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Sunday, December 18, 2016

How Does Your Yarn Begin?

Love of fiber takes hold early: a fiber artist is never too young to begin
Isn’t it the Beach Boys who, back in the day, sang about “good fibrations?”  Well, those good "fibrations" actually begin with the breeder of the sheep whose fleece will become roving and yarn. Like any other breed characteristic a shepherd wishes to emphasize, breeding for quality fleece requires a well thought-out plan and dedication.
These are things to consider:
Managing waste hay will improve your fiber
 1) Think about why you want to improve your fiber – is it so your sheep look “better,” or is it to increase the utility and quality of the fleece itself? If improved looks are really your goal, perhaps some simple housekeeping changes such as veg management or proper shelter and feed can fill the bill instead of a full-on breeding-for-fiber program.

Quality yarn comes from quality fleeces
2) If you are new to fiber as an artistic medium, you should first decide what you want to actually do with the fiber. Are your plans for sales to others, or for your own personal use? If you plan to sell fleeces, you will need to choose as many pluses as possible, but if you want fleece for your own use, you may choose to focus on a single quality such as staple length, and not worry too much about the various tones of color, for instance. What the fiber will be used for – spinning, knitting and crochet, felting, or weaving, for example – will impact what qualities you want in your fleeces.

Bagged fleece ready to skirt at a community shearing event
3) While you are making these decisions is a great time to get your hands into as much fleece as possible, your own sheep fleeces as well visiting other farms. 
Visiting during a shearing (call and ask first!) is a great opportunity to see fleeces up close and personal and still still be able to match them with individual sheep. Most sheep-keepers who breed for fleece are delighted to have you visit during shearing, particularly if you are willing to help with some of the rough skirting, and that is a great opportunity for you to educate yourself about fleece in general, but also to get a real hands-on feel for what you would like in your own fleece-improvement program. You need as many points of fleece comparison as possible, and you should make honest-to-goodness pen and paper notes about the qualities you like, as well as which individual sheep and fleeces have the qualities you admire.
Sorting skirted fleece for staple length or other qualities.
  4)  Now decide what specific fleece improvements you want to make. For instance, do you want a longer staple length, smaller (or larger) fiber micron, more spring in your fleece, clearer color, darker or lighter color? Next, arrange your changes in order of importance to your goal, and pick one or perhaps two things to focus on for the first year.  From here, you should proceed as you would for any other changes you would make in your flock structure.  Decide which of your own sheep provide the fleece qualities you wish to accentuate and then as you add sheep, choose animals that will compliment what you have as well as add what is missing. 
5) Remember that a hogget (or first shearing) fleece will be different from any other fleece sheared from a sheep, and so a final evaluation about which lambs to keep and which to sell will be more accurate at the second shearing.
Cotswold waiting for shearing

Cotswold after shearing
"Have you any wool?" chants the nursery rhyme.
And that's a different spin on things!

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