One of the big events of my year every year is the New York Sheep and Wool Festival. Always the third weekend in October, I start getting excited for the next Sheep and Wool on the way home in the car from the one I just finished.
Ellie has bravely attended NYSW for two years running with me. Without complaint she accompanies me through the show from packed aisle to packed aisle looking as interested as possible at the thousands of permutations on fiber mania.
This year her loyalty extended to getting up at 5 am and driving two hours with me from Northampton to Rhinebeck. We arrived to heavy traffic at the 9 am opening. Aside from the normal rush of adrenaline, this year was particularly exciting as I had decided to make a big commitment. After much thought as a spinner of one year’s duration, I had decided to buy my first fleece.
This was not a decision lightly arrived at. Buying a fleece would be a major step. After all, as I had pointed out to Jim, after a fleece there is only one more step back to the source for a knitter and a spinner–buying a live sheep. To prepare for this undertaking I had spent hours watching high drama and compelling videos on evaluating fleeces, washing and processing fiber and preparing a fleece for spinning. I had studied breeds and thought carefully about the properties I most valued in the fiber I had spun and what I might want to knit with the output of my spinning. The more I learned and the more I thought, the greater my anxiety. This was a big leap into the unknown.
The area where all the fleeces are displayed would be uncharted territory. Previously I had eyed the building with the fleeces with wariness and concern. Long tables ran in parallel lines the length of the structure. Each table was loaded with plastic bags spilling over with various fleeces; Primitives, Longwools, Medium wools, Alpaca. The varieties were endless. Colored fleeces in greys, browns and, of course, white added to the mix of choices. The air was thick with the smell of lanolin and unprocessed fiber. Many of the fleeces were labeled with breed, type, weight and price. Some fleeces bore ribbons and prizes from judging as well as the judge’s report cards on the quality of the fleece.It would have been heaven except how in the world could one choose? No wonder reports are legion of spinners leaving with six or even eight fleeces!
Slowly we walked the length of each table. Touching first one fleece, checking the crimp on another. We attempted to eliminate potential acquisitions. Color was a factor. I knew I wanted a white fleece. Wool type was also a factor. I wanted a versatile fleece with a fairly high micron count–softer and better for yarn for clothing. At last we chose…The fleece we picked was a Romney/ Border Leicester cross. It seemed a good all-purpose fleece. Attached to the bag was a sheet of information. My fleece came from a sheep named “Logan.” It weighed 5 lbs 15ozs–some of which was dirt and lanolin. The fleece was coated and skirted. This meant that Logan had worn a coat to keep dirt and vegetative matter out of his fleece and the unusable parts of the fleece had been trimmed away. Logan was raised on a farm in Carlisle, PA. When I took the bag brimming with unprocessed fleece up to the register, it turned out Logan was raised by the daughter of the woman who was ringing up the sale. She said that her daughter raised only dark-colored sheep for fleece, but Logan’s fleece was so nice, she kept him for his white fleece anyway. Below is the sheet of information:My excitement over acquiring Logan’s fleece was now only matched by a sense of great responsibility. I must do my best to honor Logan’s fleece. He had spent long months growing his fleece, it must be cared for, prepared and put to good use. It was a solemn pact.
The next step would be to wash my fleece. This was going to be a job. A very big job. I waited until I had a full Saturday at my disposal. In all the videos I had seen, triumphant fleece purchasers spread their new fleeces out and easily recognizable was the outline of the former wearer of that fleece. It wasn’t like that with Logan.
Logan’s fleece looked like a garbled mess. Logan, like my two younger children, clearly never folded or hung up his clothes. You can’t really get a sense of how much fiber there is here in this photo, but believe me, it is a lot.
The first step in processing fleece is a good washing. Out must come the dirt from the field and at least some of the lanolin. Spinners in New Zealand are famous for spinning in the grease which means spinning unprocessed fiber straight from the fleece. This will make a water-proof garment and insure the spinner’s hands are soft and supple, but it is not good for creating yarn which isn’t going to be used in stormy weather or which is expected to take a dye. The lanolin coats the fiber and will eventually dry out and will also refuse to let dye into the fiber.
I loaded too big pots on the stove with hot water simmering away. One pot was for washing and had some dishwashing liquid added to the water. The next pot was for rinsing.
I took Logan’s fleece in sections and let each section simmer in the hot, soapy water for about 15 minutes.
After squeezing excess water out wearing rubber gloves against the heat, I dunked the fiber into the rinse water. After rinsing, I squeezed the fleece gently and then used our trusty salad spinner to get as much water out as possible. The difference between pre-and post-washed fleece was remarkable.
Even wet the now washed fleece was white and fluffy. The kitchen was hot and steamy and smelled wonderfully of lanolin and wet sheep as I worked my way through each portion of Logan’s seemingly ever-larger fleece. It took well over four hours but by the time I finished I felt I knew my fleece intimately and I was in love with every lock of his wool. Just look at how lovely it is…
My hands were permanently pruned and ached from all the hot water. My back was killing me, but Logan was washed and laid out to dry. It would take a full week for all of that fleece to dry. And then the next step would be figuring out how to process the cleaned fiber and get ready to spin.
The next installment will cover my first spinning attempts with Logan and will feature some finished yarns. Stay tuned…