Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Have You Hugged a Sheep Today? ...Processing the Black Welsh Mountain Fleece

((Just for a cuteness Break -- go see Fiber Farm Lamb Cam Watch them all day long. Some have even given birth on camera))

Black Ram: From Sheep 101 and to them from EAAP-Animal Genetic Bank (Wow, He is amazing looking)

note: this is a long post as I have tried to put everything I can into it.

Photo From Sheep 101 and to them from American Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Association and Joannie Livermore

(PHOTO NOTE: I am liberally referring to and borrowing these pictures in an effort to provide some background and education for individuals reading this. I hope that people go to Sheep 101 and use it to do their own research. Another GREAT resource on sheep breeds is Breeds of Livestock, Oklahoma State University

I'm trying to catch up with where I am and keeping my blog journal for whatever benefit it may have. Here is the processing of my Black Welsh Mountain sheep fleece. It is important when working with the fleece of an animal to understand said animal. So in a quick reference kind of methodology here is some information on the Stately Black Welsh Mountain Sheep.

A Bit on the Black Welsh Mountain Sheep from Sheep 101:

"In the Middle Ages, the mutton of black-fleeced Welsh Mountain Sheep was prized for its richness and excellence and much sought-after by merchants. During the mid-19th century, some breeders began to select specifically for the black fleece color and the result is the Black Welsh Mountain sheep. The Black Welsh Mountain is a small, black sheep with no wool on the face or on the legs below the knee and hock. It is the only completely black breed of sheep found in the United Kingdom. Introduced into the U.S. in 1972, the fleece from the Black Welsh Mountain has generated special interest among hand spinners and weavers.

Category: primitive, medium wool
Distribution: United Kingdom, North America"
-- End Quote --

This Quote is from Breeds of Livestock, Oklahoma State University

"In the Middle Ages, the mutton of black-fleeced Welsh Mountain Sheep was prized for its richness and excellence. The black wool, known as Cochddu (reddish brown) was much sought-after by merchants. During the mid-19th century some breeders began to select specifically for the black fleece color and the result is the Black Welsh Mountain sheep. Flocks of the pure breed are now widely distributed throughout the United Kingdom, with flocks also in Ireland and the USA.


The Black Welsh Mountain is a small, black sheep with no wool on the face or on the legs below the knee and hock. The rams are typically horned and the females are polled (hornless).

Although it is bred today perhaps as much for decorative value as for its commercial importance, it nevertheless grows wool which is sufficiently fine, soft and densely stapled to be regarded as a specialty type and the fleece is used to good effect in combination with other wools. Always black, it can be used undyed for many cloths. The average fleece weight is 2.5 - 4 pounds. The staple length is 8-10 cm and the spinning count is 48's-56's. Sources indicate there is also a market for the pelts. In the USA, Canada and Japan the fleece has generated special interest for home spinning and weaving. The wool now commands its own grade by the Wool Marketing"
--end quote--

Some other interesting links:
Desert Weyr Former home of my fleece and operated by Oogie McGuire and her husband. They do a lot more than sheep (although I don't see how they have the time!) lol... Go visit - it's a fun place.

American Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Association If you go visit this site you will have a great treat. There is lots to see and read. If you go to the newsletters you will see that Oogie has been over to Britian/Wales to learn about their judging process and to better understand the Welsh Conformation from whence comes the American Black Welsh Mtn Sheep. As I understand it they bring over semen to inseminate into the ewes in the the U.S. This brings the breed together despite the puddle in between (being the Atlantic Ocean) and prevents the breed from diverging into two seperate breeds of the same breed in each country. If you want more genetics you will have to talk to them. Because we must move on to the fleece.

... And now onto the processing portion of our program... lol...

This photo is of the top of the fleece (the side that faces out to the world from the sheep). Please note that the sun is very strong and so the fleece does not really show how very black it is until subsequent (less sunny) photos. It is indeed a deep deep black.

An Important thing to do when processing a fleece is to open it up onto a big table (those rolled fleeces are bigger than they look). If you are doing it inside, beware the sheepy smell, put a big sheet on the floor and have some really good lighting. It is in full spring here so I did it out in my backyard.

What you are going to do is look at the fleece and make sure you are happy with it. This is an opportunity to check the skirting, which if you are buying from a farmer who sells to handspinners should already be beautifully skirted especially if you are paying a premium.

Check for bugs, check for scurf (look it up online with images -- essentially it is MORE than dandruff and has bits of dead skin -- better to see the image). Here is an excellent link to a very knowledgeable Fiber Artist, who has many excellent posts with excellent advice and also this posting regarding Scurf. Go read it. The Independent Stitch Scurf and dandruff can be impossible to process out when preparing your fleece for spinning. But worse still it is a sign that your fleece may be more brittle, the fibers damaged. Check this carefully. Sometimes you will find a fleece where you can skirt the problem areas out and other times you may have to either return or pitch the fleece.

Look for the quality of shearing. Second cuts throughout a fleece means you have less than a premium fleece on your hands. Remember that sheep live outside. They roll around, they don't bathe. Sometimes they are coated (real coats) by the farmer and this saves immensely on the skirting and the cleaning during processing, but sometimes not. Some fleeces clean more easily than others regardless. Each fleece will be a new experience. And don't take a good fleece for granted. Sometimes the chance to work with a rare breed's fleece is an opportunity and a little extra vm or some other problems are worth dealing with for the experience. I support the efforts of many to help maintain the survival of rare and endangered breeds.

If you are unhappy then contact the farmer who sold it to you and talk it over with them. Many good farmers have a guarantee on their fleeces that if there is a problem they will take the fleece back.

However, I have had the good luck to buy from some very fine Shepherds and the fleeces I have processed thus far have all been vastly different (being from different sheep)and are admirable fleeces of their breed. Remember however that even the best ranches or farms might have a fleece come by with some spinner's issues. Be open to working things out with the fleece or the farmer/rancher/Shepherd. :)

I turned the fleece over to see the back (the cut side -- the side closest to where the sheep used to be).

If there were second cuts this is where you would look for them. A second cut is where the shearer starts cutting to high into the fleece and goes back to cut closer to the sheep. This leaves a cut btw the sheep and the rest of the fleece. When the
fleece comes off this 'second cut' stays and lowers the value and the usability of the fleece. It renders the staple shorter and sometimes completely unusable depending on how bad the second cut is. I don't recommend buying fleeces like this, but if you do get one call the farmer and discuss it. There often will be a few second cuts, but having them consistently throughout a fleece is a problem.

However, this fleece is totally clear of those problems. And I love looking across the sea of fleece.

These two photos are of the individual locks prior to washing. I just plucked them out of the fleece to photograph them. Note that they are not washed and so they do have some dirt in them. Not a problem, that's why God invented soap.

Now the next thing I do is I wash the fleece. I do not have big giant tubs and in deference to my daughter, who won't bathe in a bathtub, however clean, where a fleece might have been.... I use my sink. I do not use my washer. I don't want any surprises after I have paid good money for my fleece. I have double sinks in my kitchen and I use those. I will devote another post to the fine art of washing fleece.

Every fleece as in every animal is different. For this Fleece I found that three washes and two rinses did the trick. Then I laid it out for drying. :)

I have very unusual drying racks and we have an exceptional solar powered dryer... the sun. It works well and fairly quickly, although I do turn the fleece so both sides dry faster.

When it is all dry I bring it inside and organize it as well as I can into locks for easier processing. If I see any obvious vm (vegetable matter) I will pluck out larger chunks. More will come out in processing. I work with a cloth over my lap (you can stand at a table and do this, I just like to sit). I put all this into a basket if I am going to get to it in the evening or into a box I can cover up if it will be a bit before I get to it.

I have elected to comb the fleece as I want a finer yarn for weaving. This fleece is perfect for carding and I may well explore that later, but first I will comb it and see if it works for spinning.

Here is a little bit of combed top. There is much crimp to this fleece. I find that there is a soft bit to the fleece that when combed comes out in a lovely way for a medium type fleece. Unfortunately, this doesn't translate visually. You have to feel it. Tactile amusement.

At long last we come to the spinning... and this is just the beginning. I find it to have good luster and a fair hand. It is a shorter staple (about 2 inches), but still combs out. However combing does separate the small soft underfleece (this is not a doublecoated breed). When I combed it out the initial top spun up well, but the back end was much coarser having been separated in combing and was more problematic to spin up. In the end I discarded more than I wanted too. However, that means that perhaps combing is not the best for this fleece. As I said in the beginning I wanted a worsted spun yarn and combing it seemed the right process for that purpose.
I will card some and spin a sample up. I am about ready to ply the first bobbins of combed yarn and skein it up. I'll have a skein post with the plyed karakul as well.

Every fleece has its purpose. This one is a medium grade fiber and is definitely for an outer garment. I have heard that fabric made (knit or woven) with this fleece type does not pill (a happy thought indeed). The trueness of the black is possibly unparalleled. I love the color. I'd recommend this for tapestry as well. I will post later with the first skein.

A long post, but lots of information.


Oogie McGuire said...

One suggestion, if you plan to comb it sort out the fleece so you comb the shoulder, neck and partway down the blanket and card the britch and back half of the blanket separately. BWMS are variable across the fleece and if you need a combed top that is the best way to do it.

I'm playing with some commercially prepared combed tops we had done and getting a nice 40wpi worsted yarn from it. FIrst skein being rinsed and drying now. I plan to weave with it.

Astrid said...

Dear Oogie,
Thanks for visiting! I think I prefer the combed top, but a lot is very coarse so I end up discarding a fair amount. Do you think that is normal or is it just the fleece I am working with?