The Great Fleece Makeover

Not all shepherds raise a handspinner’s flock, but Emonieiesha doesn’t let that deter her from purchasing their fleeces. In the Winter 2020 issue, she shared how time and patience can usually turn what looks like a hopeless fleece into handspun goodness.

Emonieiesha Hopkins Aug 26, 2020 - 23 min read

The Great Fleece Makeover Primary Image

Photos by Matt Graves unless otherwise indicated

Let the hunt begin!

I love a good bargain. When I set my sights on something and spend days searching the internet for the best price, I feel totally accomplished when I find it. When I learned to process raw fleece, that “deal” desire never left, and I began to search for discount fleeces.

Because 99 percent of my fleeces are purchased online, I have to make sure that my deal is really a good deal when it arrives. When I first started processing raw fleece, I joined a few bargain fleece groups in which fleeces were practically a steal! At the time, I wasn’t aware of the terms “handspinner’s fleece” and “coated/jacketed fleece.” As a bargain hunter in all aspects of my life, I knew fleece shopping had to yield good deals, too.

I know what you’re thinking. You get what you pay for. You’re right, I got what I paid for—but with a little patience, time, and effort, I definitely came out a winner. For handspinners, slow fashion is our goal; it’s what makes our hearts sing. That’s the attitude I like to have when I work with a marginal fleece. My heart leaps when I score a challenge fleece! I know I will get to spend quality time with my fleece, understanding all of its characteristics and transforming the wool into the very best fiber for me. I expect to spend more time processing a marginal fleece than a perfect, problem-free fleece, but with a little extra work, the results will be pleasing and most rewarding.

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Not all shepherds have raised a handspinner’s flock, but don’t let that deter you from purchasing their fleeces. Time and patience can usually turn what looks like a hopeless fleece into handspun goodness.

Most of my marginal fleeces are purchased online, but certainly not all fleeces purchased online are marginal. I belong to several online groups whose members specifically state when fleeces are less than handspinner’s quality. As I peruse the internet to find marginal fleeces, I read the descriptions, carefully seeking out phrases such as, “This is a challenge fleece,” or “Fleece may have cotted tips, heavy vegetable matter, or tender tips.” Even though I shop for not-so-premium wools, I still hold the seller accountable with regard to the actual condition of the fleece and its shortcomings. This accuracy gives me an idea of what to expect. The secret ingredients are an open mind, patience, and proper tools.

The Fleece Dirty Dozen

Marginal fleeces can have a host of conditions. Some spinners avoid these fleece flaws altogether. Other spinners, like myself, look closer to see what combination of problems a fleece has and the degree of damage before passing on an imperfect fleece.

  1. VM (vegetable matter) Plant matter that is caught in the fleece.
  2. Cotting Felting within the fleece that occurs on the sheep.
  3. Matted tips Lock tips that are very dirty or are beginning to felt.
  4. Muddy tips Lock tips that have soil mixed with wool grease.
  5. Burrs Seedpods with Velcro-like surfaces that are embedded in the fleece.
  6. Poop tags (also known as dung tags or dags) Parts of the fleece from around the sheep’s tail; self-explanatory.
  7. Tender tips Lock tips with exposure to sun and rain that can become weak and break easily.
  8. Second/short cuts Short fibers created during shearing.
  9. Scurf Hard-to-remove white globs in the cut ends of the fleece caused by lice or skin irritation in wet conditions.
  10. Dandruff Skin flakes most commonly seen in breeds that naturally shed their wool; different from scurf.
  11. Breaks Caused by weak spots in the fleece due to stress, nutrition, or health conditions.
  12. Staining (also called yolk or canary stain) A bright yellow stain that doesn’t wash out.

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Wool combs are a great tool for removing debris from marginal fleeces.

Tips for transforming a fleece from “What in the world?” to wonderful.

  • Take your time and be patient.
  • Don’t judge a fleece too harshly.
  • Fleeces with less wool grease release VM and other undesirables, making them easier to process.
  • Try to see past the VM and closely examine the lock integrity.
  • A quality set of wool combs are a great investment.
  • Enjoy the process.
  • Take good notes.

Got Any Wool?

“You got any wool with that vegetable matter?” asked a fiber friend who saw me holding a fleece encrusted with chaff and hay. We had such a laugh, but that is what many handspinners think when fleeces are in such a pitiful state. “I would never sell that!” exclaimed a shepherdess in response to a “before” picture I posted of what could have been easily mistaken for shearing floor waste. And my favorite comment is “Life is too short to process a bad fleece.”

But what exactly is a bad fleece? Vegetable matter (VM), muddy tips, yolk or canary staining, scurf, tender tips—we’ve all seen these words, and we politely scroll down past any fleece with these ill-sounding descriptors. After all, as handspinners, we’ve been conditioned to look for a handspinner’s fleece with beautiful lock structure, 1 percent or less VM, and crimp that puts crinkle-cut french fries to shame. Don’t get me wrong—I adore a handspinner’s fleece, but I hold a special place for a fleece that goes from trash to treasure! Let me show you how I do it.

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My sample book contains index cards with sample locks and notes, singles yarn control cards, and finished yarn samples. Photo by Emonieiesha Hopkins

It All Comes Out in the Wash

Scouring Supplies

  • Plastic storage boxes
  • Unicorn Power Scour
  • Chopstick
  • Hottest tap water (mine is 140°F)
  • Stove
  • 2 half-size anti-jam steam pans or 2 shallow pans large enough for wool you are washing
  • Colander
  • Spin dryer or salad spinner
  • Silicone gloves
  • Expandable herb dryer

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Emonieiesha’s fleece-processing supplies: Valkyrie Extra Fine wool combs with comb pad and clamp, needle gauge used as a diz, and combing milk made using a squirt of hair conditioner in a spray bottle of water. Photo by Emonieiesha Hopkins

In a micro-condo, I have to get strategic when scouring fleece. I measure portions of about 2 ounces of a greasy fleece (or 3½ ounces of a not-so-greasy fleece) and place them in plastic storage boxes. With the contents of each box measured and ready to go, it is easier to manage the fleece processing.

Before the fleece hits the scouring water, I give it a final shake. This will release more VM and second cuts. The more that falls out now, the less I have to tackle when I get to the prep stage. It is easier to remove VM and short cuts from a fleece that is not heavy in wool grease.

I prefer Unicorn Power Scour because I find that it cleans fleece in minimal time. A little Unicorn Power Scour goes a long way, and I recommend following the instructions regarding temperature and the amount of detergent to use.

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I add detergent to the pan as I fill it with my hottest tap water. Then, I add the allotted fleece, submerge it with a chopstick, and heat it over medium heat for 20 minutes. I fill a second anti-jam steam pan with plain water, heating if needed so that the rinse water will be the same temperature as the scouring water. After the wash, I can evaluate the fleece to see if it needs more than one wash based on the cleanliness of the locks and if I still feel wool grease. I wear silicone gloves to gently pour the fleece into the colander.

I add the freshly drained fleece to the second pan of rinse water leaving the fleece in the rinse water on the stove for 10 minutes on medium heat, and then repeat the rinse process. After rinsing, I drain the fleece in the colander, then spin it in the spin dryer for 3 minutes. I remove the fleece from the spin dryer and gently pull the wet fleece apart, spreading the locks open. I hang the fleece in an herb dryer with eight layers, which is airy and allows the fleece to dry by the end of the day. The dryer is also very compact; it folds to the diameter of a dinner plate, which is great for my small space.

Planning and Organization

I am processing three fleeces: Corriedale, Cheviot/Dorset cross, and Merino/Romney cross. All are in less-than-desirable condition, but that’s going to change! When any fleece arrives, I always sample a small 2-ounce portion. I live in a micro-condo and work on multiple projects at a time, so most often I do not process an entire fleece in one session.

My sampling materials consist of a three-ring binder, scrapbook pages that will accommodate 4-inch-by-6-inch index cards, and hang tags.

Once one lock of the fleece is stapled to the index card, I place the card to the side but near my processing area. I jot down my observations in real time while I am processing and have found this to be beneficial. The index card is a great way to remain organized and research previously recorded fleece findings, and for a wool lover, it’s just cool!

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Fleece A: The sun-kissed tips blended beautifully into the darker fleece after combing and spinning.

Fleece A: Corriedale

Overall Examination
When a fleece is shorn, it is commonly folded and then rolled with the cut ends of the locks facing outward and the tip ends of the locks hidden from view. I unroll the fleece and examine it with gloved hands; you never know what surprises such a dark fleece may have in store. I see VM and some second cuts but also very nice crimp.

Next, I decipher the VM. Is it large pieces, teeny pieces, sticks, or burrs? This fleece had all of the above! Vegetable matter is the first readily visible deterrent for a handspinner. Too much debris and landscape in a fleece can definitely be a turnoff, but I don’t give in so easily.

In marginal fleeces, second cuts are common. Second cuts can be removed in some cases by shaking the fleece and carefully examining each lock from cut end to tip. Remember, patience is important.

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Wool grease can also be a factor in a marginal fleece. With gloves off, I check the grease content by handling the fleece. Wool grease can be a spinner’s delight, but in a marginal fleece, it may be a bit pesky. The grease can hang on to the VM and make it difficult, but not impossible, to remove.

Gloves back on! Brown fleeces can hide poop tags, so I wear gloves and conduct a diligent and patient search. One final check for this Corriedale fleece is to switch to my silicone gloves and randomly squeeze the fleece, checking for burrs or other potentially painful VM. Some burrs can easily puncture unprotected skin, and I don’t like surprises.

Lock Integrity
Lock integrity is key! Yes, I am processing a marginal fleece, but the goal is to actually have enough quality wool to create beautiful yarn. I grab a few locks from various parts of the fleece, and then I look and listen carefully. I am looking for a difference in staple length that means some locks may need to be processed separately. Next, I check the locks for soundness by pinching each end of a lock and tugging in opposite directions a few times. I listen for a dry crackling, and this time I hear none. That’s a good sign!

Now for the close visual inspection. I am looking for a physical break or a visible weak spot in the lock, referred to as a break in the fleece. No visible breaks or weak spots—score again! This Corriedale has sun-bleached tips, which is not an issue, but some of the tips are stuck together. How they are stuck is the important question. Are they felted, weak, or possibly matted? Or is it just a bit of wool grease holding them together? I fan the tips of the locks open to see if the fibers spread easily, and they do! Score again—no felted or matted tips!

Weak tips are another potential issue. They are the ends of a lock that break off easily when grasped or tugged. I want to identify any weak tips, as they will cause neps in the finished fiber if they break off during processing. I grasp the bottom three-fourths of a lock, pinch the tips, and tug. Score again—no weak tips. It looks as though I have a sound but veggie-filled fleece. (I notice a few burrs, so thank goodness for silicone gloves!)

Scour and See
This fleece needs only one wash. I take time once the fleece is clean to reinspect for anything that I may have missed. Burrs, poop tags, and large pieces of VM will now be more apparent, even on such a dark fleece. I give the fleece another good shake and release even more VM.

The Process
When working with marginal fleeces, wool combs are my favorite tool. I absolutely love combing fleece, so marginal fleece preparation is right up my alley. When I prepare fleeces, whether marginal or not, I prefer to comb and use a combing milk.

My clean locks are disorganized after washing, but this fleece has sun-kissed tips, and I can easily see the tips. For this project, I wanted to blend the light tips and the dark remainder of the lock, so I lash the locks on the combs in no particular order. My combing milk recipe fits in a TSA-approved spray bottle and consists of a dime-sized squirt of hair conditioner and the rest of the spray bottle filled with water. The combing milk eliminates the static and any flyaway fibers during combing.

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I use two-pitch combs that have two rows of tines to help remove VM in each combing pass. I determine how many combing passes to make based on the amount of VM and how smooth and compressed I want my handcombed fiber to be. I record the number of passes on an index card and diz the fiber off the combs. Then, I wrap the sliver around my index, middle, and ring fingers and push the tip into the center to make a little nest.

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Fleece B: The yellowing, kemp, and gummy dirt at the tips disappeared with washing and combing, leaving creamy white wool.

Fleece B: Cheviot/Dorset Cross

Overall Examination
I admit that this fleece was described in two words: a disaster! As a handspinner, you would not walk but run past this fleece upon first sight. There is a lot going on in this fleece, so let’s dive in. Gloves, please!

This fleece is not easy to examine visually, so I move very slowly. Right off the bat, I can see the fleece is downright filthy. I’m not sure if what I see are poopy tips or muddy tips, but for sure there’s an abundance of VM. The VM in the locks extends from the cut ends to the tips like specks of pepper. I notice that this fleece is definitely yellow, so I know I also have some yolk or canary staining to contend with. Later, in the wash, I will assess which of the staining issues I have in this particular fleece. There also seem to be a few wiry white kemp fibers. Kemp fibers are short fibers that are itchy and brittle if left in the finished yarn. The fleece was sheared in one blanket, so there are no second cuts visible at this time.

Lock Integrity
With gloved hands, I pull a few locks from various parts of the fleece and examine them. I see that most of my investigation will have to be done after the scour for this fleece. Determining lock integrity is a bit tricky because the tips are stuck together and will not give me a good tender-tip test, so I will check after washing.

Scour and See
The moment of truth! Remember the yellow issue? Now I can see if it will wash out or if it will be a permanent stain, or a bit of both.

After washing, the fleece still looks undesirable, but I see that it’s now more white than yellow. Score! I check the stability of a lock by pulling horizontally from cut end to tip, and it is sound—just yellow and still full of VM. I give the clean fleece a good shake and am successful in releasing more of the nasty VM. There is still quite a bit of VM, but the combs will remedy that. I take time to pull the locks open, being careful not to rip the fleece but spreading the fleece apart as if to make a fiber cloud. This releases more VM and prepares the locks for lashing onto the wool combs.

The Process
Multi-pitch, high-quality wool combs are a must-have with this Cheviot/Dorset. I lash my newly made clouds onto the combs with ease. To lessen static, I spray the fiber with combing milk, then start my passes with the combs. Having a fleece in this condition can take several passes and even requires manual removal of VM, so I am patient and enjoy the transformation. I record the passes on my index cards, diz the sliver off into nests, and prepare to spin.

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Fleece C: From VM-filled mess to springy and clean with a little TLC.

Fleece C: Merino/Romney Cross

Overall Examination
At first glance, this fleece looks as though it was swept up with the shearing floor waste, and that’s exactly what I thought it was when I received this fleece. There is yellowing, and possibly staining, halfway down the locks, along with VM as fine as grains of sand. Upon touching the fleece, it feels as if it has no wool grease, and the VM is simply falling out. I can tell that this fleece will take additional time in the processing stage.

Lock Integrity
I first snap a lock, as the stain that is midstaple needs to be assessed for a break or weak spot in the fleece. Luckily, the fleece has good lock integrity. The midlock staining looks as though it’s dirt, but the scouring will yield final confirmation. I do hear dry crackling sounds when snapping the lock, but there is no breakage. To my delight, the sound was the VM falling out as the lock expanded. There are no burrs, tags, or other undesirables, but the fleece will definitely need a good shaking.

Scour and See
After shaking the fleece for a good 2 to 3 minutes, I am ready to wash. The minimal wool grease is definitely an asset here, and the fleece looks great after scouring except for the remaining VM. I shake the fleece once more after it is dry.

The Process Combs are the best tool to use to remove this tiny pepper-like VM. In the end, this fleece takes six combing passes—slow fashion right here! I diz the sliver into nests, ready to spin.

Spinning

I often spin hand-processed fibers on my e-spinner, a Woolee Ann. Woolee Ann has a digital display, and I record the rpm (revolutions per minute) on an index card. I spin all three of these samples with a short-forward draft and ply the yarn as a traditional three-ply. Finally, I add tags to each sample yarn and file it in my sample binder.

Emonieiesha Hopkins is a Chicago fiber evangelist. She loves to gather with her wool and good fiber friends—any time, any place. Emonieiesha can be reached via www.hopkinsfiberstudio.com.

This article was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Spin Off.

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