Like all mammals, sheep, camelids and goats grow a coat to protect themselves from the elements. In each breed, the coat or fleece has to serve a certain purpose. This can include anything from camouflage to water proofing but the main purpose is to keep the animal warm in winter and cool in summer. In different parts of the world, these protective hairs have developed differently, resulting in a large variety of fibre properties. Rare breeds of heritage livestock preserve these unique characteristics in fleeces that have been lost in many commercial flocks where it is imperative that fleeces are as similar to each other as possible.
The fibres and wools from goats, alpacas, llamas and various breeds of sheep can be used to spin, felt, crochet, knit or weave. Possibilities are endless – the only limit is your imagination. Each and every fibre feels slightly different and has specific properties which give the end product its unique appearance. There is nothing that matches the satisfaction of having created a garment or artwork from a raw fleece, straight off the animal.
Once a year it is time to harvest the fleeces. For many breeds this is not optional. Unlike cats and dogs, who shed for weeks on end in the lead-up to summer, sheep, camelids and some goats need to be shorn. Otherwise their fleece will mat and become an animal welfare issue. While most rare breed fleeces weigh between two and four kilograms, some can weigh up to six kilograms after one year’s growth. This is quite a burden for the animal to carry around day-in and day-out, especially in summer. In sheep a large fleece can mean that the animal can sometimes no longer get up after lying down, which is known as a cast sheep. Unless rescued and put back onto their feet they will soon die.
The annual shearing is quite an event on a sheep farm. All sheep have to be mustered and brought into the yards. There they wait for their turn to be shorn. Watching an experienced shearer applying his (or her) craft is interesting to watch. Shearers wear very soft pliable shoes to enable them to efficiently control the movement of the sheep with their legs by keeping them close to the sheep’s body.
While being shorn, even the biggest rams usually remain calm. It’s over in a few minutes and the animal is released back into the yards. It takes them a day or two to adjust to being liberated from the weight and bulkiness of the fleece. The fleeces are taken away, put onto a sorting table and graded before being packed into big wool bags.
Small producers of heritage wool often put fleeces into individual bags. There will be white, black, grey, silver, brown, red and moorit coloured fleeces. There will be coarse wool and fine wool, there will be lambs wool and wool from hoggets and older animals. Each individual fleece is different from the previous one and selecting a fleece or two can be an exciting occasion.
Some crafters use a fleece unwashed. Camelids and goats don’t have lanolin in their fleeces but sheep fleeces do. It’s up to the individual crafts person what they prefer.
To wash a fleece it’s important to handle it so that it doesn’t felt. Most crafters will work out their own method and adjust it to the type of fleeces they work with but a simple method is to fill the laundry tub with hot water, add some detergent or dishwashing liquid, carefully submerge part of the fleece and let it soak for a few minutes before letting the water out. This will remove most of the dirt and lanolin.
Add more warm water, carefully pad the fleece and gently move it around a bit, then let the water out again. Repeat until the water is clear. Leave the fleece for a while so the water can run off, then carefully transfer into a laundry basket and take it outside.
Don’t subject the fleece to sudden water temperature changes - this can cause felting. Some people use an old trampoline to dry their fleeces but some bird netting tightened to a frame will do the job, too.
Once the fleece is dry it can be carded. This can be done with a small flick carder or with a drum carder. These items are quite expensive but the Ashford products are worth the expense. Instead of a proper carding brush a dog brush can be used but these wear out very quickly.
There are a number of commercial carders around the country who wash and card single fleeces. Most of them do mail orders where you send them the skirted cleaned fleece and they send back the carded product. When the fleece comes back it can be spun directly out of the bag or used for felting.
Here at the Rare Breeds Conservation Society we concentrate on our Rare Breeds of Heritage Livestock which are less known than Romneys, Merinos and other commercial breeds. Rare Breeds produce fleeces just as valuable as commercial breeds! You can find more information about fleece characteristics on the pages listed below.
The Rare Breeds Conservation Society has run a number of spinning and fleece displays as part of their Rare Breeds Auction and as part of the Rare Breeds display at the New Zealand Agricultural Show, both in Christchurch, to promote Rare Breed fleeces and to show people the possibilities these fleeces offer. North Island events are held in Wimbledon at Brian Hales’ farm.