Picking fleece

The first step I take with a fleece after I have washed it is to pick it. Staple by staple I pull the tip ends out of the fleece until I have picked myself through the whole fleece. Today I discuss the advantages of picking fleece and why I don’t skip this step.

When I first learned to spin and process my wool I was taught to pick it. Somewhere along the way I omitted this step, for some odd reason. Recently, perhaps a year ago or so, I started picking my new fleeces again. There are so many advantages of picking fleece and I don’t want to omit this step.

Here is a short summary of the steps I take when I pick a fleece:

  • When the fleece has dried after washing I lay a newspaper on the floor and prepare a paper bag where I write the breed of the fleece and when it was shorn.
  • I take a bundle of fleece in one hand and search out the tip ends with the other. With the holding hand as resistance I pull the tips straight out.
  • If I see any vegetable matter I remove this. Some will probably fall to the ground as you pick through the fleece.
  • I also remove felted parts, solidified tips, heavily dirty sections and poo.
  • I take notes of characteristics of the fleece and any ideas I get for handling it in preparation and spinning.
  • When I have picked through the whole fleece I put it in the paper bag and either store it or go on with processing the fleece.
  • All that I have removed will be used. I generally put it in the compost or in my Bokashi bucket.

Model: A Tabacktorp fleece

The model I use in this post about picking fleece is a Swedish Tabacktorp fleece. It’s one of the rarest breeds in Sweden. The official statistics say that in 2021 there were a total of 25 breeding ewes in seven flocks in Sweden.

My friend Sandy of Swedish Fibre was kind enough to let me buy 1 kilo of her Tabacktorp treasure. The content of the kilo I bought could be from one individual or from several.

Picked locks of Tabacktorp wool in my ullkränku (wool basket). Two saigkorgar (baskets for carded wool) in the background. Both basket models are traditional from Gotland.

I will make a breed study blog post and webinar about this fleece later on. For the sake of this blog post the Tabacktorp fleece is just modeling for my picking demonstration.

Air in

When I pick a fleece I hold a bundle of the washed fleece gently in one hand and pick out staple by staple from the tip end. The staples are usually slightly interlaced at the cut end and picking the staples will open up the cut ends and invite air in between the fibers.

10 grams each of unpicked (left) and picked (right) tabacktorp wool.

Getting air into the fibers makes the upcoming preparation steps easier – if the cut ends are detangled there will be less strain on my body and on the fibers. Picking the fleece will thus reduce the amount of waste compared to an unpicked fleece.

The staples in the Tabacktorp fleece are quite defined and untangled already. Some fleeces are held together to different degrees at the cut end throughout the whole fleeces, but this one almost falls to pieces when I pick it up.

Stuff out

Picking the fleece also gives me the opportunity to remove any stuff I don’t want in it. This could be vegetable matter, short fibers, seconds cuts, felted parts and poo. A lot of stuff will fall out just by the air coming in when I pick the fleece. Other stuff will be easy to remove manually as I pick my way from staple to staple.

The most obvious vegetable matter is easy to remove in the picking stage if it doesn’t fall out on its own as I pick staple by staple.

When I have finished picking the whole fleece the stuff I don’t want is gone (resting cozily on my garden beds) and I’m left with clean and open full-length staples only. The fleece is ready to be used.

This fleece didn’t have very much vegetable matter in it, some juniper needles. No felted parts and almost no poo or dirty parts. It could be due to a very clean fleece overall or to a thorough skirting and rough sorting by the sheep owner.

Establishing a relationship

As I pick my way through the fleece I establish my relationship to it. To me it is important to learn as much as I can about not only the fleece, but also the sheep. In the newly shorn format that I get the fleece in it’s as close to its on the hoof-version as possible. In the unprocessed fleece I get the chance to explore what the fleece did for the sheep. Picking out leaves, needles and grass gives me an image of where the sheep has grazed, what kind of plants that have been in her living room. I get to tread in the hooves of the sheep.

As I pick my wool I establish a relationship with it.

Years ago when I had a thing for Shetland wool I got beautiful fleeces from Shetland Woolbrokers. The stuff I found in those fleeces made my heart tingle, it felt so special to be able to go back to Shetland in my mind. I didn’t find much vegetable matter in the fleeces, but some peat fell out of them occasionally. Especially on the sheep’s sleeping side.

That kind of information is not necessary for me from a strict spinning perspective, but it gives me an image, a feeling for the sheep’s life and surroundings. And with that important connection to the sheep I feel a closeness to the sheep and a deeper responsibility to make her justice. She has grown a beautiful fleece and made it available to me. It’s my responsibility to treat it with the humility and respect it deserves and spin its most beautiful yarn.

A first glimpse

Looking at the wool off the hoof in its on-the-hoof state as staples I get the chance to get to know its characteristics.

Visual

Visual aspects can be

  • colour
  • staple length
  • staple type. To me the staple type is connected with the outercoat to undercoat ratio. Is there mainly outercoat in the staples, equal amounts of outercoat and undercoat or mainly undercoat?
  • crimp – are the staples straight, wavy, curly or crimpy?
  • openness – are the fibers bundled together in the staples or more open?
  • evenness – are the staples more or less similar over the fleece or variegated?
  • an approximate relationship between outercoat and undercoat, if applicable.

What I find when I look at the list above are not good or bad, just information I get from looking at the fleece. Information that I take into account in further processing.

Tactile

I can see a lot from just looking at the fleece, but it’s with my hands in it that I experience its more subtle characteristics. When I dig my hands into the fleece, I can get more tactile information like

  • How the staples detach from the cut ends. Is it easy or do I need to struggle to pull the staples out of the staple bundle? Sometimes there is a resistance or even sort of a felted carpet right at the cut ends. Whether it is from the shearing itself or from when in the growth period the sheep was shorn or something else I couldn’t tell. But if I do have to struggle it tells me that I need to take measures to ease that struggle as I prepare the fleece. A struggle indicates risk of strain, in both my muscles and the fibers.
  • What is the bounce like in the fleece? If I take a bundle of staples and squeeze them, how do they bounce back? This can be an indication of how the yarn will behave as I spin it and how it blooms after I have finished it.
  • How do the fibers relate to one another? If I draft from the cut end of a staple, how is the give in the draft? Does it come easily or do I need to struggle?

I can get lots of visual, more quantitative information from the fleece, but with the more qualitative feedback in my hands I get to know it on a more subtle level.

Sort?

With the information – quantitative and qualitative – I get from the staples as I pick my way through them I get an overview of how it is composed. With that information I can make decisions on whether to sort it into different categories or not, and which categories.

I can choose to sort by

  • Colour. There can be difference in colour over the body of the sheep or between undercoat and outercoat. Sometimes over the stretch of a fiber. This is an interesting way to sort a fleece. A multicolour fleece can give you lots of ways to play.
  • Staple length. For certain projects I may want evenness in the staple length. I can sort a fleece on that basis.
  • Staple type: In dual coats there can be different undercoat to outercoat ratios which can be a parameter to sort by.
  • Coarseness/fineness: Differences in fineness is not uncommon.
  • Crimp: Some fleeces with lots of variegation can have different degrees of crimp on different parts of the body.
  • Fiber type: Do I want to separate undercoat from outercoat?

My Tabacktorp fleece has lots of different staple types that I could easily sort and use for different purposes. Still, they are quite even in length and my plan at the moment is to card it all together, taking advantage of their collected characteristics in one yarn rather than go for individual characteristics in several smaller sections.

Store

When I have picked my fleece it’s ready for storage. My fleece queue is long, my oldest fleeces are from the autumn 2021 shearing. All the fleeces in my storage are picked. When I invite the oldest one to dance it’s all dressed up and ready – with far less vegetable matter, clean, easy to work with and perhaps even sorted into categories. It may be a bit flatter than the last time I saw it, but it will puff up again.

One bag of picked Tabacktorp wool shorn autumn 2022, ready for my wool storage to wait its turn in my fleece queue.

Before I store the picked fleece I make a few notes on my Ravelry page about the wool. Discoveries I have made through the picking such as how it drafts, if I have struggled with it, Perhaps any thoughts I have of spinning or what to make of the spun yarn.

My Tabacktorp wool now sleeps cozily with equally picked Åland, gute, dalapäls and other fleeces in my sofa bed. And when it’s Tabacktorp’s turn in line I will thank myself for having taken the time – and joy – to pick it, get to know it and make notes about it characteristics.

Your wool has a lot to teach you. Listen to it.

If you are a patron (or want to become one) I have just released my November video postcard where I demonstrate how I pick my Tabacktorp fleece.

Happy spinning!


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2 Replies to “Picking fleece”

  1. Fantastic blog Josefin! I’m teaching a fiber prep class tomorrow and your insight (as usual) is so valuable! I also washed 24 fleeces this summer. It was my goal to get my garage in order and ready for spinning over the winter. Although, as soon as I was done a local farm dropped off 16 Romney fleeces (I wasn’t home, so my husband took them) that they thought I could use and then I had my own flock of Finn sheep sheared the next day, so I’m back up to 25 unwashed fleeces again. I decided that wool in my world is more like laundry, it’s never finished! But, meanwhile, picking sounds like a great skill to use and start going through the clean fleeces and get them sorted and have a closer looks at the fleece! I love how you develop a relationship with your fleeces as you work! That has helped me so much in my own journey! Thank you!

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