How to choose a fleece for handspinning

Herdwick: cute, but not a fleece for beginners

Herdwick: cute, but not a fleece for beginners

Buying my first fleeces to process at home for handspinning was hugely exciting. I’d just been to my first meeting of the Mid-Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and it happened that two of the members were having a fleece sale that day.

I was lucky to have two experienced guild members there to show me how to look over a raw fleece. They unrolled the fleeces and talked me through what I was looking at, pointed out some of the desirable qualities that hand spinners look for in a fleece. Those are attributes like crimp, softness, good lock structure, cleanliness (no straw, grass or poo, etc). More on that later.

The first fleeces I bought were a Hebridean, a Shetland and a Ryeland. Maybe I went a little overboard. It took a lot of work to get the fleeces scoured, dried and ready to spin. And even though I benefited from having some experts on hand to help choose my fleeces, if I were to do it all over again I would have done my homework first.

Before buying a fleece, I recommend reading up on different breeds and the characteristics of their fleece. There are about 60 sheep breeds in the UK alone and all their fleeces are a little different.

Some, like Cotswold, Teeswater, Lincoln, Leicester and Wensleydale–longwool breeds–have fleeces that are more hair-like, lustrous and require some experience to spin.

Then there are the Downs breeds–Southdowns, Oxfords, Hampshires, Dorsets for example–which have dense fleeces with short staple-lengths, but feature lots of crimp and bounce.

Fleece sale!

Fleece sale!

Then there are the many other breeds that are favourites of hand spinners, like the Shetland, Blue-faced Leicester, Cheviot, Manx Loaghtan and Jacob, which all have their own characteristics. There are also plenty of breeds which aren’t particular favourites of spinners, either because their fleece is too coarse or just not suitable for spinning.

So before jumping in and buying a fleece take a look at some of the books available like Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook or The Spinner’s Book of Fleece to get an idea of what you might like to spin as well as the huge choice available.

There are other questions you want to ask before diving in and buying 4-5 pounds of raw sheep fleece. Are you going to make a worsted or woollen yarn? It will be hard to spin a woollen yarn from a long wool, for example. Which fleeces will best suit your project? Do you want a coloured fleece? How important is softness in your project? Are you looking to create something durable or more lightweight?

What to look for in the fleece 

Now that you’ve decided on a breed, what are you looking for when choosing the actual fleece?

Steve Kennett, vice chairman of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers, visited my guild back in September to speak on how to pick out a fleece.

Steve unrolled one of the fleeces supplied by a member and gave a few pointers on picking a good one. It had a lovely staple length, beautiful crimp and was muck and VM-free. Steve held it up to demonstrate how the fleece should be nice and open—like a lace curtain.

Jacob lock from raw fleece. Nice staple length and crimp, no breakage or second cuts

Jacob lock from raw fleece. Nice staple length and crimp, no breakage or second cuts






You can see in the photo of the Jacob lock what I mean by crimp. It’s simply the little waves in the wool. Crimp makes wool easy to spin as it twists together and the crimp helps the wool lock together. The rule of thumb goes that the more crimp, the finer the wool. Merino, for example, can have 100 waves (crimps) per inch. Longwools have less crimp and often used  by spinners to add texture and lustre to yarn.

Steve Kennett also said to look out for second cuts (short bits the shearer missed on the first pass) felting and second growth—ie when a sheep hasn’t been sheared and begins to grow a second fleece. He recommended  taking off a lock of fleece, holding it firmly in one hand and giving it a good tug. If the lock is breaks avoid the fleece as it is brittle, will not be nice to spin and could result in weak yarn.

The best part of the fleece is going to be on the neck, front legs and back (between the shoulders). Fleece on the back is generally good. Fleece from the hind legs is generally coarser and kempy. Steve recommended being picky about fleeces and perhaps buying several, but only using the best bits.

I don’t know if I’d go to the lengths Steve does–buying many fleeces and throwing a lot of it away. If I were to go back in time, I’d probably have started with one fleece (Shetland) and made life easier for myself. If buying a whole fleece is intimidating, get a friend to share one with you.

Starting with a fleece instead of tops or roving is, I think, a great way to learn more about sheep breeds, fiber prep and spinning. Fleece you’ve scoured and prepared yourself is going to feel and spin differently from commercially processed fiber. Some of the women in my guild consider commercial prepared fiber to be “dead”, because they view it as flat and lacking crimp. I agree with that to a certain extent, however I have found that top or roving from smaller mills tends to retain some of the bounce and crimp.

Gotland sheep Commercial top (l) Raw fleece (r)

Gotland sheep
Commercial top (l)
Raw fleece (r)

Still it’s an eye-opener when you compare commercially prepared roving with that you’ve cleaned and carded yourself. Take a look at this Gotland fiber. On the left, straight up commercial roving, on the right Gotland right off the sheep. Looks a lot different right? Doesn’t even look like it came from the same breed.

For more information on scouring fleece see these posts: Hot tips for scouring fleece or More hot tips on scouring fleece without soap.

Spinning in the grease


Sally and I talk about fiber preparation a lot. Conversations usually start off with a confession.

Rachel: “Um I just bought more fleeces.”

OMG! Where did these come from???

OMG! Where did these come from???

Sal: [laughs] “What are you going to do with them?”

Rachel: “Well right now, they’re in my closet.”

Then we discuss all the processes we could use to turn the raw fleece into The Ultimate Yarn. There’s scouring, combing, carding, dyeing and blending. Then there are infinite techniques–have you heard of the Fermented Suint Method for scouring fleece? Do you card your fleece or comb it? Do you put your fiber into the drumcarder sideways?

Last fall, after buying a few more Shetland fleeces I was so excited to try them out on the wheel that I pulled off some locks and started spinning. No fiber prep at all.

Spinning in the grease isn’t something I usually do, but a lot of spinners do. These are the people who look at you funny when you start talking about scouring fleece and the other fifteen steps you’re going to take before you spin any yarn.

What I learned was spinners who advocate spinning in the grease have a point. One is, if you have a beautiful fleece with nice crimpy locks, it’s a shame to process that out. It’s fine just to tease the locks out a little with your fingers and start to spin. I would recommend, however, picking through the fleece first and removing the dags (poo) and larger bits of vegetable matter. You don’t want that.

Here’s some Shetland spun in the grease. The yarn plumped up nicely after washing.

Shetland spun in the grease

Shetland spun in the grease


Shetland after washing

Shetland after washing

Here’s some Zwartables I spun in the same way.

Zwartables spun in the grease

Zwartables spun in the grease

Zwartables fleece

Zwartables fleece

Yes it is a bit smelly and you should clean your wheel afterwards. Really the final result is the same as if you’d spent days scouring and carding and combing and all the rest.

Safety Note. You do need to be careful handling raw fleece. Pregnant women should not handle raw fleece. Be aware that raw fleece is likely to have sheep excrement on it–so avoid handling that with bare hands. Choose from the sections of the fleece that’s not near the animal’s rear end. Give your hands a thorough scrub when you’re finished. Then wash them again!

Sheep Chic


One reason Sal and I started this website was to show how starting with a bag of fiber it’s possible to create luxurious handmade objects.  This week I went into the Liberty of London on a mission to find wool being used in high-end fashion. I found some great pieces that I’m confident could be handmade and certainly show what’s possible with wool.

Rowan thick thin yarn--wannabee handspun

Rowan thick thin yarn–wannabee handspun

Liberty is known for its art nouveau and arts & crafts-inspired designs in the 1950s as well as its range of print fabrics. Back in the dark ages -the early 00s–when there were no real knit shops in London, Liberty carried Rowan yarns and stocked needles.

These days Liberty has some super-expensive pieces that feature wool. Check out this handbag made by Marni.

Marni bag

Marni bag

It’s made out of leather and a panel of soft felt. It retails for £765. It’s a beautiful piece that’s an alternative to the leather and gold-plated-hardware style bags that dominant the market. I wouldn’t say this would be an easy project, but if you know how to make felt, have access to a sewing machine and a bit of imagination–it’s doable.

Then there was this wrap going for £195. It’s basically a big piece of felt. Made in Italy, it’s silky soft–probably merino–and quite thin.

Felted wrap--probably about £5 worth of wool on sale for £195

Felted wrap–probably about £5 worth of wool on sale for £195

I’d guess it was made using a felting machine, but this is precisely the kind of piece that can be easily made by hand. In fact, I’ve seen many more elaborate nuno and silk pieces for sale that show greater skill than this colorful rectangle. Still it was inspiring to see such a piece showcased at Liberty.

There was also this stole, which looked like a piece of shearling with a fabric backing. I didn’t see how much this piece was going for, but it’s part of the wider trend for all things shearling, soft and silky. Apparently the trend for these big fluffy wraps and collars comes from Game of Thrones’ popularity. I could see making something like this with tailspun yarn.

Shearling stole.

Shearling stole.

Log cabin lessons: exploring the rigid heddle loom

Finished log cabin scarf

Finished log cabin scarf

Impulse buying rigid heddle looms is just one of the things that happens at Sheep Cabana.

Last summer,I was out in Cambria, Calif., and stopped in at Ball & Skein. The store is chockablock with gorgeous fiber that I could barely resist, but I did. Instead I walked out with a 15″ Schacht Cricket rigid heddle loom, which I brought back with me to the UK.

I have used the loom a few times and have been muddling along with it–not making any serious improvement to my weaving skills. Then I came across a new book Woven Scarves by Jane Patrick and Stephanie Flynn Sokolov and published by Interweave. Full of beautiful projects and easy-to-follow instructions I felt more confident to try this log cabin scarf.

The plan was to spin some of my newly acquired and stashed heritage- and rare-breed fleece to create this beautiful log cabin weave. The log cabin pattern, I thought, would be great to show off the rare and heritage-breeds’ natural colours. One of the great features of Woven Scarves is there is a scale (actual size) photo of the commercial yarn used in the sample scarves alongside the instructions.

Shetland and North Ronaldsay handspun

Shetland and North Ronaldsay handspun

When I went to spin 200 yards each of Shetland Moorit (chocolate brown) and North Ronaldsay (white, specks of grey), I kept the book to hand and referred back to the pictures every so often to check the yarn thickness. I did blend some darker Shetland roving with the Moorit that had flecks of dyed silk in it. It gives a subtle effect in the finished object–just little bits of color.

The instructions for this project recommended using the indirect warping method. This requires a warping board, which I made out of some pvc piping. Honestly, I should have just bought a warping board. No matter.



Warping the loom was probably the trickiest part of this project for me. There was some considerable faffing with the warping board as I figured out how to use it.

Once I got the loom warped it was smooth sailing. Log cabin weave is a simple block plain weave. The pattern comes from the way the loom is warped (for example, light, dark, light, dark, then dark, light, dark, light, etc) and then woven alternating dark, then light, until switching to light then dark. There’s no call for pick up sticks or any of the other techniques you can use on a rigid heddle weaving.



However, it’s important to remember that before you go zooming off to weave yards and yards of fabric–you must hemstitch the beginning of the fabric and repeat the process at the end. It makes life a lot easier.

Next up in weaving: Attempting to sew a garment (or bag) out of handwoven fabric.



Spinning with the British Isles’ Rare & Heritage Sheep Breeds

aforementioned archipelago

aforementioned archipelago

Nestled in an often rainy corner of the North Atlantic, the British Isles are home to an outsized number of sheep. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are home to 60-odd distinct sheep breeds. Not all of these are native, but many are. It’s incredible to have such diversity here on this fairly tiny archipelago.

For a novice handspinner like me, trying out fleece from rare and heritage breeds has been a big part of learning about spinning. Luckily some heritage breed fleece is quite easy to find– at least in the UK (see list below). You can buy a raw fleece direct from a farmer and dig in, but many breeds’ fleeces are available as roving–if you know where to look.

What’s so great about trying out heritage and rare breeds? There is a lot to be said for putting down your acid-dyed Merino or Corriedale roving and picking up some Blue-Faced Leicester, then moving on to Shetland, Gotland, Cotswold, Ryeland, Manx Loaghtan or North Ronaldsay–whatever captures your imagination.

In sourcing rare- and/or heritage-breed fleece you may choose to buy direct from the farmer. That’s a great way to buy because you will be supporting a whole chain of traditional skills and industry. You’re supporting the farmer who has chosen to raise rare or endangered breeds and follow high animal welfare standards. You’re also supporting shearers and perhaps even woollen mills that cater to small scale producers. It’s a virtuous circle.

Even if you don’t buy direct from the farm by seeking out rare or heritage-breed fleece you’re still supporting a network of farmers, traditional skills and artisans. The truth is there aren’t a lot of rare breed sheep around and most aren’t farmed on a large scale.

Once you whet your appetite for heritage and rare breed fiber there are a lot of options. You can dive in and spin a single-breed yarn. You can blend silky mohair-like Cotswold with Shetland or Gotland. Or you can try blending alpaca with a bit of Norfolk Horn. Next thing you know you’re working with different textures, colors, short staples and long and creating a unique yarn with a completely different feel and luster.



It’s worth mentioning how incredibly handsome and adorable some of these rare breeds are. Their distinctive looks also make me excited about using their fleece in a project. Take the Lincoln Longwool.

Or the many-horned Manx Loaghtan. There is something about these breeds that say–hey come spin my fleece. I know I may look a bit funny, but I’m soft and fluffy too. (Well, most of the time.) And hey, some of these sheep are actually endangered. Take a minute to browse the UK Rare Breed Survival Trust’s list of endangered or threatened sheep breeds. See if any of these breeds capture your imagination or inspire your next project.

Visiting festivals like Woolfest, WonderWoolWales, Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival, FiberEast, Rheinbeck Sheep & Wool festival– and many more–gives you the chance to meet different sheep breeds and speak to the dedicated people who raise them. Most of these events have fleece sales. When you buy a raw fleece (ie straight off the sheep) ask to look at it first. Check to see it’s relatively clean (not too much poo or vegetable matter) and not felted. Yes fleece can felt on the sheep! Take the time to ask people about their fleeces if possible. Most of the time they are happy to help you pick a good one.

In a future post I will show some yarn and other projects I’ve made with heritage breed and rare breed sheep fleece. Right now I have Shetland, Gotland, Cotswold, Ryeland, Norfolk Horn and Llanwenog fleece in my stash that I plan to use straight and in blends. I hope that some of my heritage and rare breed-based projects will convince you to try something a little different. Also, I’d like to show some different ways of using colored fleece imaginatively. To be honest, natural coloured fleece can be a turn off for some spinners.

Manx Loagtan: multi-pronged

Manx Loagtan: multi-pronged

Suppliers–not comprehensive, or in alphabetical order

Wingham Wool Works: Based in Wentworth, Yorkshire (near Rotherham) Wingham’s is well worth a visit if you are up in that area. The people are extremely helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. Wingham’s stock a wide variety of heritage and rare breed fleece as well as other non-wool exotics and a lot of fun equipment.

Adelaide Walker: Also in Yorkshire. I have not visited personally, but I have bought Gotland roving. Lovely.

Little Grey Sheep: Gorgeous Cotswold fleece and other goodies.

World of Wool: Yorkshire-based. Lots of choice.

Natural Yarn: British yarn and fleeces. Shetland, Manx Loaghtan, Norfolk Horn & more. Run by Jean Cairns, who I know from the Mid-Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers.

North Ronaldsay Yarn: Yarn from the famous Orkney Isles’ seaweed-eating sheep–the North Ronaldsay, of North Ronaldsay, Orkney. They also sell fleece, roving, batts and pre-felt. *I just bought some beautiful roving from this seller. It’s beautiful. I’ll post a photo once some gets spun.

Whistlebare Yarns: I just came across this small producer of mohair yarns in Northumberland. Alice Elsworth creates yarn from her own flock of Angora goats.

Also check Ebay’s UK site for some exciting raw fleeces from UK rare/heritage breed sheep. Including Zwartables, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean, Romney, Castlemilk Moorit, Portland, Whitefaced Dartmoor and many more. (FYI I just bought a Zwartables fleece!!)