Be Friends with Wool

If there was just one thing Ellen Sakornbut wanted us to remember about her January program it was this: RELAX! It’s just wool. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery. Don’t be intimidated by wool.

However, getting to know wool takes practice–lots of it. Ellen passed around samples of yarn and asked us to quiet our brains and use our senses to examine each one. Look at its staple length, crimp, and luster. Feel it for softness. Listen as you snap it for its strength. Is the wool’s lock structure dense, triangular, wavy, spiral, or double coated? How would you describe its hand–elastic, bouncy, drapey?

According to Ellen the fiber’s breed is not that important. More important is what can be done with the wool. She urged us to be realists and not fiber snobs. Different types of wool give us a variety of opportunities: different spinning techniques, dyeing or natural, blending, weaving, knitting, or felting. We limit what we can do if we demand a particular micron count or breed. Learn to use a fleece to its best advantage.

When choosing a fleece it is helpful to know that sheep breeds fall into four categories according to their wool’s characteristics: primitive, longwool, down, and fine. That being said, there can be huge variations in wool coming from the same breed and even in wool coming from the same sheep from year to year.

The primitive breeds are generally Northern European fat-tailed sheep. They often have a long outer coat and a short inner coat. Their long triangular locks are prone to picking up vegetable matter. Learn more about some primitive breeds in the following slideshow.

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The long wool breeds are often named after the geographical areas of their origin. Their long locks are soft, silky, lustrous, and strong. Long wools usually felt well, and the locks can be tail-spun for art yarns. Some of the well-known long wool breeds are pictured below.

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The down breeds get their name not because they are downy but because they originated in the Downs or southeast England. Down breeds are often thought of as meat sheep; however, their wool is springy, resilient, and resists felting. The crimp is often spiral. Here are some examples of down breed sheep.

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Fine wool sheep have a very small fiber diameter of twenty-five microns or less. The dense fleece is used for very soft clothing. Most fine wool breeds are either Merino or have descended from Merino. This silky soft fiber can be fragile.


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Some last words of advice about wool from Ellen:

  • Learn to be an opportunist.
  • Be open-minded.
  • Learn how to work with the wool, not against it.

Thanks, Ellen, for another educational and entertaining presentation.

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