Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hand processed farm wool & rare breed fleeces

Every year in early spring, I start shopping around for local wool fleeces to use in my yarns. Finding farms with wool for sale can be difficult, since many farmers aren't great at advertising to potential buyers or even just getting their basic contact information out there. The farms that do have websites and market to spinners are often out of my price range, especially since I like to look for unusual and rare breeds. Sometimes I stumble across a new fleece source unexpectedly, like the time I answered a classified ad for someone looking for a person to shear their two angora goats in trade for the fleeces. "I've never shorn a goat before", I told her, "but I'm willing to buy some hand shears and give it a try." These things are always hit or miss, but that just makes it that much more elating when I find a truly good fiber source.

This year, I stumbled across a farm only 15 minutes away from me that raises a rare breed of sheep called Harlequin. I wasn't looking for wool when I found them, I was researching breeds of miniature sheep because I am still considering adding sheep to my tiny farm and I was certain there had to be another mini breed out there besides the Babydoll Southdown sheep. The Harlequin breed was started about 30 years ago in the US by Kathleen Sterling, with the goal of producing a sheep similar in size to the Babydolls but with fleece that had more variations in color and texture. There are only 8 farms listed as breeders, and the farmer told me he has to regularly trade rams with the other farms because the gene pool is so small. All the Harlequins I've seen so far are spotted. The lambs start out black & white spotted, but the fleeces on the adult sheep can range through every shade of grey, cream, white, and browns - all in one fleece! Although it seems like white and brown spotted is the most common Harlequin coloring. And the texture variation is pretty wide too, from loose long silky longwool locks to short crimpy springy fine wool. I'm in love!

I ended up splitting up the fleeces by color and carded up two pounds of natural gray batts, one pound of gray wool blended with 20% recycled soysilk, and two pounds of "almost white" (cream/white with hints of gray) wool. The natural browns will make their way into other yarns, but they don't need as much prep since they can't be overdyed. The gray and white batts don't feel like they are from the same breed of sheep, let alone the same fleece - the gray is silky and slightly drapey and reminds me of romney or a border leceister cross, while the white is much more springy, matte, and softer.

The downside to working with lots of straight-from-the-farm raw wool is that it takes a ton of time to process. It has to be washed (I do a minimum of a long cold soak, two hot washes and two hot/warm rinses, but greasier fleeces can easily take twice as many washes), which involves lots of heavy lifting since I dump the water from the first two washes outside rather than down the drain. Then the fleece is carefully picked through by hand to fluff the locks open and remove any vegetable matter or second cuts, and then either dyed and run through the drum carder once (for chunky art yarns) or carefully run through the drum carder 2-3 times before being dyed (for patchwork yarns). It usually takes me at least a month, usually much longer, from buying a bunch of fleeces to having fiber ready to spin, because the washing, carding, and dyeing takes more time the more I'm trying to do at once.

All that prep feels like it drags on forever, but at least there are many different steps. By the time I'm truly sick of one part of the process, it's time to move on to the next. It's worth it to me because I enjoy working with these fibers so much more than lifeless commercially prepared top and I feel an immense amount of pride in the finished yarn when I can recall the stinky, dirty raw fleece I started with and also the name of the sheep that it came from. I also really love working with the huge variety of different breeds of wool available and supporting farms that raise little-known breeds. Fine wool are popular for a reason (and I will admit that I am obsessed with a good fine wool), but my true love is all the workhorse medium wools out there.

Gypsy Boy on 'almost white' Harlequin

Eyebright on gray Harlequin

Lirael on gray Harlequin

I have a few other farm wools I'm working with right now. I have some nice white blue-faced leicester, my first time working with a BFL fleece, and also a gorgeous variegated pale gray and white Rambouillet cross fleece that was my MDSW fleece sale purchase this year.

Oh, and I carded up 8 oz of a blend of 40% pygora locks from my goat Aoife with 60% Romeldale x wool from a sheep named Tofu (last year's MDSW fleece). So I just finished up my first skein of patchwork yarn spun using my own pygora fiber:

That's pretty awesome, right? There are a handful of farm wool patchwork yarns in my etsy shop now, but there will be more in the next few updates.

1 comment:

April said...

Those are some amazing sounding sheep and the wool looks wonderful too. All the work you put into cleaning it looks completely worthwhile with beautiful results. Love your finished products too.