A while ago I bought a fleece online. It was just one of those spur of the moment purchases, when fleece just happens. It was a beautiful gute fleece with silky soft undercoat, long and fine outercoat and quirky kemp. However, as the fleece landed on my doorstep it turned out to be full of vegetable matter.
I had very mixed feelings about this fleece. On the one hand, an unusually soft gute fleece. On the other hand, all the vegetable matter, all over the fleece. My solution was to fall for the fleece, learn from the vegetable matter and share my thoughts and techniques with you.
A villhöver kind of fleece
Gute wool is typically medium to coarse and can be rough (which is not necessarily bad). The undercoat is usually fine or very fine, but in combination with coarser outercoat and the quirky kemp the feeling on the whole is usually rough.
This fleece on the other hand has the softest undercoat in a very airy distribution. The outercoat fibers are long and fine. The kemp, that helps keeping the fleece open, airy and thereby warm, is present over the whole fleece but is also finer than usual in my experience. This very fine undercoat in combination with kemp is very interesting (and rare) and I wonder what she wants to become. The fleece is quite homogenous (also unusual for a gute fleece) with staples of mainly airy undercoat and few strands of outercoat. I would call this vadmal type staples, also quite rare, especially like this over the whole fleece.
The combination of the airy distribution of the undercoat and low amount of outercoat fibers sometimes make the tips hard to find. In parts of the fleece I have to investigate the whole wool mass thoroughly to find the tip ends.
The fleece with all its unusual characteristics presented a severe case of villhöver. This is a fairly new Swedish portmanteau word (like smog, Brexit and Oxbridge) constructed of the stems vill (want) and behöver (need). Something I want so much that I convince myself that I really, really need it. Or, something that I don’t necessarily need but secretly covet. Like, say, a very inviting gute fleece.
The fleece presents no poo, very few felted parts and seems to have been professionally shorn – it has very few second cuts. However rare and intriguing this fleece is, it is still full of vegetable matter. Hey, straw, seeds and an occasional piece of moss. Some parts bad, some parts moderate, but still all over the fleece. I do smile at an occasional piece of the environment the sheep has lived in. It gives me a better connection to its daily life. But definitely not in these amounts.
The curiosity of this fleece did however take over and I decided to see this experience as an opportunity to learn and share my insights with you. Also, the openness of the fleece (thank you kemp!) made me believe that the vegetable matter would fall out quite easily after some work and persuasion. A more compact wool like Swedish Gotland wool would probably take a lot more work to clean from vegetable matter.
I did let the seller know about the high amount of vegetable matter. She offered me a refund. I declined, because that was not what I was after, I just wanted her to know that I would have wanted this information in the ad before I bought the fleece. I also wanted her to let the sheep owner know that a crafter doesn’t want vegetable matter in the fleece and why. Rather than getting a refund for my purchase I want the sheep owner to keep providing this quality of fleece but with better knowledge about how to avoid vegetable matter.
I realized that I could remove a lot of the vegetable matter through several steps of the processing – washing, drying, shaking, picking and one or more of willowing, teasing and carding. Even spinning can spurt out small seeds. The question was if I could remove enough of the vegetable matter, how much more time it would take and how it would interfere with my flow. Most of the steps I present below for removing vegetable matter are steps I take through all my fleeces anyway before I spin them. I just need to dedicate more time and focus in each step.
The first thing to do is to go through the fleece before washing. In this stage I can remove visible vegetable matter, felted parts, poo and second cuts. With this fleece I didn’t do any of this, since I poured the fleece right out of the package into the wash tub.
Washing and drying
It was when I pressed the bundle of fleece into my wash tub that I realized it was full of vegetable matter. As I soaked and changed waters I removed what I could see and fiddle out of the wet mass. I dried the fleece on a compost grid on top of egg cartons. As the fleece dried some smaller pieces fell down to the floor underneath the grid.
When a fleece dries I shake it and move it around to allow air in. It also lets vegetable matter fall out of it. As I have gone through the other steps of the processing I have also shaken the fleece in smaller portions to allow it to let go of bits and pieces.
I realize that willowing would be a perfect method to remove vegetable matter from a fleece like this. Willowing means whipping the fleece with flexible sticks (willow or hazel for example). It will open up the locks and allow vegetable matter to fall out. Since it is November and not very willowing friendly temperatures outdoors I haven’t done that. Yet, I might do it in the spring, though. You can read more about willowing and watch one of my most popular videos here.
Picking a fleece is a great way to get a first feeling of what the fleece is like and how it behaves. You see how the staples are built up, how the fibers relate to one another and the condition of the fleece. I simply work staple by staple through the whole fleece, picking them by the tip end one by one from the mass of staples. In this process the staples open up and allow for vegetable matter to fall out.
I used to pick the fleece (usually before washing), but somewhere along the way I have omitted this step of the process. On my latest fleece though, I did pick the fleece to sort it into different staple types and I realized the potential of this step, both to learn more about the fleece and to enjoy it more. Sitting on the floor and methodically and mindfully picking one staple at a time is time well spent with your fleece. I’m definitely picking up picking again!
I always tease my wool one way or another before carding it. Carding for me is to arrange the fibers in a certain way. To do this efficiently and gently the staples need to be opened up before I place them on the cards.
I tease by hand if I don’t have any teasing tools available or if I want to stay really close to the wool and get to know it better.
For efficient teasing before carding I use combs. I can load quite large amounts of staples on the combs, especially if I use my larger combs with a combing station. Here is a post and a video where I show you how I tease wool with combs before carding.
I also use a flicker to tease. A flicker is a smaller card, sometimes used to clean drum carders. I open up staple by staple, one end at a time. Sometimes I use the flicker for very fine fleeces where there is a risk of breaking the tip ends. I prefer the tips breaking (and staying) in the flicker rather than having them turn into nepps in the carding. I have also found the flicker to be a good choice if I want to remove some of the kemp at the cut end.
With the gute fleece I tried teasing with both the flicker and the combs. They both do a good job of removing both vegetable matter and kemp. Since the combs are more efficient I think I will use my maxi combs with a combing station to tease the rest of this fleece.
When I comb wool to make a combed top the teasing is integrated in the combing (unless the staples are really reluctant to opening, then I may tease them with a flicker before combing).
Carding the wool allows even more air in between the fibers, and thereby more vegetable matter out. As I inspect the rolags I still see some small pieces of vegetable matter, though.
As I card this magnificent gute wool I truly enjoy the airy and bouncy response I get from it between the cards. Again, every step of the processing allows me to learn more about how the wool behaves and how it wants to be spun.
So, now to the final step and possibly an answer to my questions: Have I managed to remove enough of the vegetable matter to produce a decent yarn? Have I experienced the flow and relaxation through the process like I usually do? In short: Was it worth it?
As I spin the yarn small pieces of vegetable matter spurt out from between the fibers. The wool has opened up enough to just gently hold on to the debris, in contrast to how they were entangled in the raw fleece. Every now and then I need to stop the wheel to manually remove little bits and pieces. I did this test from one of the worst parts of the fleece and hopefully other parts will flow easier.
So far I have only teased, carded and spun a small sample of this fleece to investigate what I’m up against. I still haven’t finished picking the fleece, I’m doing it little by little. When I have finished picking the whole fleece I will store it and put it in the fleece queue. If it is warm outside when it’s the gute fleece’s turn in the queue I might willow it before I start teasing and going through the rest of the process with the whole fleece.
Even though each step has taken a bit longer than usual and even though I may experience interruptions in my spinning flow to remove debris I think it will be worth it. This is such an incredible fleece.
As they say, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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