How to Process Wool: Sheep to Spinning Wheel

We are really enjoying processing our own wool now that we own all the tools we need!  I want to share our journey with you and the ins and outs of how we are processing the wool.  It is a long process, and thus I plan to write about the steps over time through a series of posts.  I hope you enjoy learning along with us.

***We are by no means experts at wool processing.  We have been doing some parts of the process for a few years, and some parts only a few months.  But we are anxious learners and are continually learning and improving how we do things.***

Wool Processing Starts in the Field

“You get out what you put in,” is a common saying.  It is very true with wool processing.  The quality of wool you start the process with greatly effects the yarn you will have at the end.  So it really does start in the field with the sheep.

Breed matters.  Yes, all sheep make wool, and yes it is all use-able, however, sheep bred to produce wool specifically are going to give a much better wool than a meat sheep does.  And different breeds of wool sheep give wool that is good for different things.  Some breeds give wool that is good for rugs, tapestries, and outer garments, such as Navajo Churro and Lincoln Longwool.  Others give a fine wool that is soft and good for garments that will touch your skin, such as Merino and CVM.  Pick your sheep breed (or fleece if you are buying a raw fleece) for what you are hoping to do with the wool.

Feed them well.  It goes without saying that an unhealthy sheep is not going to be able to grow nice wool.  You need to provide your sheep with plenty of high quality forage in the form of pasture or grass hay.  During pregnancy and lactation ewes need to be provided with alfalfa and potential grain feed to keep their wool quality up while their body is taxed by their lambs.  And, as with all animals, sheep need clean, fresh drinking water.

What they are eating not only effects the growth of their wool, it can also mess up the wool by filling it with unnecessary vegetable matter (VM).  We once got a load of hay that was full of seeds.  Those seeds then got thoroughly stuck in our sheep’s wool.  This made those fleece nearly impossible to clean and at least doubled the work to process them.  We learned that lesson the hard way and are always very careful to never buy hay with seeds.  I am sure grazing them on pasture with hay and grasses that are going to seed could cause the same issue.

Keeping the fleece as clean as possible before shearing is important too.  Since we don’t have a way to wash our sheep right before shearing as some people do, we jacket our sheep.

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Jacketting keeps the fleece from fading, staining, felting, and greatly decreases the amount of VM that gets into the fleece.  In this photo you can see how much cleaner the fleece is where the jacket sits on her:

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Shearing

The quality of the shearing process is another big step in getting high quality wool.  A good shearer is able to get the fleece off the sheep with very few second cuts (short cuts of wool), which decreases the amount of work needed for processing and increases the value of the wool.  We try to use a professional shearer as much as we possibly can.  They can complete the task in about 5 minutes, which means less stress for the animal, and the quality of their work is much higher than when we do it ourselves.

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Unfortunately, due to our isolated mountain location, access to a professional shearer isn’t always an option.  So occasionally my husband has to do it.  He is pretty good at it, and getting better with practice.  But it takes him an hour or so to do one sheep, and there is definitely a decrease in quality and a lot of second cuts.

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Timing for shearing is important too.  A breeding ewe needs to be shorn about 4-6 weeks before she lambs.  There are several reasons for this, but the reason that effects the fleece the most is the fact that there is a break in the quality of the wool grown during the end of pregnancy and lactation.  So if lambing and lactation land in the center of a growth of fleece the center of the fiber will have a weak spot.

The length of the wool is the main factor that effects when a sheep needs to be shorn.  We aim for shearing when the fleece is 4 1/2 – 5 inches from the skin of the sheep to the tip of the wool.  This will land us with about a 4-inch staple length, which is ideal for processing and hand spinning.  With longwool breeds the aim is for a longer staple length and shearing time would be according to what one was wanting in their staple length.

Skirting

Once the fleece is shorn off it is laid out flat on a clean area of the ground or on a big table.  It then needs to be skirted.  Skirted means removing the outer edge of the fleece, this is the wool that is from the belly, rear end, and legs of the sheep and is the dirtiest wool.  Thoroughly skirting decreases the work needed later to clean and process the wool.  The skirted wool is useful for insulating coops and barns because it is a good insulator and many pests are deterred by the lanolin in the wool.

A Raw Fleece

You now have what is called a raw fleece.  It is dirty, and full of lanolin, and ready to begin the process of becoming yarn.

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**Sharing on The Homestead Hop

One thought on “How to Process Wool: Sheep to Spinning Wheel

  1. Kudos for doing it yourselves! We raised Cashmere Goats and had to comb each one every spring. Very time consuming, but we did feet trim and shots at the same time – also helped to make everyone (especially new babies – my fav) a bit more touchie-friendly! woo hoo

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