Spring is one of the best times to start sourcing wool to bring to your homestead. Shepherds will often shear sheep once or twice per year, and most will do it after lambing, to shed the sheep of their warm winter coats. Look for a shepherd near your homestead. The more local the wool, the better suited it will be to your climate. Once you’ve located a shepherd, make inquiries about the fleece.
Most sheep in North America are not raised specifically for fiber, as it is not a profitable commodity in many markets. Therefore, wool is often considered a byproduct. Farmers raise sheep with dual (meat and wool) or triple (meat, wool, and milk) purposes, so they can sell the other products.
When considering what breeds of sheep to look for, consider the wool’s eventual purpose. The breed of a sheep will give you a general idea of its fleece characteristics: staple length (the length of the individual locks), micron count (how fine and soft each fiber is), and crimp (how curly the fiber is). The categories below illustrate the different kinds of fleece, and popular breeds.
1. Hair sheep
Hair sheep produce very heavy fiber and hair, which can be used in some rug applications. Breeds: Katahdin, Barbados and Dorper.
2. Specialty sheep
Many of these sheep are double coated, which means they have a heavy guard hair mixed with the wool. The fleece will need to be carded by hand to remove the hair, or both coats can be used to produce a very heavy weight yarn. The undercoat can be very fine, such as with Shetland sheep. Breeds: Scottish Blackface, California Variegated Mutant, Icelandic, Jacob and Shetland.
3. Down sheep
These sheep have fleece with short staples that can range from fine to medium weight. They are difficult to felt and harder to spin, but they make excellent batting and insulation. Breeds: Dorset, Hampshire, North Country Cheviot, Southdown and Suffolk.
4. Long wool
These breeds have long staples and are excellent for spinning; most will felt. They range in softness from medium to fine. Breeds: Cotswold, Border Leicester, Romney, Lincoln, Targhee, Columbia and Corriedale.
5. Fine wool
Sheep with fine wool will have the softest fiber; these will also be the most expensive fleeces. Excellent for garments and felting. Breeds: Cormo, Merino, Rambouillet and Polwarth
Selecting a Fleece
Pay your local farmer or shepherd a visit. If the wool is still on the sheep, determine if there is a lot of dirt or vegetable matter (VM) in the wool. Most dirt can be removed with gentle scouring before you use the wool, but examine the fleece to ensure it isn’t full of VM, heavy soiling or impurities like dye. There does come a point where a fleece is not worth the trouble to wash. VM is worse than dirt, because it will have to be carded out. Some sheep wear coats to protect the fleece from too much VM, but this adds to the cost of production. Ask the shepherd about the wool and how it’s been used in the past, and whether the sheep have had a good year. Healthy, happy sheep produce better wool with no breaks in the staple; stress causes the wool to weaken while growing. If you like the look of the wool and the price, find out when the farm is shearing. If you can help on shearing day, you will often get first pick of the fleeces, sometimes get a lower price, and usually make a friend.
When buying shorn fleece, look for it to be “skirted,” which means the bottom edges and rump area have been removed. This portion of the fleece is too dirty to be worth the effort needed to scour it. Look for “second cuts,” short pieces of fleece that indicate the shearer passed over an area more than once and didn’t cut the full length of fiber. These become waste during carding. Lastly, test the strength of the fiber by gently snapping a staple between the thumb and forefingers of both hands. If you snap the fiber and hear a crackling sound, there may be a break in the fleece. Most shepherds know how to price their wool so it will be competitive. Pay top dollar only for very fine, very clean fleeces with strong fibers and even staple length.
With all of this information, you should be able to find wool to suit your needs; don’t be afraid to talk to a local spinning group or wool cooperative if you’re having trouble. When you find a good shepherd in your area, see if you can help out at lambing time or shearing, or even to sheep-sit while the shepherd is on vacation. A shepherd is a great friend to have, because you’ll find yourself quickly with enough wool for all the needs of your homestead.
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