Finding a fleece

Many spinners ask me where I find the fleeces I work with. I live just outside the Stockholm city center and there aren’t many flocks around here. Today I will share with you how I found my first fleeces and give you a few tips of what you can do in your pursuit of finding a fleece.

When I first started spinning I took a spinning class twice a month at a city sheep farm. I bought my first fleece on the first spinning lesson. After that I have bought several fleeces from the farm. Visitors can buy fleece in the sheep barn all year round. The head shepherdess basically know all the sheep by smelling it. The fleeces come individually packed in paper bags with the sheep’s name on it. I can reach the farm with the commuter train and investigate the fleece on the hoof.

But finding a fleece isn’t always easy. Many people don’t have sheep close to them and don’t know where to start. Some are also worried that they will get bad fleece. In this post I won’t go into what to look for in a fleece, but with the methods I use I make sure, or as sure as I can, that I find the people who can provide good quality fleece.

The soul behind the fleece

When I look for a fleece I try to stay as close to the source as I can. Preferably on a level of knowing the name of the sheep. I keep a list of shepherdesses and I always look for potential additions to that list. You can see it as sort of a fleece networking.

The key element for me is connecting with sheep owners. Having a connection with a shepherdess gives me an understanding of their work and the day-to-day lives of the sheep. I try to find the soul behind the fleece. Do the shepherdesses represent what I want from a fleece? In the conversation I also get to explain what I look for as a spinner.

The key to a breed

One example is Lena. She is a Gute shepherdess, spinning teacher and weaver and has been a judge at many spinning competitions. I didn’t know much about Gute sheep, but since I know her work I knew that there must be something in the Gute fleece that attracts her as a spinner. I knew that she would be able to get me a Gute fleece of high quality. And I was right, I got a lovely Gute fleece that I have used for many classes to show the diversity of a primitive breed. And through that many of my students have grown fond of the breed too.

Gute wool from one individual. The sheep has long and strong overcoat, fine undercoat and kemp over the whole body, but to varying degrees.
Gute wool from one individual. The sheep has long and strong overcoat, fine undercoat and kemp over the whole body, but to varying degrees.

In the Gute case I didn’t know much about the Gute breed, but I knew about Lena and her knowledge and experience. That was enough for me to try the breed.

Connect with knowledge

Another example is Ann who has a small flock of Rya sheep. She is also one of the founders of a Swedish online spinning forum and very generous with her knowledge and encouragement. She is also a very experienced spinner. Someone posted a picture of Ann’s sheep and I knew I wanted to try the wool from her sheep. I had a few rya fleeces before, but I really wanted to try the fleece from Ann’s sheep since she knew so much about them.

Four piles of fleece in natural colours.
Fleece samples from the rya ewes Alva, Lina and Beppelina and Bertil the ram. I chose Beppelina (bottom left).

Ann sent me very generous samples of fleece from her four sheep and I got to pick the one I preferred, which wasn’t easy – they were all lovely. I had follow-up questions and Ann, with her long experience with fiber animals, could give me very detailed descriptions of her line of the breed and the individual sheep in her flock. She also sent me pictures of the sheep. I picked one and she sent me the rest of that fleece.

Handling the fleece from Ann’s flock has taught me a lot of the diversity within a breed, especially since rya is one of the three Swedish breeds that are bred for the wool.

Fleece feedback: Åsen fleece

My third example here is Ylva. I met her on the Fleece championships of 2019. As far as I know she didn’t have a competing fleece, but she was at the event selling her Åsen fleeces. I talked to her for a bit, asked her about the breed that I didn’t know very much about. I ended up buying one of her fleeces. In the fleece bag was a piece of paper with carefully made notes of the number of the sheep, when she was born, when she was shorn, some of the characteristics of the fleece and the weight.

I spun a lovely skein from the Åsen fleece and sent to Sara Wolf for the book Knit (spin) Sweden. Then I brought the fleece to one of my classes. The first fleece we ran out of was Ylva’s Åsen fleece. All the students loved carding and spinning the Åsen wool. It was open and airy and had just the right combination of fluffy undercoat and strong outercoat to make the draft nice and slow. Of course I told Ylva about this and she was very pleased that we had enjoyed the fleece from her sheep.

Lovely Åsen wool from an experienced shepherdess.
Lovely Åsen wool from an experienced shepherdess.

More Åsen fleece

I met Ylva at another fleece event and bought a very fine Åsen fleece from her, totally different from the first fleece I bought. I hadn’t planned on buying Åsen fleece, but since I knew she was serious about wool quality I was more than happy to buy from her.

The fleece I got had long white locks with black tips. When I got home I discovered that the tips broke in the join between the black tips and the white growth when I tugged the staples lightly. The fibers beneath the breakage was still soft and lovely. Since I had talked to Ylva I knew she was very dedicated and serious about the wool quality of her sheep. I knew this must have been an unlucky exception in her flock. I asked her what she thought was the reason behind the breakage in the tips. She told me that the lamb had been fathered by a new ram that obviously had some bad fleece genes. She was very grateful for my feedback and decided not to use that lamb for further breeding (the ram had already moved on to greener pastures).

Setbacks

I have bought a lot of fleece through the years and I figure I have quite a good sense of what to look for. But I do make mistakes. The good thing about that is that I learn a lot from them. Not so much due to bad quality, but in realizing that this wasn’t for me. Most of the mistakes have actually been pre-processed wool – quite early I learned that I want to get to know the wool from the start, from that dirty, poopy newly shorn fleece. It has also been about a breed that I didn’t really get along with.

Fleece events

A wonderful opportunity for finding a fleece is a fleece event, like a fleece competition, a wool fair or a wool festival. One of the most important fleece shows for me is the Swedish fleece championships. At this event the visitors can look at and fondle all the fleeces that have entered the competition, watch the prize ceremony and take part in the fleece auction afterwards.

A long table full of wool.
Over 50 fleeces competed in the 2019 fleece championships!

A lot of the visitors are shepherdesses that either sell their fleeces at the event and/or have one or more fleeces in the competition. I do several things at this kind of event to find fleeces:

  • The first thing I do is to go through the fleeces in the competition. I look at them, fondle them of course and make mental notes of their characteristics and which ones I want to buy.
  • During the competition I keep track of who gets the medals. I have been a visitor to the championships for the past four years (sadly not this year when it was a no visitor event) and I see a lot of the sheep owners come back and get more medals. These are people I keep track of. They obviously care a lot about the wool quality of their sheep. Some of them even get medals in both the fleece championships and the spinning championships. These shepherdesses are extra interesting to me since they share my perspective as a spinner.
  • If I win the auctions I have set my sight on I try to connect with the shepherdess who submitted the fleece. I tell them that I love what they do, ask about the name of the sheep and just engage in wooly conversation.

In my course Know your fleece there is a 47 minute video where I go through all the fleeces of the 2019 fleece championships together with my friend Anna.

A finull/rya master

Let me tell you about Margau. On the first fleece championships I visited I fell for a dark grey finull/rya she had submitted. It got a gold medal. She has worked for several years with this particular cross and she does a smashing job of it. On a previous blog post I wrote about another fleece I got from her, also a medalist. Later when I spun it I ran out of fleece. I contacted Margau and got the next shearing of the same sheep.

Later, when I wanted a white fleece of the same quality she sent me samples from three sheep that I could choose from. From that fleece I made the Selma Margau sweater pattern.

Getting to know a new breed

On that same first fleece championships I fell for a lovely Dalapäls fleece, that ended up with a silver medal. The shepherdess, Carina, wasn’t at the event, but I texted her. We had a long conversation and she told me about the breed in general and the sheep (Blanka) in particular. I hadn’t come across the dalapäls breed before, but once I had seen Blanka’s shiny fleece I knew this was a special breed.

Long, white and wavy wool locks.
Long and silky locks of Dalapäls sheep. The locks come from the same shepherdess, Carina, but from different sheep.

Later I also connected with Lena, another Dalapäls shepherdess and I even got to visit her on shearing day. On the course Know your fleece you can see a video where I interview Lena while she shears her sheep.

Fleece queen 1

On the 2019 fleece championships, one of the shepherdesses, Kari, got eight (8) medals for her fleeces. She has several different breeds and a passion for wool and crafting. She wasn’t at the event at the time, but I met her later at another wool event and bought two lovely rya fleeces from her. We chatted for a while and it was so lovely to connect with someone with such a warm passion for her sheep and their wool.

A white fleece with very long and silky staples.
The 2020 seduction of the wool guru, a Swedish Gotland/Leicester/finull fleece.

At the 2020 fleece championships she got another seven medals and I managed to win the auction of one of them, a Swedish Gotland/Leicester/finull cross. The fleece didn’t get a regular medal, but it did get a special award called “The seduction of the wool guru”. The wool guru is Alan Waller, one of the judges and the prize is awarded to a fleece he can’t take his hands and eyes off. And it is indeed a magical fleece – 18 cm staples with 13 cm undercoat, shiny and soft and just mesmerizing.

I had no plans to buy this kind of fleece when I started planning which ones I wanted to buy, but with this award and this shepherdess I couldn’t help myself. I hope I can make this magical fleece justice.

Fleece queen 2

Titti is an experienced shepherdess who has grown up with finull (Swedish finewool) sheep, one of Sweden’s three wool breeds. She won her first fleece championship medal a few years ago and has since then worked with breeding for the fleece and teaching other sheep owners about breeding for fleece. She has kept winning medals for her excellent fleeces year after year and this year I decided to snatch me one. After all, finull is my home fleece, the one I started with nine years ago.

A white fleece with fine, crimpy staples.
The silver medalist fleece from the finull lamb Nypon (Rose hip).

I won the auction of her silver medalist Nypon (Rose hip) and it is just the yummiest of yum – soft, crimpy and shiny. Lots of finull wool has gone through my fingers over the years, but none with a quality like this one.

If you are a patron I have a treat for you – a short unboxing video where I unbox the three fleeces I bought from the 2020 fleece championships auction. Go to my Patreon page if you want to become a patron.

Nodes

Nodes (I just made the concept up) are what I call people with wool knowledge and lots of connections to shepherdesses. It can be wool handlers/brokers/consultants/classifiers, spinning teachers, fleece show judges, shearers etc. You may not know any of these yourself, but if you search a little you will soon find some that you can contact. Nodes are people whose judgements I trust fully. They have met many sheep farmers and/or had their hands on hundreds, thousands of fleeces and know what to look for.

A wool classifier

One such example is my friend Kia. She has worked for many years as a wool classifier in Norway. Tons of fleeces have gone through her hands and she is extremely knowledgeable about fleece. My first fleece adventure outside the city farm was with the help of Kia. She started a fiber club with rare and endangered Norwegian sheep breeds and I jumped along. In the fiber club she sent out four packages of fleece samples (also some processed fiber) from different Norwegian breeds that were rare or endangered. She also attached information about the breeds and what she thought of them. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know different wool qualities in small batches. I ended up making a Fair Isle vest from most of the yarns I spun from the samples.

Ivy League vest by Eunnie Jang, knit from my handspun Norwegian rare and endangered sheep breeds in 2014. Photo by Dan Waltin

I didn’t know the shepherdesses of these batches, but I got lots of information of the breeds. I trusted Kia through her knowledge and experience of and passion for the breeds.

A wool broker

Another example of a node is Shetland woolbrokers. What Oliver Henry and his fleece crew don’t know about fleece isn’t worth knowing. They handle and grade tons of fleece from sheep farmers across Shetland every day.

A superfine Shetland fleece from the treasure room at Shetland woolbrokers. I bought it in their shop when I visited Shetland wool week back in 2015 with my wool traveling club.

Most of the fleece goes to spinning mills, but they also have a treasure room for hand spinners. This is where the best fleeces go. The first time I was there and got to go to the treasure room, but on several occasions I have got the loveliest fleeces from them via email inquiries. I have simply said: Please get me two superfine fleeces of so and so colour. And by that I have been confident that they will send me high quality fleece.

Finding a fleece

I have been a spinner for nine years and nowadays I have a well tried list of shepherdesses that I have a connection to and nodes that I trust. But I did start from knowing nothing about fleece at all, just like most of us have at some point. If you want to work with fleece but don’t know where to fine one, I have made a list of some ideas where to start.

Checklist for finding a fleece

  • Start as close to the source as you can. Have you seen sheep in your neighbourhood? Or somewhere you visit every now and then? If you see the sheep owner, start a conversation. Ask about the sheep and what they do with the fleeces.
  • Are you a member of a spinning guild? If so, see if the other members have sheep of their own or connections with sheep owners.
  • If you don’t live near sheep you can look in spinning forums – local, regional or national. Browse through the feed and look for people who have bought fleece they are happy with or spinners who own sheep. Perhaps you can find a connection there. Remember to check the forum rules, though. If it is a non-commercial forum you are better off making this kind of connection in a private message.
  • Do you know of any fleece nodes? Or can you find one? Again, check spinning guilds or spinning forums. Are there names that pop up often, people who seem to know a lot about wool or have a large wool network? This could be shearers, fleece show judges, wool classifiers/sorters/handlers/consultants etc.
  • Is there a wool agency in your region or country? In Sweden we have Ullförmedlingen, the Swedish wool agency where sheep owners can put their fleeces for sale. The forum has a tagging system so that the seller can give accurate information about the fleeces and the buyer can search for specific information.
  • Go to wool events, live or online. Talk to sheep owners, ask them about their sheep and try to get an understanding of how they work with their sheep, especially regarding the wool. Also, try to look at the fleeces with someone. Together you can investigate the fleece and get more information than had you looked at it alone.
Look at fleece with a friend. This is my friend Anna and I looking at Värmland wool.

You will find fleece you like and you will develop your own list of people and places to find fleece. Sooner or later you will make mistakes, just like I have. You will learn from your mistakes, perhaps more than from your successes –you will learn what to look for and what to stay away from. A wise friend of mine said:

You don’t have to know to get started, but you need to get started to know.

Embrace your fleece buying mistakes and learn from them on your next fleece hunt.

When you have got a fleece, remember to give feedback to the shepherdess! Show what you spin and what you make. Tell them what is good about the fleece and your suggestions for improvements from your spinner’s perspective. I am sure they will appreciate the feedback and remember you in their next shearing.

Happy spinning!


P.S. I have just published an edited version of the webinar The Hand spinner’s advantage that I streamed live on September 19th, 2020. The webinar is free to watch at my online school.


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