Saturday, January 18, 2020

Tour of a Shetland Fleece

I said in a previous post that I wanted to break down a Shetland fleece from front-to-back in order to give everyone a better perspective on what to expect. One thing that I need to say at the start is that all sheep fleeces are finer in the front (specifically, the neck area) than they are in the britch area all the way in the back. I have tested a few fleeces over the years and found that the difference could be as small as two microns, but it’s there nonetheless.

Whispering Pines Neda - the model for the photos in this post.  She is a 2018 ewe.
We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the neck wool because it is the part that is not covered by our coats and is always loaded with VM. Therefore, this gets skirted and collected for handprocessing (which, quite frankly is how I think all neck wool should be handled since it is the finest the sheep has and should be treated like gold). Here is an example of what neck wool will often look like in a Shetland.

You can see very fine crimp. Just like with britch, we don’t micron test the neck wool, so I don’t have data on it, but I can say that Neda has an average micron value taken at mid-side (the infamous last rib) of 23 microns.

The VM isn’t too bad yet at this time of year. Next is the shoulders. Not as fine, but still superfine.

Next is the middle third. I have three different sections photographed here going from front to back (right in front of the hips). The middle third needs to be consistent from the front to back because that is where the micron test was performed and that result needs to apply to the entire thing. When you feel the middle third fleece on most if not all of our sheep, you won’t notice a difference in softness as you move backward.

Middle Front

Middle Front

Middle Middle

Middle Middle

 What you really need to do, however, is part the fleece and evaluate the crimp. Crimp tends to vary based on genetic lines, but there is a high correlation between fineness and crimp. Once you get to know your sheep, you will know whether your fineness holds well just be evaluating the crimp. That’s not to say you can tell how fine the sheep is by looking at the crimp. Crimp is hereditary. I’ve seen finely crimped Shetlands that are coarser (relatively speaking) than another one that has bolder crimp. But when you are in the middle third of each fleece, you shouldn’t see a dramatic change in crimp size as you move to the back. This is what people mean when they say a sheep falls off in the back. Now we are into the back third of the sheep.

You will almost always see a larger crimp structure when you get to this part of the sheep. As I have said previously, however, you should not see a completely different fleece type here. At most, you should see a one grade change when you get to this point compared to the middle third right before it. It should not feel coarse. All of these comments exclude the britch, which admittedly is part of the rear third, but is always skirted out. Finally, we have the britch.

We do not have extreme britch examples to share with you or I would. What you will notice here is that the britch still has crimp and a defined lock structure. It is not hair, in other words. If it was hair, it would have a long tip extending past the main fibers, there would be no crimp, and it would feel coarse. This does not. It is noticeably different than the rest of the fleece, but still very much “Good” Shetland. I am not saying every Shetland should have a fine britch wool. I am saying it doesn’t matter what the britch is like since most people skirt that. I am also saying that the britch has to be limited. If you are in the hip area and have very straight, coarse fiber, you have a fleece that will have to be separated into its various grades and processed accordingly. You are not going to produce next-to-skin yarn from this condition. We tend to skirt pretty heavily in the britch area because it is heavily contaminated with VM, but much of it is very good fiber.  We have started sending our britch wool to the mill to process into yarn.  Before we were at this level of quality the britch wool would just go into the compost pile.

That’s pretty much the nickel tour of fleece variability. I don’t like to see a dramatic loss of crimp in the back third, but it’s not uncommon.

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