It is that time of year again, when our woolly friends are looking decidedly shaggy and a little bit warm. Many people have already sheared, especially if they are intending to show their animals, however those who don’t have shelter, or don’t intend to show are still planning ahead. We often get asked the best way to handle fleeces destined for the mill at shearing time, so we’ve put together our top tips which should help you out in the shearing shed.
1. Know what you want; if you are able to work out which fleeces you want to keep while they are on the animal, all the better. This will make sorting much easier, as you can have these sheep shorn first (or last) and keep the fleece separate for a more thorough going over later on.
2. Get a tarpaulin; no matter how hard you try, there will be bits of fleece everywhere. Put the fleeces you want to keep on a tarpaulin to prevent them getting further contaminated by second cuts, straw, hay and other undesirable bits.
3. Keep it clean; a good housekeeping tip. If you have coloured and white fleeces, make sure you sweep or clear the shearing area between colours. This will help prevent colour contamination and will ensure that any detritus that falls out of the fleeces doesn’t go back in.
4. Be bold; if the fleece isn’t as good as you hoped, put it to one side and look for something better. A yarn is only as good as the fleeces that go into it, so always pick the best you can get.
5. Be considerate; shearers work quickly, so try not to block up the production line by sorting as you go (unless you are fast enough). A shearer will always try to avoid second cuts, especially if you show them which fleeces you want to spin, but if there are one or two due to a wriggling sheep (or alpaca, or goat) it can’t be helped.
Every fleece that comes into the mill is sorted by hand and any fibre that is contaminated with spray marker, dags or is substandard is removed. We do this regardless of how well fleeces are sorted, as it is important for us to know the quality of the fibre that is going through the machinery, so we can make any necessary adjustments to help you get the best product possible.
There are two golden rules which can be applied to fibre from any animal, whether it is a sheep, alpaca or a goat.
1. Know your fleece; if you know what sort of quality fibre you are looking for (especially in alpacas), this will make your life a lot easier when it comes to sorting.
2. Be ruthless; some people pick out every blade of straw, others skirt off a 6” edge from every fleece. If it doesn’t look as good as the rest of the fleece (or if it is colour marker), take it off and don’t look back!
If you are looking to use only the softest fleeces, then the best fleeces tend to come from the first clip of a sheep, and sometimes from ewes who have not lambed. These sheep will not have undergone the same stresses as lambing ewes, who tend to sacrifice the quality of the fleeces to keep their lambs healthy (rightly so!). That being said, adult fleeces can be perfectly suitable for spinning, they can differ greatly from one another just as each person’s hair differs. When we sort fleeces, we throw them onto a mesh topped table, so any bits fall out of the bottom. If you don’t have this luxury, then a tarpaulin is fine – just be sure to clear it off after each fleece.
1. Throw out the fleece to its full size
2. Skirt around the edges and pull of any dags/heavily caked on mud/coarse fibre
3. Pull off any tup or coloured marking
4. If you have a coloured fleece such as a Jacob, this is the time to split the white and the dark fibre. We often split Jacob into three colours; light, dark and mid. The mid being the fibre which has both light and dark parts.
Alpaca fibre is sorted in a slightly different way; these fleeces can be put into first, second and third quality. The firsts consist of the saddle, the fibre from the back of the animal that tends to be the finest. The seconds are from the area directly around this, and the thirds are the shorter, coarser fibres from the neck, legs and stomach area. As alpacas are restrained for shearing it is easier to sort the fibre as the process takes longer, and quite often shearers will separate the saddles as they go. Make sure that thirds do not get put with the saddle as these will make a yarn coarse; seconds can be made into a yarn, but if you are able to use only firsts you will get something of a much higher quality.