We were struck by a remark Judith McKenzie made at SOAR 2002, about how we're seeing fiber offered to spinners in more and more processed form, and that's kind of sad. Part of the joy of spinning is staying close to the source of what we're doing. And I personally never feel so happy as when I'm elbow-deep in nice fragrant fleece. But also I find it very educational to see the original fleece and feel it through all its stages. We can learn what fleece is supposed to be suitable for what use from books and classes, but only through being in contact with the original can we really integrate that knowledge. Also it's only by that contact that we can we make the best use of an individual fleece which may not fall squarely into the stereotypes of its breed.
There are a couple of other good arguments for doing your own fleece processing. A major one is cost. A good fleece brings pitifully little money to the farmer these days, something down to $1/lb last summer, which is horrifying but the topic of another discussion. The reason you're not paying any less for fiber, au contraire, is that you're paying for the processing. It's not a very skilled process, but it's labor-intensive, and takes a lot of time, and in the US or Europe both of these cost you a lot.
We find that we can routinely get a whole fleece at our local auction (Monterey County Fair) for about the same as we'd pay for a pound or less of top, and so we're paying 3-10 times less by doing a bit of pleasant work ourselves. I think the most that was paid for any fleece in Monterey last summer was $15/lb, for incredibly exquisite stuff from well-known farmers, and most of the fleeces (very yummy) went for $3-4/lb. Top of similar quality routinely goes for about $40/lb, not exactly cheap if you were thinking of a sweater. We ourselves scored an 8 lb-er at $1.50/lb of soft and amazingly elastic stuff in a lovely medium grey, which will keep us clothed for years at under $15. Make that $20 if we dye some of it :-).
The other, and in my eyes very important, argument is your control of quality. Some rare fleeces are close to uniform in quality, but most are somewhat uneven. If you get a whole fleece, you first decide how much it should be skirted (ie it's up to you to see how much of icky belly and butt wool to throw out). The standards for this are completely subjective, and you can very much enjoy fleeces from farmers who think more of them are usable than you agree with, or than are suitable for your purposes. Then you can sort the fleece so you get some of the very best for a special project. For instance you can save ½ lb of the softest, finest wool for a baby sweater. Or you can separate out a couple of rougher pounds for a fulling project. It goes in both directions, but you see that you have complete control.
This is also very helpful for colored fleeces. Most are not uniform, and while this is supposed to be a fault I tend to seek them out because of the wider range of uses you can get from them. If you have the whole fleece, you can easily blend colors evenly, or you can have the option to separate them out. You can get many harmonious colors for a fair-isle sweater for instance, by separating out the light, medium and darker values in a fleece, and then perhaps blending them further in set proportions to make intermediate values. Or you can simply separate a few handfuls of the lightest or darkest to make a trim. Much more color bang than getting a uniform roving, and then hunting for suitable shades to complement it, something always difficult with natural colors.
On the other hand, you should consider that roving (including top) you buy is kind of like sausage. What you're really buying is the reputation of the dealer, not anything you can easily evaluate. There is no legal definition of top, so anyone can call their worsted roving 'top' and you're not any the wiser. Top should be made only from the longest fibers, while roving can have a variety of lengths, which is why top is so much more expensive. But once fiber is combed into top, you have no way to tell how long or short it may be except in a very general way, unless you're willing to separate out every fiber within a section and make a statistical analysis. If the long stuff is mixed in with shorter parts of the fleece, you can't tell, and that's a drawback if it's important to you.
Because top is so much more expensive, all the suppliers are now concentrating on it, it's getting hard to buy plain roving. This is fine if you're a weaver or just one of these worsted-intensive people. But it's not fine if you're a knitter, and need light elastic yarn. Then you can buy roving which may be lower-quality. Or you can buy top if you want better-quality yarn, but it won't loft as much if you spin it worsted as it wants to be. So you might end up having to card your top to get a good woolen preparation. An ironic waste of time, if you ask me.
Worse, the quality of what you buy vs what you prepare could even be much lower. If you're doing your own processing it's quite straightforward for you to pick out by hand the second cuts and other very short bits. Pretty much everyone agrees that they cause pills, because they can't really be integrated into the yarn. But it's impossible to pick them out by machine, and most commercially available tops are indeed processed by machine, or you'd be paying a lot more than $40/lb for it. So you can only hope that the initial fleece was very high quality and well shorn, and that few short bits got mixed in. You can only tell the quality you're getting by wearability of the final product, and that's a very painful and slow way to go.
Along these lines, it's a rare person who hasn't sent fleece to be processed at some plant and not been disappointed. It takes special equipment to process the fine fleeces that are so popular now without filling them with neps. It takes attention to remove bits that are just going to shatter into unremoveable sharp slivers before feeding them through. Part of this unending disappointment is probably some unreasonable expectations of what machines can do on the part of the fleece owner, part of it no doubt is also inadequate or uneven equipment and skills on the part of the processor. Whatever the reasons and their balance for an individual fleece, people seem to be much happier with the results when they do the processing themselves. I don't mean to be judgemental about people who've accumulated enough fleece to clothe dozens and who just want it useable now ;-), but I'm saying that it's worth doing yourself what you're attached to.
In conclusion, processing your own fleece is well worth learning or taking the time to do. Washing fleece is both easy and pleasurable. Carding or combing should probably be on the list of blood-pressure reducing activities similar to petting the cat, only you don't have to clean the litter box :-). Not only do you get to spend more time in fiber activities, but you're sure to get a better final product. Try it!
First published: 12/15/02
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