how to choose a fleece for hand spinning

This is a question that crops up a lot in the Create With Fibre Community on Facebook so I thought I would talk about it in more detail here.

Fleeces, like sheep come in many varieties.   The British Wool Marketing Board classifies them and grades fleeces in the UK and there are most probably equivalents in your country if you live elsewhere.  The BWMB have published a very good and inexpensive book, The British Sheep and Wool Book,  which lists the main breeds available in the UK and this is most helpful if you want to learn more.

To some extent, the principles  described here apply to pre-prepared fibre too, although the type of prepararations you want to buy, carded fibre or combed tops is also a factor and will depend on how you want to spin it and whether you like spinning from tops in the first place.  More about that another time but just don’t get too hung up on it, try something and se it it works.   Here we are talking about wool from fleece specifically.

BTW, If you sign up to the Create With Fibre e-zine, I will send you a FREE copy of my article, ‘Sorting and Washing Fleece’.   This is re-produced with kind permission of the Association of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers.  Visit their website to find you nearest Guild.  Guilds are wonderful and your best source of real life information about working with fleece.

sorting fleeces at the BWMB in Irvine Scotland

Staple length/lustre

If you are unsure, buy

something with a staple length of 8.5-14.5cm/3-5 inches. It will do for pretty much anything and be the easiest to spin.

Very short fibres, ie less than 5cm/2inches long are harder to work with unless you know what to do.  Having said that, there are some lovely fleeces in the Shortwool and Down Catetory.  For example, Oxford Down and with a little practise you will enjoy them, as they are soft and crimpy.

Very long fibres, ie longer than 17cm/6 inches are also harder to work with and you need to have your hands a lot further apart in order to draft them.  NB you don’t need them closer together to work with short fibres, you can just draft differently by using extended draw (long draw in the US) or long draw (English long draw in the US) techniques.

if you want something warm and woolly, choose short to medium fibres, if you want something with more lustre or hard wearing, choose longer fibres.   But really,  most people don’t pay too much attention to that unless they are spinning for socks or something, so don’t get hung up on it.  What do most of us do?  See a fleece we like and buy it.  Then spin it and decide what to do with the yarn afterwards.  Simple. Its a hobby after all!

Fineness or coarseness of fibre

This will depend on the type of project you want.  Coarser for durable  such as rugs and bags.  Examples are Devon, Herdwick, or for something a bit softer try Scottish Blackface.

Finer where you want something soft, such as a good Shetland.   And do check out how often the finished item is likely to be washed, if it is something that will be washed often and you are buying wool as pre-prepared tops, merino is not great, unless you buy Superwash merino as pre-prepared tops.  it is Teflon coated to prevent felting during washing but it does still need careful handling.

A Scottish Black Face Tup or ram.

For frequent washing and softness Blue Faced Leicester is good but really is best bought as tops unless you want to spin a curly yarn, because  it has such tiny curls.

And there are lots of Medium fleeces that are good for most things.  Jacob, Shetland again,  Cheviot, North Country Cheviot (actually a separate breed) Texel, Zwartzbles…the list goes on.  The good old Mule is nearly always brilliant for spinning.  This is a cross between two breeds and each area tends to have its own favourite cross.  Here in the West of Scotland it is normally a Blue Faced Leicester tup crossed with a Black Face ewe.

Sorting a Zwartzbles fleece

The younger the animal, the finer and softer the fleece.  And individual animals vary too.  Which is why the Wool Marketing Board tends to grade by the fineness of the actual wool rather than by the breed of sheep.

So the best advice? Have a go and have fun with it, don’t get bound up in rules and trying to figure it out.   You could also do worse than buy my book, ‘How to Spin Just About Anything‘ which has loads more about wool, other fibres and how to spin them, along with over 140 photographs.

‘How to Spin Just About Anything’ a great source of info


So much to do, so little time

So what is your biggest challenge with yarn and fibre crafts?

  • How to follow a pattern?
  • how to get knitted and crocheted garments to fit?
  • warping the loom?
  • cutting your weaving?
  • getting the thickness of yarn you want when spinning?
  • All of the above??

Or perhaps, like me its actually finding the time to make things and having the focus to do it.   Here’s how it goes for me: I resolve to start knitting, spinning, weaving or crocheting once I have completed my work day; fulfilling orders, planning spinning and weaving courses and Retreats etc etc.   Then – oops – there is more to do so I will sit down and knit, spin etc when  dinner is made/the dishes washed.  Then…just check the emails first.  …Get wood and light the fire, and so it goes on.

So finally, time to sit down, hooray!    But as soon as you begin to relax, something happens.  All the things you forgot to do start to pop into your head.  Put the bins out, make lunch for tomorrow, phone a friend…and up you get before they go out of your head again.    Or horror of horrors, by this time one of the kids has got back out of bed.

this bunting is a quick Christmas make.  If you have existing bunting, remove it from the hanging ribbon, string, turn it upside down then attach it again.  Voila, Christmas bunting!

The solution to the ‘before I forget’ thing is to have a notebook within reach.  Then, it’s easy!  Simply decide which project to focus on.  Or do you want to read that book?  Ahhh, not so simple after all!  And you forgot to make a cup of tea you had been looking forward to.

I will pick up project number one, a shawl for a friend’s birthday and  resolve to work on it until it is finished.  Then remember the baby bootees are rather more urgent and also smaller so wouldn’t it be better to get them finished first.  Just focus until they are done.  But I have second bootee syndrome.  Yes, its related to second sock syndrome but I may just be the only person who suffers from it with bootees!  And now, of course the phone rings and after chatting for half an hour (lovely, but I forgot to take my knitting with me when I answered the phone)  and I am nearly out of time.

So here is the solution!   Yes, really.  Let yourself off the hook here because the reality may just be that you don’t have much time for knitting, crochet, spinning or weaving right now.  Do ten minutes a day/at a time instead of trying to carve out large chunks of time.  It is amazing how much you get done in ten minutes a day.

Another quick make, wee crocheted baskets, each containing a Ferrero Rocher or similar chocolate, or if you are sugar free, a walnut works well. this is now available as a Ravelry pattern.

And the secret is this:  there may well be more than one ten minute slot a day.   it is amazing how many ten minute slots there seem to be, once you stop trying to carve out those non-existent larger chunks of time.  Those who have done my spinning courses or read the ‘How to Spin’ book will be familiar with the ten minutes a day them for spinning and many of you have  and got in touch to say it was a revelation!

I spin ten minutes in the mornings and treat it as a meditation but what if you did something else for ten minutes in the afternoon or evening?  It is so much easier to find ten minutes than an hour.    So I am off to knit for ten minutes, see ya!


Yarn and Fibre Festivals

Knitting is the new black.  You heard it first here.

Take the UK. A few years ago, North of Watford, there was Woolfest, the Massam Sheep Fair, Wonderwool Wales and not really much else.

‘Herdies’ or Herdwick sheep at Woolfest

Now, even here in Scotland – where perhaps the midges, and a national population of only 5.3m (to give that some context, the population of London England is about 8.7m)  would, you’d think cause slower growth – there are lots and lots of fibre and yarn festivals.  but we make up in enthusiasm for what we lack in numbers up here in the North of Britain…

So then there was Shetland Wool Week.   Then Edinburgh Yarn Festival,  and now… Perth Festival of Yarn is in its second year.  I have not been there before but am so looking forward to teaching at it in September 2017.   There will also be a Create With Fibre stall at the Festival and Lee will be selling his amazing Dinky, Midi and Scarf Looms and blending boards.  He is having trouble keeping up with demand actually but promises he will have some on sale there!

Woolfest in Cumbria in the North of England continues to thrive and I volunteer at it every year.  Just love their sheep and spinning focus of course.    The Rheged Centre, also in Cumbria now has a wee wool festival in the spring.    They showed the film Yarn in the Rheged film theatre.   I totally love that movie by the way…

As the knitters, spinners, crocheters, felt makers and weavers just keep growing in numbers,  the yarn festivals are multiplying.  All are busy and there are many, many more that I have not mentioned.

Here are my wool festival highlights this year:

Janet teaches spinning at EYF

Courses at Yarn Festivals

Lots of you come to the courses at EYF and all of their courses have filled up fast.  In fact, the second year I taught there, they started out by asking me to do two and I ended up doing five courses.  I did get to have a very quick tour round the Festival in the last 20 minutes and yes, it is surprising what you can buy in 20 minutes…  Like all of the Festivals, EYF is unique and in particular it has a very international clientele.  There were people on the courses I taught there from New Zealand, Russia, Norway, Poland and more.

And I volunteer on the Woolclip stall at Woolfest most years, (the only year I missed was when I was away doing my Knit 1 bike 1 project) and I just love Woolfest, the Woolclip and all of it.  So glad to do my bit there.  The Woolclip is the cooperative that organises Woolfest and also the shop.  Higham Hall sometimes have courses in conjunction with Woolfest and I have taught a couple of those over the years too.  Along with all the regular courses I have done there over the years, and the recently added Higham Knitting Retreats.

So this year, check out Perth festival of Yarn.  I will be there both days and am teaching spinning, crochet and weaving.  Can’t wait.