Processing Fleece 101 (for the rest of us)

Fleece....ahh, c'mon, you've dreamt of it, you've seen it, you've run your hands over, through and gathered up handfuls of the stuff, wanting it at some point in your time as a fleece fanatic. Yeah, you, c'mon, admit it

Fleece in its raw state, whether it be wool, llama, alpaca, quivit (drool), comes off an animal, usually sheared, sometimes combed. Here in the US, we are blessed with a range of both breeds (& breeders) as well as multiple climates that enable us to grow out hundreds of varieties of animals to choose their fluffiness from

The most daunting thing most people that I teach, at first, find challenging is "what do I do with it if I buy it", that's the usual question at first, and one that's different for each person. So when you stride into that fleece display room, back up a moment, or, better yet, look into your wardrobe at home the week before, a few nites before, hours before you get out of your driveway and start the journey

Ask yourself "if I find the perfect fleece for me, what do I do with it?"

This has multiple answers, and can turn out to be one of those silly diagrams that went into mad libs when we were kids, inserting the worst, or funniest, words to make the whole story more absurd than it originally could have been. But there's a method to this madness, being that for every fleece, there could be upwards of twenty or so uses for it, dependant on the area, the breed, the fleece itself, the color, the poundage, so it helps to know, ahead of time, as a knitter, weaver, spinner, crocheter, as a fiber fanatic...what do you want to do, if you find a fleece that says "I want to come home with you"

Firstly...sometimes the most important, is cost. Raw, unprocessed fleece of any sort is usually a large, up-front cost dependant on breed, fleece quality and poundage. A nine pound merino fleece with put you back a paycheck or more vs a nine pound romney fleece, and honestly, do you really need that much?

"that depends"

That's a phrase you're going to hear a lot when it comes to fleece (before final product, whatever that will be), and it's both a dangerous one and a confusing one to people curious, and wanting to learn, about fleece and how to process them. As everyone is different about a situation (some go in feet-first, others shuffle slowly), so are fleeces and the means to both process them and look at them

So, let's start with what do you want to do with a fleece. Are you looking at making a shawl for a wedding gift, that might be passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter (or niece sometimes)? Do you want to find a fleece that you can knit dozens of socks for the local shelter kids? Are you searching for an odd color, or a certain fleece in a range of color, crimp/length or loft? Are you simply going to "just look at fleeces, but not going to come home with anything" (we've ALL said this, haven't we?)

Firstly, let's pause at the doors to that fleece room, and start with, simply, do you want a colored fleece or a white fleece, as that divides the room 50/50. Colored fleeces, at one point in the history of fleeces and fleece breeds, were akin to asking your neighbor for the lawn mower in january after a blizzard; they were culled often, and the "pureness" of the breed was considered to be white, cream or any variation that could be easily dyed

So, sometimes, a show will divide a room in half, color on one side, white on the other side, *sigh* how 60's throwback can that be? Some simply put everything by breed, some divide them by fineness, some by beginner to experienced (if there's ever such a thing, as we're all beginners again at some point in our lives) Decide if you want a colored fleece or a white fleece....which brings us to the differences (& pains in the posterior) with colored vs white fleeces

A white fleece, for the most part, aside from having possible vm (vegetable matter) that needs to be culled out (sometimes with painful results to one's fingers or machinery), will turn out to usually be a white fleece, sometimes a buttery cream, sometimes an ice cream, sometimes a whispery, gossamer white, but, for the most part, white of some shade and hue. Even on the same fleece, you will find varying shades, dependant on areas of the fleece (necks and butts are always areas of differing shades)

A colored fleece, on the other hand, might have thirty shades of color, ranging from a fingertip's splotch of cream to a dapple of tan-gold shading into a buttery gray and ending in a black that makes the fingers itch to find the nearest knitting needles. A colored fleece will have what some call 'defects', that being it's not 100% one color, though there are fleeces that will be 100% one color, but usually, a fleece might be 2-4 colors, even if it's listed as "one color"

Why the 2-4 colors if it's listed as "gray" or 'black" or "brown"? Look at your hair after a day at the beach, and it's sunbleached, it's crackly from that salt air, and it needs tending. Fleece, for the most part, gets tended to once a year for shearing, and the rest, it collects, dust, burrs, grass bits, and whatever else the animal rolls, itches, or comes into contact with. But just as your own hair gets bleached, or simply you get split ends that need clipping, so does a fleece's tips get sunburned, ragged, bleached

Take this into consideration when you look at a colored fleece (and a white as well, as I've had sunbleached tips turn a pure white fleece into a butter-streaked roving that was beautiful to the eye, but an absolute pain to match to anything else) Those sunburned, battered, felted (oh yes, they will felt sometimes) tips can be your bane or they can be your benefit. Remember, that those tips are part of that fleece, and unless you want to come along and cut them all off to keep that 100% color, they have to be taken into account for your final color

So, we're back to those doors, aren't we? Do you go colored or white? Well, that depends (that phrase again, right?) Everyone is going to have a different answer...shawl, socks, felted mittens, etc...but most fleeces boil down to some simple decisions that make it easier to decide:

-do you go longwool or shortwool (romney vs merino)

-will it be inner wear, outer wear, or otherwise (shirt, shawl, socks/blanket)

-do you/will you use the fleece to knit/spin/weave/felt/etc (some fleeces better for one vs another)

there are about 15 other considerations, but the basics are those three, because each of those turns into its own branching tree of possibilities, but let's focus on those three for the moment

Longwool vs shortwool....that basically means are you going with something akin to a romney, which is what many spinners start with because of its long staple length (@3-8 inches, dependant on the fleece & crimp) Shortwool would be a merino (@1-4 inches at best, due to the crimp). There are other categories in there as well, but for now, we'll stick with long vs short

In each category, long & short, there will be variations, such as a merino fleece that would be best for socks, vs another that would be best for newborns. Sometimes you'll have the luxury of the fleece's owner putting their comments on the fleece, and its best uses. I bought the same fleeces from one breeder, while I was in Maine, year after year, & the fleeces sometimes changed year after year, due to age, lambing, stress, changes in the pecking order, etc. MOFGA has a wonderful tag on each bag of fleece that gives the owner a chance to describe a fleece & its uses, but can also describe a fleece as beginner, advanced, second cuts (get to that later) etc. The Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, however, puts owner's name, address, breed, & number, & that's all you get, so buyer beware, as with anything

So, you've decided you want one colored fleece & one white fleece, so let's go L, to the white fleeces, & see what's there. There's a romney (longwool), a moorit (medium-ish), several gotlands (med-long), rambouillet (short like merino), so pick out several bags, and go to the tables & have them laid out for you to view them

Now, I'm going to pause here and state that if you go to a show where you can't lay out a fleece, just walk away, period. I'm going to repeat that, because, again, buyer beware, and there are several large shows out there where you can't do anything but dunk your hands deep into a bag of fleece & hope for the best, that's all. There are shows out there with less than a fifty vendors who'll lay out fourty fleeces until you're satisfied of finding the one/s that you want

Buyer beware

So you have four white fleeces, & go to the tables, usually hosted by volunteer staff, & have them take the fleeces out & lay them on the tables (usually rabbit-wire mesh). Unroll them, get to feel them, & look at them closely

A fleece, at this stage of its life, should have been skirted....when we say 'skirted', we mean that the shearer took off the nasty bits, such as the urine-soaked areas along the hind legs, any fecal material that might've dug itself into the buttocks area, heavily-infested vegetative matter clots (you'll come to recognize those quickly), & other areas that aren't anything you want sitting in a bag for very long

So you'll want to see if the fleece has been skirted...if it hasn't, put it back in the bag (carefully!) & choose another....usually, at this point of its life, a fleece that hasn't been skirted will be put aside & returned to the breeder, usually with some irritated words from the show reps. So let's take those other three fleeces and look at them, roll them out....skirted nicely, no bad bits, maybe a tiny bit of vm in each of them

One is a dull tannish-gray, looks like the cuff on a pair of jeans that your sons ran into puddles with and it dried while they played, that color. Might be possible. Another is pre-washed & looks fabulously almond-milk cream, and the third is a grayish-butter that looks somewhat nauseating

The first fleece is a possible, and could be processed easily into something beautiful. The third fleece could also turn from an ugly duckling into a swan. The second, pre-washed fleece...walk away from


Well, let's see...if you buy that fleece, once it becomes yours, you have two options....home processing or mill processing (that means you can soak, soap, comb, spin, etc all by yourself, or pay someone else to do it). Few, if any, mills take pre-washed fleeces, simply for the fact that once it's washed, if you screw it up, you have felt, & you're back to stage one, as well as many processing mills prefer to see a fleece in its "raw state" (aka the grease/lanolin) so they know what they're working with from the start

Pre-washing might seem a generous thing for a breeder to do, but take advice from someone who did it once, & paid for it (& found a gorgeous fleece had been ruined)...a beautiful colored mohair that seemed beautiful, & when dug into deeply, was discovered to be 80% felted & became a hand carding nitemare....avoid pre-washed fleeces, period, unless they're from a friend/companion & you know what you're getting into

So, you choose the tannish-gray one, romney, which has a fleece length (staple) of @4-5 inches, it has a good crimp, little vm in it, it was skirted, & has a good feel against the skin, but not good enough to be inner wear, so it might turn into a good sweater, & there's nearly 7lb of it...good, to the dark side (they have cookies!)

So you're looking for a tan fleece to somewhat compliment the white one you've picked up....wrong! What makes you think that fleece is going to wash up & still be "tan"? Nope, you got it from the white side of the room, right? When holding 8 bags of fleece, always remember what you picked up, & if trying to match two fleece colors, remember that what you see is not always the final color after washing/processing (being surprised is all the more fun)

You have your heart set on a tan fleece, however, the only tan fleeces happen to be merino...your choice, and there's some lovely ones. There's an almost camel-colored one that looks rug-like, and here's where it gets tricky

That "rug like" look means that fleece is somewhat felted along the tips, & sometimes the animal was coated, & the fleece felted along the tips due to rubbing against the coat. Processing that can be done, over time, but also realize the word "felt" means there's going to be loss in the fleece...sometimes, despite its beauty (& sometimes good price), it's better in the long run to walk away from a fleece like this. If you like a challenge, it can be tamed, but you have to have patience (& a lot of it)

So there's another tan fleece, with small, felted tips (shortwools will usually have some felting, it's a hazard of the tight crimp of the breed, but it can be worth it), that has a good look to it. Spread it out on the table, let's look, and it's skirted, it's got lots of loft, color, & it has a shine to it, as well as the volunteer says it should clean up to be softer than it looks, as well as it's a generous fleece, 5lb

Pick out your tan fleece & let's look at what you tannish-gray romney fleece (white side) & one tan merino fleece (colored side). So for the sake of argument, we have an outer wear and an inner wear, and multiple options for both (yes, I know, I'm skipping a few steps, we'll get to filling those in later)

Now...decision time...process it yourself or send it to a mill. For the sake of these next articles, we're going to process it ourselves. Next article's going to start you on the path to home processing your own fleece