Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many fiber festivals to cancel or quickly pivot and move events online. For those of us who love the scent of freshly shorn fleece and friendly chats with shepherds, online gatherings have made buying and selling fleeces more challenging. We asked three members of our fiber community to share their tips for approaching online fleece sales: Robin Nistock, owner and shepherd at Nistock Farms in Prattsburgh, New York; Lynda Davies, shepherdess and owner of Foggy Hollow Ranch in Hungerford, Texas, and Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association (FFSSA) treasurer and webmistress; and Sue Barraza of Monterey County Fair Wool Show and Auction in California.
The interviewees had a lot to say on this subject. An abbreviated version of the answers below appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Spin Off; however, we thought we’d share the longer versions here.
Spin Off (SO): How has selling fleeces at your farm or venue changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year?
Robin Nistock (RN): The majority of our raw-fleece sales have always been online through our website. In addition, we always took fleeces to the show and sale at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival and New York State Sheep & Wool Festival, and also sold fleeces from our booth at any event or festival we attended. I appreciate the insight I get when our fleeces are judged in a show, so it was disappointing to miss those opportunities. The name recognition you gain if you do well at those shows is valuable for other sales, too. At the same time, without festivals, fiber artists are searching for fleece in new places and may find a great fleece producer who would never have been discovered otherwise.
Lynda Davies (LD): Selling fleeces during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things substantially. Starting in 2015, the Houston Fiber Fest was held each year at the end of June. This is where we would sell most of our flock’s fleeces. Before 2015, the fleeces were sold at the Yellow Rose Fiber Fiesta in Seguin, Texas. Our preference has always been to sell at festivals so that buyers could feel and touch the fleece before buying, and we could avoid the hassle of shipping fleeces. Any fleeces not sold at a festival would be shipped to a fiber mill for processing into roving or yarn. The roving and yarn were sold at the next year’s festival. All this changed with COVID-19 because all in-person festivals were cancelled. In 2020, we changed to online sales.
Sue Barza (SB): Back in April, I decided to send out a letter to California wool producers about my plans to have the Wool Show and Auction even with this pandemic. At that time, I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen since everything was changing so quickly with COVID-19. As time progressed, I realized it would probably be virtual, even though I had no idea how this was going to happen. I started doing my research on other auctions that were virtual and thought that maybe Zoom would work for the judging.
SO: Do you still sell in person or are you primarily selling online? And if online, are the sales private, through a personal website, or through virtual events?
RN: I have not sold any fleeces in person since the pandemic began, although a few people have come to the farm to pick up fleeces they purchased online rather than pay to ship them. Our website has a large page dedicated to available fleeces. Interested parties can make an inquiry about specific fleeces from there. Sometimes people contact me looking for something particular that they don’t see online. They ask, “Who is the longest-stapled Cotswold you have available?” Or, “What is the blackest fleece you have available right now?” We work with pictures and mailed samples to match buyers with the right fleece. Also, with no festivals, I have advertised fleeces individually on our Facebook farm page and linked each post to other Facebook groups that allow such sale posts.
LD: Some fleeces are sold in-person if the buyer lives close to us. They visit to pick up the fleeces and play with the sheep. We primarily sell online through our Foggy Hollow Ranch website. Facebook groups are used to letting buyers know about what we are offering and to directing them to our website. Also, we sent a catalogue of fleeces and sheep to spinning groups in Texas, offering our fleeces for sale. The Houston Fiber Fest had a virtual sale in 2020, but we did not have any sales during this event.
SB: Up until 2020, our Wool Show and Auction was a once-a-year event and was held during the Monterey County Fair. Volunteers changed the building into a wonderful display of everything wool, displaying photos of the shearing and sheep, setting up wheels, and physically spinning during the fair to show off our craft. There were also displays of spun yarn as well as finished knitted, crocheted, woven, and felted items, which were judged and given ribbons and awards. We spun with the sheared fleeces behind us on shelves housing up to 100 fleeces, which were also judged and given ribbons and awards. On the last day of the fair, the wool auction was held, and people came from all over to bid on the fleeces. This made quite a bit of money for the fair.
SO: During virtual fleece sales, do you find that you need to make more or different information about each fleece available for buyers?
LD: Virtual fleece sales require the same information that you would post on a website, plus sellers need to be available for buyers to ask questions about the fleece. At a fiber festival, the buyers find out the information by touching and asking questions in person.
SB: Gathering the information required to do a virtual fleece sale or auction was very difficult since wool is a tactile product, and most spinners want to touch, feel, and even smell the wool. We were concerned about whether we would sell any fleeces since the in-person festival was not doable this year . Fortunately, we have great wool producers in California, and most buyers knew how the flocks were treated and what type and grade of wool they produce.
SO: What platforms are available to breeders to assist with online fleece sales?
RN: The Cotswold breed has a Facebook group where one can post fleeces and other Cotswold items for sale, but I have not used it. I have posted Cotswold fleeces on the Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Shave ’Em to Save ’Em Facebook page, since Cotswolds are one of the heritage breeds in that program, and group members are actively looking for certain breeds.
LD: There are many available platforms. We use Facebook Groups, such as Shave ’Em to Save ’Em, Raw Wool for Sale, Raw Fleece for Sale, Yarn Spinners Anonymous, Washed Fiber for Sale, and Fiber Artist’s Marketplace. Instagram and Etsy are other selling platforms.
SO: How do you present fleeces to virtual buyers?
RN: Our fleece web page has an entry for each fleece, which includes the animal’s name and gender and a photo of a sample lock. It states the breed or cross, staple length, expected skirted weight, whether the fleece is coated or not, and price per pound. People reserve fleeces even before they are shorn, so I can’t give a firm price until skirting happens. But I list an expected weight range. People who have questions or hesitancy about a fleece are emailed a set of photos of the whole skirted fleece, which has been laid out on the skirting table; locks from shoulder, side, and britch laid on a yardstick; and the fleece folded in half to show the cut side. I encourage people to let me send them some sample locks by mail if they have any doubts.
LD: The fleece picture has a ruler to show the length of the lock. If the fleece is raw, a washed lock may be included in the picture. We show a picture of the sheep who produced the fleece and give the sheep’s name, list fleece weight and color, identify whether the fleece is sheared or rooed, and say whether the fleece is raw or washed. We note that the fleece is a Traditional 1927® fleece and list the Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association’s fleece grade. This helps buyers select the fleece that meets their needs.
SB: We decided to use Zoom to show the judging of the fleeces; it was a great success! We had more people, including the wool producers, watching the judging than we ever had when they could have watched it in person. We then had this video uploaded to YouTube so people could watch it later. Our liaison for the virtual auction had extensive knowledge of the fair management program ShoWorks, which offers an online auction, and we decided to use this instead of buying a different auction program. This worked very well. There were photos of each fleece, the fleece type, their judged placing, and producer. Here is the YouTube link: Fleece Judging 2020—Monterey County Fair
SO: What advice would you like to offer to online fleece buyers, and how should they prepare before the sale?
RN: Buyers should have a list of questions for the seller before the sale starts.
- If the buyer is unfamiliar with a breed, ask what the wool type is best used for and what it’s less suited for?
- Also ask, what does it weigh, is it skirted, and how much weight should one expect to lose during processing?
- Can I buy half a fleece, just a pound or two, or only a whole fleece?
- Does the price include tax and shipping, or are those extra?
- Do you insure shipments routinely, or do I need to ask for or pay extra for it? Can you send samples?
- Do you have a policy about returns?
- In addition, ask what type of payment do you take—check by snail mail, credit card over the phone, or PayPal online?
- Do you ship United Parcel Service, United States Postal Service, or FedEx, and do I have a choice?
If you have purchased a fleece and find a serious fault or deviation from what the fleece was represented to be, contact the seller right away and tell them truthfully, but nicely, about any issues. Most sellers are honest, but things can be missed and mistakes made. Some sellers are new shepherds and just don’t know a problem when they see it. An honest seller will want to make it right. That may involve a return of the fleece and purchase price refund or a partial refund.
LD: Have in mind the sheep breed of fleece you are looking for. Study the characteristics of different breed fleeces. Read the fleece description carefully and ask questions, such as:
- Was the sheep’s fleece coated all or part of the year?
- Is the fleece heavily skirted, and does it include britch and neck wool?
- Is the fleece raw or washed?
- How much vegetable matter (VM) is in the fleece?
- Is there any cotting on the fleece?
- Is the fleece sheared or rooed?
- If the fleece was micron tested, what are the test results?
- What is the staple length?
If a buyer is not comfortable buying based on the picture and description, they should request a sample of the fleece from the seller.
SB: They should know what they want to do with the fleece. Are they making rugs or wearable items? Each breed lends itself to a particular end use. The finer breeds are more for wearable items, and the coarser breeds are better for outerwear or rugs. So, knowing as much as possible about each breed is helpful. At the auction, the judge was very helpful in giving details about the fleeces, such as staple length, hand, cleanliness, second cuts, and whether the fleece appeared to be from a healthy sheep.
SO: What advice would you like to offer new online fleece sellers, and how should they prepare before the sale?
LD: Identify what makes the fleece unique and match the customer to the best fleece for them based on experience, skills, and the intended use of the yarn. Prepare the fleece by heavily skirting. If the fleece is rooed, separate the britch and neck wool and label accordingly. An extremely dirty fleece could be washed by the seller to improve its marketability.
SB: A good shearer is key, making sure that there are no second cuts and that they know how to make a great-looking fleece when judged. Coat the sheep, if possible; that keeps the fleece much cleaner and is what a lot of buyers look for. Write a little bit about the sheep—their name, age, for example—and adding a little sample of cleaned and dirty locks is also a nice touch.
RN: To prepare for a sale, you need to know your fleece inside out. If you are selling spinning fleeces, it’s helpful if you spin. If you are selling a fleece to felt, you need to be sure it will felt. If you aren’t sure of something, it’s okay to admit it. Be prepared to be totally honest about a fleece’s faults. If priced accordingly, faulted fleeces will still sell if you are honest about the shortcomings. Don’t try to hide faults! Likewise, if you are asking a higher price, be prepared to explain why your fleece is worth that. Have good lighting when taking pictures or video. Be sure that photos are in focus. Consider your background and avoid textures, colors, clutter, or movement that will detract from your fleece. If a fleece is grimy and looks blah, you might wash a few locks to show that it will wash and how it will look when clean. Consider whether you would take a discount if multiple fleeces are purchased together. Know your breed or cross, what the wool is best used for, staple length, and weight. If possible, a story, name, or anecdote about the sheep the fleece came from may help your potential buyer feel a personal connection. Know what form of payment you will accept and how to do it securely. Explain how you plan to ship (box vs. bag) and what carrier you intend to use. Be prepared to be flexible, or not, if the buyer wants different shipping. If possible, before the sale, use a carrier’s website to run some hypothetical shipments so you have a ballpark idea of shipping costs. An eight-pound fleece in a box measuring 12 x 12 x 12 inches going to the point in the United States furthest from me will cost $XX by UPS— that sort of knowledge is helpful.
Overall, buyers and sellers should strive to be kind and patient with each other. Mistakes may happen, and attitude is key. A shepherd I know accidentally packaged and mailed the skirtings to a buyer instead of the fleece! The buyer and seller emailed each other at almost the same moment, and a good laugh was had instead of ill feelings. Conversely, a buyer contacted me in disappointment over a fleece, and while we were negotiating a remedy, days later she emailed again in mortification to say that she had switched tags on fleeces by accident, and the faulty fleece wasn’t mine at all! We were both greatly relieved.