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Through my years of buying raw wool from a wide variety of suppliers, and now my experience with raising sheep, I have learned quite a bit about wool quality and assessment. This page will first inform you about methods of assessing the quality of a fleece, whether one you plan to buy or one just off the back of your own sheep, and then will explain my Wool Assessment services.

Assessing the Quality of Raw Wool

When looking at a fleece you want to buy or sell, it's easy to get caught up in the beauty of the fiber and not pay enough attention to its quality. Then when you begin to work with that fleece, you may find it's not good enough for the purpose you had in mind. Here's some tips that will help you avoid this problem:

The "Snap, Crackle, and Pop" test of wool quality

  1. First, pull a lock of wool from the fleece, about the thickness of your little finger. Be considerate and ask permission, and don't take more than 2-3 locks. If a seller balks at allowing this, go elsewhere!

  2. Hold the ends of the lock very firmly.

  3. Quickly bring your hands together, then Snap them apart while listening carefully--snap sharply but not too hard. Practice will tell you how hard to snap.

  4. If you hear a:
    • Pop and the lock breaks into two or more pieces, you either have a break in the wool or you snapped too hard. Choose another lock and try again, this time a bit more gently. A break in the wool is caused by some sort of stress to the sheep while it wore the wool, with illness being one of the most common causes of stress. Avoid this wool! It will probably break even with gentle hand preparation methods, and absolutely will not stand up to commercial processing.

    • Crackle, this means the wool is weak--some fibers are breaking, causing that crackling sound, but not all are. Although the sheep wasn't stressed enough to cause a complete break in the wool, it was stressed enough that its fiber is weak throughout the fleece. This wool would be a doubtful choice for commercial processing, but often may be carefully handprocessed successfully.

    • Ping, you can be sure your wool is sound and good for hand or commercial processing.

Other factors affecting quality include:

  • Presence or absence of VM (vegetable matter). Some hay, straw, etc may be inevitable in the wool of sheep that aren't coated. But how much is too much? Some of this depends on how the wool will be processed. Methods of handprocessing such as combing and precarding will remove virtually all VM, so even a very contaminated fleece will be useable. But if you want your wool commercially processed, choose the wool with the least possible VM. Commercial processing can remove some VM, but will never manage to remove all.

  • Is the wool at all matted? When the locks of wool are felted to each other, it's called cotting or matting, and it can be a real problem. Mildly cotted wool can be pulled apart with little effort, and commercially processed easily, handprocessed without too much difficulty. But if it's fairly difficult to pull one lock away from the rest of the fleece, buy a different fleece!

  • What about staining? Wool may be permanently stained greenish or yellow or a variety of other colors due to bacterial damage, fungal infections, and other problems. If you're planning to dye wool that's stained, it might not be a problem. Assess the extent of the stain carefully, and check for related faults such as breaks or weak wool.

  • Tippy wool can be caused by sun damage or stress soon after shearing, or other factors. The result is the same--the very tip of each lock will break off quite readily. Some methods of hand preparation such as combing or precarding will remove these tips. Commercial processing will most likely break them off and thoroughly mix them in the roving or batt, causing tiny lumps which can make spinning a real pain.

  • Second cuts occur when the shearer goes over a section of the sheep a second time while shearing. Locks will be cut near the skin and a little way up the lock. Second cuts will usually shake off the fleece fairly easily, or can be quickly picked off the cut side of the fleece. Again, hand processing can easily remove these bits of fiber, while commercial processing will mix them in. In this case, however, usually the fibers will open up and disappear into the roving or batts. In fleeces with little crimp, second cuts may shed from finished yarns.

As you can see, some problems are worse than others, some impact one method of preparing the wool more than another. It's important to have some idea of the eventual processing of the wool in mind when you select a fleece.

One more challenge in choosing wool and preparing it for use is washing the wool. An article about washing wool is on my studio website and has been described as the most complete on the Internet. I don't know if that's true, but I certainly packed in everything I know from 15 years of washing wool!

Wool Assessment Services

I have occasionally had shepherds contact me to ask if I would look at samples of their wool and tell them my assessment of its quality. I have decided to offer this as a full-fledged service to shepherds who care about producing handspinning-quality wool but don't have the skills themselves to know what handspinners like and don't like.

Here's what I can do for you:

Simple Wool Assessment

Send me a half ounce (15 grams) sample of your raw wool and $10 (includes return postage). I will wash some of the wool, give it a comprehensive evaluation of its quality, and return to you a checksheet with washed and raw sample locks mounted on it, for your records. The evaluation will include:

  • the characteristics of the wool
  • strength or weakness of the fiber
  • the presence of faults such as those listed above
  • a list of suggested preparation techniques and spinning methods
  • types of projects the wool might be best suited for
  • digital photos you can use on a website or incorporate into other publications (if you have email)
  • suggestions about improving your wool if needed

Wool Assessment with Handspun Sample

In this case, send me 1 ounce (30 grams) of raw wool where the staple length is under 4 inches (10 cm), 2 (55 grams) ounces if it's 4-8 inches (10-20 cm), and 3 ounces (80 grams) if it's longer than 8 inches (20 cm). I will give the same review as for the simple assessment, and I will spin the washed wool into a sample yarn that I feel it's particularly well suited for. If you have a particular type of yarn you would like made from this wool, let me know your specifications, and if I feel it is suited to the wool type, I will spin that type of yarn for your reference. I will also provide a digital photo of the sample yarn. The cost of this service is $20 (again, includes return postage).

This is a particularly helpful service for those shepherds seriously interested in marketing wool to handspinners, but who aren't handspinners themselves. Many spinners find it difficult to choose the right wool for a given project. With a sample of yarn before them, they will be more likely to buy your wool.

Contact me for more information, or to get my address for mailing a sample to me for assessment.

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