Last summer/fall I had acquired a fleece, a whole fleece from a lady in Alberta. She was able to get them from a farmer local to her. I ordered one.. since I was just getting into processing wool to spin into yarn.
The breed of sheep is a cross between Rambouillet and Rideau Arcott. Now that probably won't mean much to most people, yet if you've ever heard of merino wool, it's frequently touted as one of the softest wools available. Truth be know, their heritage is from the merino sheep... see their history here.
Now the Rideau Arcott has a really interesting history in that it originated right here in the Ottawa Valley. This was a research breed created by Agriculture Canada's Research Center. It is a mish-mash of several breeds, and I mean several! See the history here.
I don't know specifically what the fleece of a Rideau Arcott sheep feels like, but I can tell you the combination of the two.... is absolutely dreamy! It's definitely next to skin soft, we're talking baby clothing soft!
The photos I'm going to show you are a brief sampling of what it takes to get this fiber from being on a farm animal to a product readied for spinning into yarn.
Here's a picture of the fleece, laid out on my laundry room floor. Now remember, the farm it came from does not coat their flock (put light cotton covers over the majority of the body of the sheep during the year - which typically have to be changed as the sheep grows and their fleece gets longer). If I remember correctly, it weighs close to 5 pounds.
Very dirty fleece. The blue dye/marking is how the farmer tells which ram has has some fun with this ewe.. so that they know which breeds are contributing to the subsequent lambs.
Here's a handful of locks. The "hair" wool grows in compact little groupings. The cleaner ends (right side) are the sheared ends. They were right against the sheeps body.
From this stage, I weigh out the amount I'm going to clean... in most cases it's no more than 500 grams because the drying rack I use in the backyard won't hold much more than that.
Firstly, I soak it in a bucket of hot water. I want to loosen up the tips and the dirt that's stuck in them. I may do as many as 3 or 4 soaks, depending on how dirty/brown the water still is.
Then it get's shampoo'd! Yes, I use a specially formulated wool shampoo to clean it. Originally, based on research and educating myself, I was using a traditional scouring process, using Dawn and other cleaners and lots of waiting times soaking that way. Once I found the Dirty Rotten Bastard wool shampoo... I changed my method!! and will not go back to the traditional ones. I've included Natalie Redding's link in case you want to check it out.
As with any shampoo, wet the fiber thoroughly, drain most of the water, apply shampoo, massage it in, let it sit like that for about 10 mins, then rinse. There have been a couple times where I've had to shampoo twice, but rarely... if I've soaked it enough beforehand, it's not an issue.
Then, it's out to the drying rack.
After drying, with this fleece, since the staple length (length of the fiber) is in most areas over 3 inches, and it's full of vm (vegetable matter, ie. hay, straw, grass, etc from the farm), I'm combing the fibers on my hackle and comb.
This is just what it sounds like... combing hair. I lash a good portion onto the hackle, and then comb it out.. where most of the fiber is transferred to the comb. Then, from the comb, lash it back onto the hackle. If it's fairly free of vm at this point and most of the fibers are aligned, I diz it off the hackle.... meaning to pull it in sections creating a long thin rope of fiber, which I then wrap around my hand and snug into a nest.
Unfortunately, this fiber is very very fine, and super soft and the vm just doesn't want to leave... easily. But with perseverance and elbow grease, and pretty much three passes from hackle to comb and back (and a couple beers don't hurt), it's finally to the point where I can pull it off.
A few of the nests for you to see, and some of the individual locks for illustration purposes. The nests can be easily unwound and are ready for spinning.
See the little ripples in the lock? Tiny little waves? This is called crimp. These are really fine and look so delicate... and they'll provide some bounce and elasticity to the yarn when I spin it, as the crimp will want to go back to being in it's original state. That will add minute air pockets which means this wool will keep you nice and warm.
These have a small curly tip. Other fleeces I've worked with, the entire lock is curly.
Pictures from today. You can see the drying rack in the background, and I have my hackle clamped to the table - which seriously looks like a tool from a torture chamber with all it's sharp tines... and beer :) (only my 2nd one of the summer)
This is a close up of the fiber, after I've made 3 passes with the comb to get as much vm out of it as possible. Nice fluffy clouds! Ready to diz off to make another nest.
I have approximately 100 grams of prepared fiber from this already... barely made a dent in the kg of fiber I've washed so far.
As you can tell, this isn't for the faint of heart. It's a long drawn out process to go from sheep to yarn to finished garment. A lot of hours and a lot of hard work. Most people are happy to go to a yarn store and purchase what they need... but I find this, from start to finish, really rewarding.
In addition to this, there's also the dyeing process.. which I've done several times already with other fleeces.
But that's for another post.