This shearing season we found that one of our new sheep, Maggie, had a significant break in her fleece. It offered a good opportunity to do a post about what a break in a fleece is, how it is caused, and how to manage it and prevent it.
What is a break in a fleece?
A break in a fleece is a section of the fibers that, due to any number of different causes, is much thinner and weaker than the rest of the fiber. You can usually see the break with the naked eye if you hold a section of the fibers up towards a light source. It will look like a line running perpendicular to the fibers.
Upon closer inspection, you can see that the line you are seeing is actually a section of each fiber that is much thinner than the rest of it. It is all along all the fibers in the same location because it happened to the entire fleece at the same time while it was growing.
A break in the fleece will literally break right at that spot along every fiber if there is any tension put on it. This will potentially mess up the ability for the fleece to be processed. As you can see in this picture, we pulled slightly on the top section of fibers and it broke right at the line.
What causes a break in a fleece?
Ultimately what causes the break is a lack of enough nutrition and energy for the sheep’s body to be able to put energy into growing a good fleece. Any number of stressors can cause that lack: moving to a new location or changing flocks and “pecking” order, poor diet or change in diet, stressful breeding situations, pregnancy and lambing, lactation, or predator attacks.
For our sheep, Maggie, the move to our farm from her previous home, and the stresses involved, are what caused the break. She is the bottom of the pecking order, she was really afraid of the LGD when she arrived, and she overall struggled for the first month or so after arrival to fit in and settle. Because of the bullying and her fear of everything, she didn’t eat enough, and thus the break in the fleece.
We once had a set of fleece come in where many sheep in the flock had a break half-way through the fiber length. When we contacted the owner of the flock we found a clear answer as to the issue. A bear had broken into the barn and tried to attack the flock one night. They didn’t settle for a couple of weeks after that. It stressed the flock enough to effect their eating for long enough to cause the break on many members of the flock. Others handled it better and didn’t have any break.
What can you do with a fleece that has a break in it already?
If you put a fleece with a break in it through the carder, all the fibers will break at that weak spot. If it is far to one end or the other, it could leave fibers that vary a lot in their lengths. The shorter fibers will act like second cuts and will likely pill as they move through the carder with the longer fibers. This will give roving that has pills all through it, and if spun will be yarn with pills all through it.
If the break is near the center, thus leaving similar length fibers, it will come out as good roving. But if the staple length of the broken parts is not long enough for the spinner, then it will not be able to spin and will have to be roving.
If the break is far enough to one end or the other, thus leaving enough length for spinning, the fleece can potentially still be made to yarn without pilling. But it takes some extra work. You will have to hand-break the fleece, putting the longer fibers into one batch to go to spinning (assuming the length is long enough), and the shorter ends can potentially be made into roving, or can just be skirted out.
How can you prevent a break in your fleece?
Obviously you can’t always completely prevent a break. Situations with predators, or moving to new locations or changing flocks are often unavoidable.
The best way to prevent breaks is to be sure that you are always feeding high-quality feed in good quantities. Also, be sure the feeding area is spread out enough to accommodate the amount of sheep you are feeding with plenty of room. If they are crowding around feeders or piles of hay the lower sheep in the pecking order are going to get pushed out and will not get adequate nutrition. And if possible, find ways to give the lowest sheep in the flock extra nutrition when needed.
Lambing often causes a break in the fleece, no matter how good the nutrition situation is. That is why it is recommended that all pregnant ewes are shorn about 6 weeks before lambing. That way, the break will be very close to the tip of the fiber, and wont effect its ability to be processed.