pile of Notlwonk Springs Fleece

How to chose a fleece 

As more people are moving in the direction of the ancient ancestral arts, having people to learn from is a great resource. If you are fortunate to live in an area of fiber art guilds, we suggest at least attending a few of their meetings. The experience of others is such an important tool for you to get your hands of some different types of fleece. Many guilds have fiber exchanges, which is also a wonderful education tool for you.

Check out our chart of breeds and fineness

All of the fleece photos on this page are courtesy of a lovely family ranch in northern Utah, Notlwonk Springs. This family certainly knows their fiber, as well as being extremely knowledgeable about animal husbandry. The care that goes into these sheep is shown by looking at their fleeces. Jo, Fred and Ann Knowlton are great people and willing to share their knowledge with you to help you find the best fleece for your project. We recommend them highly - we purchase a few of their fleeces from time to time, knowing the quality of the yarn or felt we will get. There are other family ranches and farms around the country, we suggest finding them- they are a treasure waiting for ewe.

Notlwonk Springs specializes in Corridale, Romeldale and Romney fleeces- they are pasture and pellet fed.

Having thought about that, you might want to research the wide variety of fleeces we have available to us today!

Find out the properties and what the fleeces might be best used for. We have seen many a people buy a beautiful churro fleece to make a next to the skin sweater, only to find out it would be better suited for a woven rug.

Looking for that Perfect Fleece - where to find them

  1. Do a google search for fiber or fleece and fiber shows near you

  2. Ask the owner of a local yarn shop since they often carry local shepherd/ess yarns

  3. Write to a fiber processing mill, like Spinderellas, and ask for local references, after all they see all qualities of fiber and might be able to suggest the fleece and farm to buy from.

We spinners, are willing to pay a premium price for a lovely fleece. But as the word gets out, there are many farmers, ranchers and friends with pets willing to save you some $$ with free fleeces. Know that free isn't always free, and more often than not, you will end up with high expectations that have been dashed with closer inspection of "mulching fleece" for your garden. 

Start by Assessing your needs .....

  1. Do you have a project in mind?

  2. Do you have the ability or know how to wash and process this fiber?

  3. Honestly rate the your skills - whether the fleece is for spinning or felting

  4. Do you have space? Know that they will take up space 

  5. Are you going to get to your project any time soon? The best and easiest time to spin is a fresh fleece. Fiber sitting around for years can cause issues like yolking on white fleeces to moth issues.

  6. What are you prepared to spend? 

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What to look for when you actually can put your hands on some fleeces

  1. You will find many fleeces are rolled up cut side up and placed in a bag. Often Sheltand fleeces are rolled the opposite way so the tips of the fleeces can be seen. The fleeces are rolled with the sides folded inward and from the tail end to the neck

  2. Ask the owner of the fleece to unroll it for you. If they will not unroll the fleece we would suggest moving on. Why

    • As we know the neck is generally the best part of the fleece​ and can hide a multitude of issues of the neck is all you see and chose your fleece from 

    • If the fleece was packed damp it will yield more "nasty things" than you want to deal with

    • A good fleece will be skirted well - no dung tags  (poop) , belly wool, and britch or breech ( a coarse hair fiber in some fleeces near the lower hind legs. )

    • It should be free of major vegetation. How much you want to pick out those pieces of "VM" ( vegetation matter) is up to you, but heavy VM is best left to the compost pile.

    • It should not be matted. Even if you you are able to pull some of the matts apart, again it is a matter of time and energy spent. Often a matted fleece will be tender and not worth messing with.

    • Remember there is NO PERFECT fleece- but you need to at least look for it. :-) 

skirting a fleece

Fred and Jo Knowlton skirting a fleece

Choosing your fleece

After you look around at and choose the breed and color of the fleece you want, it is time to get down to the nitty gritty of finding the fleece for your project. Keep these in mind

  1. You will spend hours in not years with this fleece. Yes, you will spin or felt it and wear, walk or admire it for years

  2. If your project is a rug, no matter the color and softness of the fiber, you will be saddened if your choice is a romeldale fleece that will pill and be destroyed quickly when walked on instead of a tough romney fleece that will be able to handle the task at hand.

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Onward - Staple length - thickness and crimp

Different breeds have different staple lengths and thicknesses. A staple is the term used for fiber. The length is measured in inches or often times, centimeters. Here is a general description of what to look for.

  1. Generally a staple length of about 3.5 - 4 inches is the  easiest to deal with. We find most commercial roving is about this length and in speaking with a few large mills, this is the best length for yarn.

  2. Thickness is referred to as microns. A Micron is 0.001 mm. The smaller the number of microns, the finer the fiber.

  3. Understand that some measure thickness by a system called the Bradford Count. This is an older system to measure fineness of a fleece as well. But in this instance it is the higher number the finer the fiber. This system figured the number of single-ply hanks, measuring 560 yards each, capable of being worsted spun from 1 pound of wool top. Years back wool merchants of Bradford needed a standardized way of advertising how fine their wools were

  4. Crimp is the waviness of the fiber and is measures as crimps per inch. The more crimps per inch in a staple of fleece the finer it will be. Romney, gotland , leicesters have less crimpy, are more wavy than crimpy, while merino, corriedale, romeldale will have more crimps and a finer handle.

In our experience, modern breeds will usually have a uniform staple over the whole animal and the whole herd, but the more primitive breeds, like icelandic, will show much more variation, both within a herd and on a single animal.

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The Rise

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Found the fleece? Now check for the quality of the wool

Remember to unroll the fleece knowing the last part you unroll is the tail end. Most shepherds remove the tail, but you can see the basic shape of the animal.

  1. If the fleece now looks like a sheepskin rug, forget it!! It is matted and will be a nightmare to process

  2. Lift the fleece. It should open up and hang ‘like a lace curtain’. You will see "holes" in the the fleece, but they will be holding together. Gently pull a few bits of the fleece apart. A good fleece will separate with fibers clinging together.

  3. At this point look for two faults: 

    • Second Cuts - little bits of fiber that was left during shearing. A well sheared fleece will still have a few 2nd cuts, but you do not want to see alot of them- they are usually less than 1/2 inch and look like little balls of wool. A good shearer knows the value of the fiber and will take their time to minimize 2nd cuts in a fleece.

    • Cutting after the Rise - ‘The rise’ is the time when the wool is ready to be shorn. The rise is caused by the growth of new fleece.The fibers have a weak point here, and will tend to break when spinning. Older breeds of sheep alive today still grow a mixture of wool and hair, and they molt to shed their fleece in summer.  We see this a lot in icelandic and sheltand fleece. Even modern breeds get a weakening of growth in their locks. The sheep is telling them - I need a haircut!! A wise shepherd knows when to book the shearers when they see the rise on her flock, because it's so much quicker and easier to clip than trying to chop through the strong growth from winter.

    • You now need to examine the tips of the staple. How easily the tips can be separated? If the tips separate easily then spinning will be easy. If they have to be forced apart, consider it will take more preparation.

    • Look at the color of the tips. Are they sun bleached or stained? They will show in the yarn, but often will add depth of color, as long as they are not weak. 

    • Take a lock and pull on the tips- are they brittle? This is known as being "tippy". You may or may not chose to buy this fleece, the tips will come off in processing and leave behind "pills", which could be perfect for the yarn you will create. Know though, they will shed. 

    • Take a lock and snap it to test its strength.- Not a large twisted lock, as that will add strength- hold the cut end in one hand and the tips in the other. Holding the lock up to your ear, pull your hands apart quickly and listen for the sound made it makes.

      • Good, strong fiber will ‘ping’.

      • Weak fibers will have a crackling,

      • Very weak fibers will break, sometimes indicating stress, nutrition, etc

    • Try and finger spin a lock to see how they behave. Twisting the fiber into a "faux yarn" will show any kemp (rogue, course fibers that are itchy and will not take dye) 

What should I pay for fleece? 

We know it is hard to part with hard earned cash, but the bottom line is, a good fleece is worth their weight in gold ! Remember that the shepherd has spent a lot of time, money and energy in keeping their sheep happy and healthy so they can grow those beautiful fleeces. Happy sheep produce lovely fleeces. Do not try and bargain with the shepherd/ess. They are worth more than the small price you will pay for the fleece they are offering. Paying what they are worth is like saying thank ewe for caring for your sheep! 

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Now what? 

Now that you have carefully taken time and trouble to purchase your fleece, you still have to take care of it when you get it home. How? 

  1. Label the fleece as to the breed, from whom and when you purchased it

  2. Keep it in an unheated garage, shed, or a cooler room in your home

  3. Store it in a way mice and critter cannot get into it. Some ideas are

    • fleece in a mesh bag, 

    • polyester bag

    • 5 gallon bucket with a lid on it.

  4. Aim to use your fleece within the year. Fleeces will keep for many years, especially if kept in a cool dry place, but grease can go rancid, making them smelly and sticky and harder to wash. Before putting them away, you might want to wash them 1st.

  5. Most importantly- enjoy working with these beauties!