Now, I know I tend to write of nothing but fibre, this is a little different. On several occasions over the last month or so I've been asked how I choose/what do I look for when I pick a fleece.
So here goes. Here are my general rules that I apply to fleece,(Although I must take this opportunity to point out other people look for other things and whilst this works for me, it may not work for the next spinner!)
The general things I look for in a fleece are as follows:
Firstly, it must hold together (see right) as rolled. Then, if I can unroll it and flick it out like a tablecloth being flicked over a table. It should remain as a whole, albeit a somewhat lacy whole. This shows me several things, the most important being the health of the animal it came from. If the animal is in top nick, it's fleece will also be in good condition (bit like the difference in the way way your own hair behaves if you have a cold or if you are feeling tip top). It really does show. The staple will actually feel healthy under your fingers. If the animal has been poorly or the weather has rapidly changed that will also show in the fleece - usually as breaks. The more breaks the poorer the fleece (none here, this is how it should be).
Next comes the pinging of the fleece. Now, I really do mean making a lock of the fleece ping. This doesn't mean taking the lock by either end and tugging until it snaps, I mean holding it under tension and flicking it with a spare finger. If it's sound, it will ping in tune. If not, it will sound flat, like a glass with a crack in it when compared to an unbroken one.
So, I now have a fleece that is sound and healthy.
The next step is to lay it out on a flat surface and take a darned good look at it. Any sticks, grass, burrs or insects need to be removed (you will be surprised how many insects will be found dead in the darned thing!) If there a lot, make the decision, do I want to have to do this? Also how much cotting (matting) is there within the fleece? If for example the back end of the fleece was cotted, but the neck and shoulders were really fine clean and sound, I would consider it if that were the only piece of the fleece I wanted to spin. We are hand spinners, we can be selective about which pieces of the fleece we wish to spin. We do not have to spin it all - life is too short!
Once I've removed the bits and pieces from my latest prize the fun really starts. And this is the first point where I begin to disagree with many hand spinners; I don't take the tiniest bit I can out/off, I remove the offending patch. Totally. I am really unforgiving on this score. And I'm as unforgiving in the amount I take of from around the outside edge of the fleece. At this stage I will loose at least a third (and I haven't turned it over to have a good look at the clipped side yet).
So then I turn it over and any second cut (short bits) or coarse fleece also get removed.
This I do, as I see no point in wasting time on bits of fleece that will meet their end in the bin in the near future anyway.
What I am left with is a clean and tidy fleece ready for washing. This is point that you can re-roll the fleece and pop it into a paper sack and put to one side. Without the daggy icky bits and the insects etc it will store until ready to wash it.
Yep this is divergence number 2. I wash my fleece. Always. No exceptions. Raw fleece carries bugs, and bacteria, we have the facilities and detergents to remove them, so why trap them in your precious hand spun yarn? Why bother my already buggered immune system with more work?
So. I sort my fleece into various differing qualities (in the case of the one in the photos, it was good enough to be split in two straight across the back; the front half (neck and shoulders) being fine enough to spin lace weight yarn with and the back half still fine enough to spin really good quality 4 ply (that would be 4ply weight wise, not actual 4 ply if you get my drift!). It is then packed into washing nets, and I mean packed. I want it so tightly packed that the fleece will not move about within the net and felt itself.
Then I fill a trug with scalding hot water and 15ml or so of detergent, my favourite at the moment being Method, but Ecover Delicate is as good. I then submerge the washing bags and go off and have a cup of coffee. I don't agitate or bother them, even though the first thing that will happen is that the water turns the most filthy colour!
At this point another rider appears: I have a top loading washing machine, this is nothing like a front loading machine. A front loading machine will felt your fleece as soon as look at it! Do NOT throw the whole lot into a front loader UNLESS you personally can vouch for your machine, under no circumstances write and tell me I told you to 'cus I didn't!
Right, that said, once I have had my coffee and the water has cooled to the point that, if I pop my hand in, I can't feel a change in temperature I pour the whole lot into my top loading washing machine. I don't add any more detergent, and then I run the whole lot through on a wool wash.
It emerges from the machine ready to be spread out somewhere to dry.
Once dry, I now have clean fleece ready to be processed that still has plenty of lanolin in it (I washed the dirt & narsties out, not all the grease). It will be re rolled and popped into a pillow case, together with my favourite moth repellent and tied firmly at the top with string that will have a luggage label attached to it. The details of colour, type, origin and year will be on the label making it easy to find in the stash and then it will be stacked side on, with the label sticking out to make my life even easier....
As I said before, this is how I do it. The same principles work for most fleeces the only exceptions being the long wools and there the difference is that as the fleece is so heavy is probably wouldn't hold together so well if flicked out. But everything else still applies as far as I'm concerned.
A final point to remember, different areas of the fleece are going to be of different qualities, so unless you really like spinning rug wool there really is no point in keeping the back legs or fleece with kemp (coarse hairs) in it. It won't spin up particularly well and by the time you have spun the yummy bits why would you want to?
By the same token, it would be foolish to spin very fine merino into an aran weight yarn and expect to perform as such. At the end of the day, it will still be very fine fibre that is more likely to under perform, as it is not the purpose that it was meant for. Therefore your precious hand spun, hand knitted, aran sweater although extremely soft, won't actually last very long.
So, as I said at the beginning, this is what I do. It's not what you probably do, nor should it be, but hopefully there maybe some helpful points you can take away from this.
Normal service resumed next post!