Shearing Time 2019 – Fergus

Spring is the time for shearing here at WCF.  We shear our ewes 6-8 weeks before lambing, and the ram gets done then as well just because it is convenient.  Because we are in a somewhat isolated area that is not ag based it is really hard and costly to get a professional shearer to come to our place for only 3 sheep.  So Mountain Man does our shearing.

He is definitely not a professional, but I think he does a pretty good job for someone with no training who only does it once a year on a handful of sheep.  A professional takes about 5 minutes for a sheep, he takes 30-45.  And he can’t do more than one in a day because it kills his back (those professional shearers have some seriously strong backs!).  We have to deal with skirting out a lot more second cuts than with most professionals, but it is not terrible and the fleece is absolutely in good enough shape to use almost all of it.  A second cut is a place where after going over a spot once with the shears they go over it again, cutting off a very short section that can’t be used with the fleece but is mixed in with the long fiber.

So this year he started with our ram, Fergus.  Fergus is a Merino x BFL with a tiny bit of CVM.  He is a mix of dark, medium, and light shades of grey.  He has a very soft, medium to long fleece with very organized crimp.  He is also light on grease, which makes it easier to get clean.

Generally, long wool fleece grow a lot faster and are thus longer, but are usually a rougher texture and not suitable for clothing items that are directly on your skin because of the itch factor.  Short wool fleece are generally finer and softer, making them not have the itch factor.  But they grow slower and so the staple length is shorter and can make it a lot harder to spin them into yarn.  And they can be very heavy with grease, making them take more effort to clean.  So we have been cross-breeding our sheep long wool to short wool to try to get a nice length but still have the fine softness as well.  Fergus is a perfect example of what we are trying for.  His fleece turned out just how we were hoping when we bred his mom, Fiona, who is a Merino with a little bit of CVM (short wool breeds) with a BFL (longwool breed) ram.  Even if we ever decide not to use him as a ram anymore, I expect we would whether him and keep him his entire life because we love his fleece so much.

Since we only shear a few sheep each year I don’t have a big skirting table, so I just put a sheet on our dining room table and skirt there.

His fleece this year is very dirty because he was not jacketed until we got him back to our farm in December.  So the first half of his fleece growth wasn’t protected from gathering vegetable matter (VM) and from sun bleaching and staining on the tips.  So we had quite a lot of work ahead of us skirting out the bad stuff.

I pull off a chunk of fleece, usually about the size of two big handfuls, and I hand pick out the second cuts and larger VM.  Then I open it up and pull it apart and shake it really well to let the smaller stuff fall out.  I repeat until it is clean and then put it in a bag.  Slowly, working short periods of time throughout the day, I am able to get it skirted.  Good thing I only have 3 fleece to deal with this year, since they are so dirty.

This year, Fergus’ raw skirted fleece weighed 4.4 lbs.

I am really excited to see what type of wonderful yarn Mtn Man makes with Fergus’ fleece this year.  Last year he made part of it into a soft worsted weight that I used to make Mr. Smiles a sweater.

The rest he made into a fingering weight yarn, that has a tighter twist on it and thus was not quite as soft.  I made Young Man some socks from that, and still have quite a bit left.

I love raising wool sheep!  More about Fiona and Rose’s shearings and fleece will be coming soon.

How to Process Wool: Carding with a Drum Carder

This will be the last post in our series on How to Process Wool.  You can read previous posts by clicking the following links:

Sheep to Spinning Wheel

Washing

Picking

Once your wool is fluffed up, clean, and picked – free from any lanolin, vegetable matter, and short second cuts – you are ready to put it through the carder.

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We have the Elite Convertible Drum Carder from Clemes and Clemes.  It is a hand crank with optional electric addition that can handle about 1 oz of wool at a time depending on what we are doing with it.

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We begin feeding the wool in, small amounts at a time, being sure to load evenly on both sides and the center.  The goal is to have a nice even batt of fiber all around the entire drum.  As we feed it in the first time, some fiber is going one direction, some is going another.  That is fine because it will help the carder do a little bit of picking as well – spitting out some of the VM that might be left in the wool.  We use the burnishing brush as we crank to help pack the wool onto the carder and brush it all in the right direction.

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Once the drum is full we find the metal strip on the drum and insert the doffer under the fiber and use it to break the batt so we can remove it from the drum.

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Next, we attach the batt lifter and carefully roll the batt off of the drum.

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We now have a batt.  Usually after only one round through the carder the wool isn’t carded enough and it needs to be run through again.

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We run it through again in the same way, except we feed it in tips first for worsted.  It isn’t going in all directions like the first time through.

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When we remove it from the carder the second time we can spin right from the bat, or if we want roving we put it back through.

To feed it back through for roving we again feed it by the tips, not perpendicular.  And we pack it with the packing brush instead of the burnishing brush.

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Then we use the doffer to break off just about 1 inch of the batt along the edge at the metal strip.

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Using a crochet hook we insert that into the diz.

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The next step has taken some practice to master.  We pull the fiber through the diz while working our way around the carder in a spiral fashion from one edge towards the other by going around and around.

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Then we have our roving!  We wrap it into a “nest” and it is ready for spinning.

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When we are done for the day, or ready to switch to a different fiber, we use the flicker to clean off the drums.  We brush it is short strokes opposite the direction of the carder combs.

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We have now shown you the very basics of processing wool with our drum carder.  There are many different things you can do with how you feed the wool in and how you pack it to effect your finished product.  But this is the basic way to do it for worsted yarn.

We really enjoy processing our wool by hand from our sheep all the way to roving (for braided rugs) or yarn (for knitting and crochet).  While it is a very tedious process, it is also very satisfying in a unique way that I have not found in many other areas of life.

How to Process Wool: Picking

We have now covered raising your sheep for good wool, shearing, skirting, and washing in our processing wool series.  Next it is time to discuss picking.

Once the wool is washed and dried the lanolin and some of the vegetable matter (VM) have been removed.  It is now kind of stuck together in clumps and there is still some VM left in it.

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The fiber needs to be opened up so it can be carded (combed).  And you need to remove the rest of the VM and any second cuts as well.  It can be done by hand, but the easiest way to do this is with a picker.  Although, even when you are using a picker you will need to be hand picking as you go as well.  From here on in the process you are pretty much constantly picking out what you can every time you have some of the fiber in your hands.

First, we like to weigh out about 1.3 oz of fiber.  We do this because our carder works best with about 1 oz at a time, and there will be some loss during the picking process.

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Take a clump and pull it open a bit, and try to grab out any second cuts and VM that are easily grabbed as you open it up.  Second cuts are short pieces of fiber that were caused by the shearer going over a section a second time.  Here I am pointing at a second cut.  You want to remove these because they will cause trouble later when you are trying to spin your fiber.

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Once it is pulled apart a bit, it is time to go into the “in” side of the picker.  Be aware, pickers are very dangerous.  They have very large nails inside of them that could really hurt you.  BE CAREFUL!  You do not put the full ounce of fiber through the picker at once.  Not even close really.  I usually do 2 or 3 clumps at a time.  You need to get a feel for the picker to see what amount is most effective.  To little, or too much can both cause it to not work well.  I put the “in” end on my left side.  In this picture the clumps are not pulled open yet and need to be pulled open before starting to use the picker.

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Next, you grab the handle of the picker and slide the top back and forth and back and forth from one end to the other.  The nails inside will grab the fiber and slowly bring it through the nails, which will open it up and let the VM and second cuts fall out.

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Once all the fiber has moved over to the other side of the picker, examine it and decide if it needs a second time through.

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Depending on how much VM is in your fiber you might need to put it through a second or even more times.  Remember to hand pick out easy to grab seconds and VM as you are moving the fiber over to go back through.

Every so often, turn the picker over to dump out the VM it has collected so it doesn’t put it back into the fiber going through.

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When the fiber is free from VM and second cuts and nicely fluffed up it is ready to go into the carding stage of the process.

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We will discuss carding in our next post in this series.

How to Process Wool: Washing

Next up in our processing wool series is washing the wool.  We have already discussed raising sheep properly for healthy wool, shearing, and skirting in our blog post “How to Process Wool: Sheep to Spinning Wheel.

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Once the raw fleece is off the sheep and skirted, it is time to wash it.  The fleece is full of dirt, lanolin, and vegetable matter (VM) that needs to be removed.

We start by filling our bathtub about half full of the hottest water from the tap, plus a couple of big pots of boiling water to get it to about 140F degrees.  Then we add 1/3 cup of dishsoap and gently swirl it around, trying not to create a bunch of suds.

Now it is time to add the fleece!  We pick up the fleece in handfuls (two hands together) and pull it apart a bit to help the soap and water get to all of it.  We place the loosened handfuls of fleece on top of the water and gently push them down into the water, being sure they are getting completely covered and soaked.  It is really important to not agitate the fleece at all because it will cause felting.

Here is a fleece in the tub, this is more suds than we usually have:

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We let the fleece soak for about 20 minutes.  Then we lift it out by the handfuls and gently squeeze it to remove some of the water before we set it in a big plastic bin.  Here is what the water looks like after the first wash…pretty yucky:

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We drain the tub and rinse it with hot water to get the dirt all out.  Then we refill the tub again with the same amount of 140F degree water, but this time with no soap.  We take the fleece out of the bin we set it in and submerge it in the rinse water.  Then let it soak another 20 minutes.  Again remove it from the water, squeezing gently and placing in the bin (wipe the bin between the wash and rinse if it has soapy water left in it).
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At this point you decide if the fleece is clean enough or not.  Most of the time, it wont be.  However, our jacketed Lincoln Longwool, Stella’s fleece usually only needs 1 wash and 2 rinses.  All of our other sheep need more washing at this point.  So we continue with one wash, followed by one rinse until the fleece is clean.  For our jacketed Merino/CVM Fiona’s fleece that means 4 washes/4 rinses because the fiber is so fine it holds the dirt and lanolin tighter.

After repeating the 1 wash/1 rinse process until it is clean, we follow with one last rinse.  So for our easiest fleece that means wash/rinse/rinse.  For our hardest that means wash/rinse/wash/rinse/wash/rinse/wash/rinse/rinse.  I am guessing it could be even more with non-jacketed sheep fleece.

After we have completed the washing and rinsing process we lay the fleece out all opened up, on towels, on the floor, under the ceiling fan to dry.  However, we live in a very dry climate.  I don’t think people in humid places can get away with that.  I know many people build a screen drying rack for their fleece.  We will likely do that someday, but for now we get by just on the floor.

Now the fleece is clean and dry!  In our next post we will talk about picking and carding the fleece.

 

How to Process Wool: Sheep to Spinning Wheel

How to Process Wool: Sheep to Spinning Wheel

We are really enjoying hand-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.

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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