Winter’s Work — Skirting Fleeces by the Fire
We shear our sheep in early November as soon as we can get the shearer and as the weather allows. The timing for shearing is such that there is still good stockpiled grass available for the sheep and I haven’t started feeding hay yet. These two factors insure that the fleeces are not contaminated with hay chaff. This Fall clip is the fleece that grows between the late March shearing and the November shearing. The Spring shearing is necessary to clean off the old fleece before it sheds naturally as Icelandics are a naturally shedding breed. Since Icelandic sheep do most of their fleece growth in the fall in response to cold weather, I am harvesting the wool just before breeding season begins and bad weather sets in. I make sure that there is shelter and deep bedding available for the sheep after shearing and that hay is available for then close by the shelter should cold wet weather commence. This keeps the sheep from having to go out into the fields to get feed and get chilled. The sheep grow back about 2 inches of fleece in the month following shearing. The exception is the rams that may not grow any fleece after this time as they are already in the rut and use their energy for breeding instead of growing fleece. The sheared rams can survive a winter that dips into the minus 30-degree range with no problem even with little fleece. The skin thickens in response to the cold and helps protect the animal.
My shearing crew assembles and we all have our jobs. Emily gives the vaccinations to the ewe lambs before they are tipped onto the shearing floor. Ralph and Mike shear. I sweep the shearing floor between each sheep. If I don’t keep the shearing floor clean I find that I have had to do a lot of picking colored fiber out white fleeces or visa versa. The white sheep are done first followed by the colored ones. The shearer separates the bellies as he goes and these are deposited in a separate big box or bag. The freshly shorn fleece minus the belly wool is scooped up, cut side down, off of the shearing floor by Dawn Ann who throws it in the air carefully over a skirting table. Most of the second cuts fall off the fleece with this technique. Then the manure tags are taken off and the fleece is carefully pushed (not folded or rolled) into a plastic garbage bag along with an index card with the flock number of that sheep included. The bag is taken into the barn and sorted by color (white or colored), sex (ram or ewe) and age (lamb or adult) so when I finish I have 8 sections: white adult ram, colored adult ram, white ram lamb, colored ram lamb, white adult ewe, colored adult ewe, white ewe lamb, colored ewe lamb. I would like to sort the ewe lambs further by color but that is just too tedious when you have 450 fleeces. The bags are left open so that the fleeces can lose their body heat and moisture. The bags are put side by side and never stacked on top of each other. They are kept in one room of my barn that is airy but protected from rain. The fleece remains there until it is time to skirt them. Our cold sub zero temperatures keep the wool moths from infesting the fleeces.
I fill reserved orders on a first come first served basis starting in December as time allows. At that time of year I am taking care of the 16 to 20 different breeding groups scattered all over the 200 acre lower farm, making sure that there is grass, hay and water and that the rams are staying in their assigned areas. So fleece work time is scarce. Bad weather and sub-zero temperatures complicate things even more when I have to deal with deep snow, frozen water buckets, and having to drain hoses. Finally after the holidays I settle in for my winter work of skirting the fleeces in earnest.
I spent the greater part of last year renovating the formal living room into a wool room complete with a second-hand woodstove and a thrift store stereo. The rugs were replaced with a light colored easy to clean linoleum and the walls and ceiling were painted a bright white to reflect as much light as possible. I use floor lamps to illuminate and move these around to suit my lighting needs. One of these days I will get ceiling lights. It is in this room that I spend a great deal of time in the winter. The nice thing about having a room just for your wool is that you can leave the work in progress and come back to it as you can. I used to skirt fleece in the greenhouse but could only work on the warmest days and didn’t have too many fleeces at that time. As my flock grew I needed a warmer place to work and so took over the kitchen, as it was the warmest and most well lit room in the house. This worked but gave new meaning to the term “high fiber diet” and I had to clean up my mess every night. Visitors were greeted with fiber piled on the floor and plastic garbage bags all over the kitchen. So with the flock now at 30 rams, 200 ewes and 300 lambs, the new wool room was essential. It is a delight to work in, and I listen to music and skirt fleeces all winter warmed by the wood stove. Having the room warm helps to soften the lanolin and loosens up the locks.
I start by skirting the fleeces that will go to spinners. The fleeces are warmed up in the wool room as they are frozen stiff from being outside in the barn, and then spread out on a table that is raised to be of a comfortable working height so that I don’t have to bend over to work. A surface height that is 8 inches below your bent elbow is ideal. Pieces of PVC pipe can be added to the table legs like a sleeve to increase the height of a table or 2X4’s can be used to raise it. I have three plastic bags placed in such a way as to receive: a) Good spinning fleece b) Good chaff free fleece that is not of hand spinning quality but is fine for yarn production. This includes dirty fiber, rubbed fiber, short fiber britch wool and the fleece from most adult ewes and rams. c) Fleece with lots of (VM) vegetative matter. The trash and cull wool is dropped on the floor and will be put on the garden or trees as mulch or used as fill.
I weigh the fleece and then dump it out on the table. The card identifying the fleece is in the bag and on this card I record the weight. Then I spend the next hour or more picking through the fleece and removing any trace of vegetative matter, burrs, cotted fleece, tender locks etc. While I am skirting I am taking mental notes on the fleece that are written down on the note cards for each fleece. This information is used as a reference. I don’t make extensive notes as this would take too much time but mostly comment on how this fleece differs from the norm.
These notes may include:
- Lanolin: Is the fleece greasy or dry
- Back Cover: Is there good cover over the back spine area? It is important for an open fleeced sheep like Icelandic to have good thick back wool that doesn’t part along the spine. Sheep are especially sensitive to cold rain on their spine so thin or parting wool in this area is considered a major fault in Iceland. I notice that the AI station in Iceland, SOUTHRAM, usually will comment on the back wool in their descriptions of the stud ram’s fleece (www.bssl.is).
- Color: Description of the color and hue. This guides me to select for specific colors in the flock such as apricot moorits or blue grays. I am always trying to improve the color of my sheep.
- Strength: Is the fleece tender or strong? Some fleeces may be tender on the spine where it weathers from sun and rain and still be good sound fiber on the sides. Fleeces that are tender on the back usually don’t have a good tog layer, as tog is very resistant to weather. (Tog is the outer coat of the fleece)
- Britch: Is the britch hairy and coarse or fine and uniform? Icelandics don’t have kemp or at least I have never seen kemp in an Icelandic fleece yet, (Kemp is stiff chalky white triangular pointed fiber that will not take dye well) but they can have coarse hairy-looking britch wool. However this britch fiber is not hair but true wool.
- Uniformity: Is there uniformity of the fiber throughout the fleece? Uniformity is not a big issue with primitive breeds as they are expected to be variable. However if you want to breed for a more uniform fleece it will help if you take notes.
- Staple Length: I measure the staple length in different areas of the fleece and record this. Shorter staple usually goes along with finer lighter fleeces. Again Icelandics aren’t expected to have a uniform staple length but this is a desirable trait.
- Balance: Is there good balance of tog to thel? I pull a sample and separate the two fibers types of this dual coated breed to judge. I want there to be a roughly equal amounts, by weight, of each type of fiber. A fleece that is mostly tog is fine for warp yarn but has no warm thel undercoat (thel is the silky fine downy undercoat). An animal that has mainly thel is quickly degraded by the weather and makes a poorer quality yarn compared to thel that has been protected by a tog layer. I like to see a nice thick fat crimpy thel with enough tog to protect and separate the fibers. The tog acts like a spring that lifts the undercoat and keeps it from matting. The tog also protects the thel from weather, sun, rain, dirt and debris. Tog is very abrasion resistant and protects the undercoat (thel) from getting rubbed and frizzled. The undercoat blooms out and traps warmth to protect the animal from cold and wind. It is a more delicate fiber and needs the protection of the tog to remain useful. A good balance is what Iceland says is ideal. They cull individuals with little or no tog.
- Fiber Diameter: I record the fiber diameter subjectively by feel. Tog and thel can be either coarse or fine. You can have a coarse tog with a fine thel; a fine tog and a fine thel; a coarse tog and a coarse thel. I like the thel to be fine no matter what the tog is.
- “Handle”: This is how the fleece feels when you handle it. Is it silky or cottony, linen-like or rough feeling? Fineness doesn’t necessarily determine the softness or silkiness although it usually helps. The silky fleeces tend to be those with great luster. Dryness can add to the rough feel while a greasy fleece may feel softer. A good fleece will feel like cool silky butter in your hands.
- Brightness: Is the fleece lustrous and luminous or matte and dull? A dusty fleece may look dull but when washed will be bright and lustrous.
- Weight: Fleeces with lots of tog will weigh more than fleeces that are thel rich. Fleeces produced on rich high protein feed will be coarser and heavier than fleeces produced on poorer feed.
- Damage: This includes rubbed tog, weather damaged fiber and tenderness from sickness. The fleece from an animal that has been sick may have a major weakness in the staple. Check for tenderness before you start skirting the fleece, as this will determine its use. Listen for popping fiber when you snap or pull a lock or separate fiber from the fleece. Tender fleeces will make a sound like tearing rotten cotton sheets apart when you pull a sample. You can feel it with your hands as well, after you know what it feels like. Be sure to test the fleece that was on the spine of the animal well, as that is the usual place where fiber is degraded by the sun and weather. Many times the tog will be strong but the thel will be weak. Test it separately if you suspect weakness in the fiber. Never send out weak fiber to a spinner. The fiber will break, pill badly and ruin the project. The word will go out that you sell inferior fleeces.
- Parentage: I note on the card the sire and dam so that I can get an idea of which sires and dams are giving me the best fleeces. This helps to guide my breeding program and develop my culling list.
- Lock Formation: Are the locks loose and open or are they all tangled together at their bases? Is the fleece cotted or felted? This sometimes happens along the back. Is the lock fat or thin? Is the thel crimpy or straight? Are the locks curly, corkscrew or straight? I like fat locks with thick long 4 to 6 inch crimpy thel and long tog that is 8 to 10 inches.
- Smell: Does the fleece smell? If you have not stored the fleece in such a way that it can dry out then it may go sour. Sick animals may have an unpleasant smell to the fleece. I record how strong the ram fleeces smell. I like my rams to have a strong rammy smell as I relate this to high libido and a strong breeding ram, the kind that ewes swoon over. I get these smelly ram fleeces done fast as they are strong and smell up the house. I try and reserve them for a day when I can open the windows!
- I use big furniture boxes as bins for receiving the fleece that will go for yarn and have one bin or box for each of the basic colors of white, black, moorit and grey. I also have separate plastic garbage bags for VM fiber (VM is vegetative matter such as hay chaff, weed seeds and burrs), one for each color. Each bag or box is labeled with the fleece color. As each bag is filled it is closed and stored till it is sent for processing.
- Scissors for cutting out burrs or cutting off old fleece that is cotted on the tips of the locks.
- Clear new plastic bags for bagging a skirted spinning fleece.
- Dust pan and dust brush. Handy for cleaning off the table after each fleece as well as cleaning the work area as you go. The dustpan helps in scooping up and bagging the cull fiber on the floor.
- Scale for weighing the fleeces.
- Stapler for stapling ID cards to bags of fiber.
- Sharpie pen for labeling fiber bags and regular pen for taking notes on the index cards on each fleece.
- Index cards for labels. I label for fiber to go for yarn or fiber that has a lot of vegetative matter VM in it (i.e. “black yarn” or moorit VM). Spinning fleeces get a card included in the new clean bag after they have been well skirted that has a brief description of the fleece and a number for easy ID. I list this fleece on my website using this number followed by the description of the fleece.
- Table or skirting table. A round skirting table that rotates like a big lazy Susan is ideal. A skirting table should have something like hardware cloth or chicken wire that allows the dirt and second cuts to fall through. I use 2 long banquet tables pushed together.
This is the procedure that is working for me. I am constantly modifying it as I find better ways. But before you start, put a few logs in the woodstove make yourself something nice and hot to drink like herbal tea or hot chocolate and turn the radio on something inspiring or fast with a great beat so that your fleeces will be filled with music.
- Weigh the fleece at skirting time and not shearing time as the fleece looses a lot of moisture after shearing. Record the weight on the index card with the sheep’s ID number on it that was included with the fleece at shearing time. Look up the sire and dam and record this on the card also.
- Dump the fleece on the table lock side up and assess it for it’s best use. I want fleeces that are to go to spinners to be clean and bright looking, the kind of fleece that bring OOOOh’s and AAH’s from spinners. If it doesn’t have this appearance then it goes to make yarn. Skirting a fleece that is going for yarn doesn’t take as much time as you don’t have to pull out the shorter less appealing fiber.
- For a spinners fleece, pull off any belly wool, dirty wool, weakened or rubbed wool, or anything that a spinner wouldn’t want to deal with. You want your spinner to get only the cream of the fleece. I usually pull out the back and put it in the yarn bag if I am skirting a handspinning fleece, as it is shorter more degraded fiber. A spinner gets mainly the sides, neck and the best part of the britch. I pull off the hairy parts of the britch and put it in the yarn pile or in a separate pile for rug weavers. Any fiber that is less than 1½ inch long will end up as carding waste, so discard it. Discard short hairy fibers from the face and legs. Look carefully at the edges, as it is here that you will find most of the short fibers and second cuts.
- Micro Groom: Look at the stuff that you are skirting off. Strong VM free fiber can go in the yarn box. Strong good fiber that has a lot of VM goes in a separate sack. Junk fiber and burrs etc are dropped on the floor.
I usually tear a big piece about 1-1/2 feet square off from the fleece to work on at a time. It is easier to work on a piece that size than the whole fleece at once. You can turn the smaller piece over and around to look at it and get to every lock. When you pull a fleece apart or pick VM out of the fleece, press firmly on the lock or fleece with one hand and try to avoid stretching or disturbing the fleece or lock structure. Most spinners want to work with intact locks. Discard any fleece with white dandruff. It usually won’t wash out and is highly noticeable in the yarn. Note this dandruff on your card and consider culling that animal. Judith McKenzie says that dandruff in the fleece indicates that this animal probably has a mange type skin condition and this can be contagious. Discard any fleece that is bright yellow as this fleece is contaminated with the bacteria Canary Stain. Cull any animals that have this bacterium as it is contagious and compromises the health of the animal. The fleece with Canary Stain is not usable for yarn or spinning and the bacteria will continue to eat the fiber over time. Don’t confuse Canary Stain with lanolin, which is a pale soft yellow.
I usually work these pieces on top of a small box, like a mini table so that I can see the fiber and chaff closer. A box with hardware cloth on top would be ideal, as it would let the dirt fall through. Be sure to look at the spaces between the locks for chaff. Either pick it out or pull out the locks that are contaminated to put into the VM pile. The good spinning fiber goes in a clean clear fleece bag. Squeeze the fiber to detect burrs. Pull out or cut out all burrs. Be through as spinners don’t like burrs and they mess up carding machines. Trash and bad fiber gets dropped on the floor. Don’t hesitate to cut off the tips if there is cotted fiber clinging to them. If the remaining fiber is more than 2 inches long then it can be used for yarn.
- Pull apart and shake any fleece that is heavily contaminated with VM. Hold it low over the floor when you do this so that you are not shaking the VM back onto the good fleece on the table. Heavily contaminated fleeces can be sent to a processor as much of it can be removed in the picking process. It can also be used for felting, as most VM doesn’t show up in the felt too much. Do not put contaminated fiber in the box for yarn as most yarn mills don’t have machines that will take the VM out and it will end up in your yarn where it is highly visible.
- Brush off the working area between each fleece so that you won’t contaminate the next fleece with dirt or fiber from the previous fleece.
- Use only white fleece for white yarn. Fleeces with red or black fibers in them will make the white yarn look dingy. Throw these red or black fibered white fleeces in the grey or moorit pile.
- Store skirted fleeces in a mouse proof, mothproof place. I use our metal grain silo for this purpose. It is mouse proof and the cold Montana winters kill any moths or moth eggs. Any fleece that is not sold is sent for processing the next season.
- File the cards in numerical order or put on a database for reference. I use this info for selecting rams and replacement ewes or culling poor doers in the flock.
When I have skirted all of the fleeces they are packed tightly into boxes and mailed to processors to be made into roving, felting batts or yarn. At this time of the year I am working fast as lambing time is approaching fast and I want to finish this project before the lambs are born. It is a happy day when I load all of the boxes on the truck and send them off. This signals the end to my winters work!