns my buff/white alpaca nearly orange. Washing, picking, and carding are a definite must for my alpacas.
VM (vegetable matter) hides well in any fleece and is a problem for all fiber animals. The solution is to keep pastures as weed-free as possible, feed good quality hay, and be ready to pick out VM (mostly hay bits) throughout the yarn-making process. Avoiding weeds that have burrs is especially helpful since you usually end up losing wool trying to remove burrs from a fleece.
Staple length is the measurable length of a lock of shorn fiber. By looking at the photo, one can see that the staple length of the Hog Island fiber is much shorter than the other two. This means that it will be a little more challenging to spin by hand. But, I learned to spin using Hog Island fiber. It really does spin nicely and if you can learn to spin Hog Island, you will be able to spin anything.
Now, let’s compare the feel of each fiber sample. I held a handful of each fleece, rubbing it gently between my fingers. The two sheep samples feel more similar than the alpaca sample. The Hog Island feels more sponge-like, denser, and slightly more coarse than the Romney/Corriedale. The alpaca is much softer than both the sheep. I have noticed that the degree of softness varies greatly with individual alpacas. The differences can be attributed to breeding, age, gender, climate, and, of course, most importantly, the diet of the individual. Alpacas were bred by native South Americans prior to the Spanish invasion. Their civilization was tied to textiles with the domesticated alpaca playing a very important role.
In the wool industry, there are ways to grade and class wool fibers. It all begins with the critical skirting of the fleece which usually takes place directly after the shearing. Skirting is the removal, by hand, of contaminants from a shorn fleece.
Wool samples can be studied and tested for micron count. A micron is a measurement equal to 1/25,000 of an inch, or 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microns are used to express fiber diameter, which is a reference to the fineness of the fiber. The smaller the micron number, the finer the fiber.
Although the smell of fleeces has little to nothing to do with their appearance, it is a consideration when faced with storage and with working directly with raw fleeces. I have found that wool fleeces retain their scents much more than alpacas fleeces. This is probably due to the natural grease (lanolin) content in wool. Alpacas do not have grease in their fleece and so the smell is much different and less pungent than those of sheep. I do like to store only clean fleeces (even the well-skirted fleeces).
When I examine a fleece for soundness (the quality of the fiber within the fleece), I hold it up to my ear and pull from lock end to lock end like I would stretch a rubber band. I relax my pull and then pull again, bouncing the individual fibers within the lock, and listen. If I hear a sound similar to a tightened violin string, vibrating and holding strong, my fiber is sturdy and sound. If I hear a break, like the sound of a breaking string or tearing fabric, I know I have a weakness in my fiber. Before I process it, I need to know if there is a break and where. Breaks in shorter fibers, like Hog Island, can mean the entire fleece is a felting or stuffing fleece if the break is in the center of the lock, due to the short lock length.
Spin with the fiber of your choice or try new fibers, like the Heritage Breed of Hog Island Sheep. Spinning various fibers will keep your senses happy and your spinning wheel turning. Until next time, happy spinning.
Author Bio: A native of West Virginia, and a 1982 graduate of WVU, Tricia Hardin raised a family in Accokeek, MD. When her children started school, Tricia began work at the Accokeek Foundation as a Museum Educator. Transitioning through a variety of roles at the Foundation as a Historical Interpreter, Public Events Coordinator, Site Supervisor and Stitch ’n Time organizer, she had an abundance of opportunities to explore the heritage skills used in the 18th century. During this time, Tricia became interested in the fiber arts. With the help of staff and volunteers, she learned how to process wool fleece into yarn. Now, residing in NC, Tricia continues to pursue the fiber arts using mostly the fleece from her own small herd of alpacas. She owns 3rd Creek Fibers in Cleveland, NC.