Begin at the Beginning: Tips for Buying and Washing Fleece

Have you hugged a sheep today?

Liz and Cam the RAMbouillet. It’s prime festival season—get out there and hug a sheep!

Registration for Spinzilla is open, and we have now entered the time-to-get-serious-about-stockpiling-my-fiber part of the event.

Every spinner needs to do this at least once: visit a fair or farm; paw through the fleece; adopt a fleece to take home; lovingly wash, card/comb it; and then spin it into a vast amount of yarn. This is a journey, not a destination.  What we learn along the way is as valuable as the end product itself.

If this is your dream, Spinzilla gives you the perfect motivation to make it a reality. By the time the big week rolls around you will have a pile of prepared fiber waiting for you to spin.

Last year, many spinners reported that they underestimated how much fiber they could spin!

There is still plenty of fiber fiber fair season left, giving you plenty of opportunity to find the prefect fleece.Check out the festival listings on the Spinning and Weaving Group’s website or ask if your local yarn shop is organizing any bus tours of local fairs. Some spinning shops offer fleece buying services, stock fleece, and/or have seasonal festivals of their own.

Buying Your First Fleece

Buying your first fleece is a bit scary, so don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions.  Festivals often host educational talks about the fleeces for sale.  Check the fair schedule to see what is offered.

You want to look for is good uniform lock structure and that there aren’t any little short bits in the fleece.  This is called second cuts. They are introduced when the shearer doesn’t do a very good job and goes over an area of the sheep twice resulting in a group of locks interspersed with short blunt cuttings.  This can cause pilling in your yarn.

If the grower is around ask if you can remove a lock.  Be sure to ask first!  They may be submitting their fleece for judging and it is important not to disturb the locks before they do so. Hold each end of the lock in your hands and give it a sharp snap, as Nancy from The Woolery is doing in the video still below.  This will test for any weakness in the lock structure.

I Want My Fleece Back!

The prize winning Lincoln ram from Larson Lincolns at the 2010 Estes Park Wool Market, examines his fleece before it goes home with its (and his) new owner.

Here are a few additional words of wisdom from Constance Hall of Dyeology, Spinzilla’s Team Captain Herder and seasoned fleece buyer.

“Buy fleece that suits your end use. If you buy a Lincon longwool with the idea of spinning for an undershirt you may regret it during the first wear. Spinning yak or cashmere for socks sounds lovely but they might not hold up. All fiber has a use, but not all fiber are good for all uses.

There is no such thing as a ‘free’ fleece.  All fleece takes work. A bad fleece takes even more work than a good fleece.  Buy the best fleece you can—you may still be spinning it five years down the road. Make sure you love it!

If available, buy a half pound of many different fleeces to see what you like before you buy a whole fleece.  If you do buy that whole fleece, and you have spun and spun until you can’t spin anymore, say during Spinzilla, you can always sneak handfuls out to the birds to make their nests, make small felted mug rugs, or use washed fleece for stuffed animal!”

Maybe you have already visited a fair and have brought home a beauty.  What now?

Washing Your Fleece

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here is a video on how to wash fleece in a way that preserves the lock structure.

How To Wash A Fleece


Two things not to do is over agitate or shock the fibers by moving it from one extreme temperature to another—hot to cold.

Start by soaking your fiber in hot water.  You shouldn’t be able to put your hands in the water without gloves.  Add a good scour and gently swish the fiber back and forth a few times, and then let the fiber soak.  How long depends on factors such as your starting water temperature and room temperature, . You don’t want the bath to cool so that the grease settles back into the fiber.  Also you may have to repeat this process and you don’t want to shock the fiber by moving it from a cool bath to a hot one.  This is no-no number two, also known as felting.  Fun to do, but not with your precious handspinning fleece!

After one or two or maybe more soaks if your fiber is really dirty, rinse the fleece in hot water once again gently moveing it about in the water. Remove the fleece from the water and gently press the water out of the fleece. Air dry on a suspended screen if you have one or a towel in a well ventilated area.

Go out and seek and you shall find the perfect fleece!

—Liz Gipson

Fleece Loving Fool, Spinzilla committee member, and Rogue spinner

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