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


Are you a textile artist?

Ever dreamed of turning your  textile love into a business? Sounds amazing, huh?
The reality can be a little different however.
Which is why Janet of Create With Fibre has decided to add to her business mentoring service by offering a retreat for those with a textile business.

weaving with primary school children

It can be hard to turn your passion into a business, because its not always how you thought it would be.
Working out what to charge, asking for money for your work, how to earn enough to pay the bills…if you are just starting out there are systems and accounts to worry about, too. The reality may be that you will only spend half of the time actually doing what you love.

A book signing at the local Chemist’s shop

Or you may be struggling to come up with a money-making idea to even start your business.
And if you were used to having work colleagues and now work from home, it can feel isolating. Lots of us dream of working from home, right? In reality it can be challenging.
Especially when the rest of the household go out in the morning and your day starts with a mountain of dirty dishes.
Of course, it can be wonderful working for yourself and doing what you love but only if you know how to make it work. Time out to focus on your business can really help give you perspective. A chance to have fun and relax whilst sharing with others who know what its like.

And 1-1 time with Janet to think about your business. And time to really focus on planning and action. All whilst having fun in a 4 star guest house, with beautiful views, a woodburning stove, and likeminded people.
And why Janet? She has spent over 20 years earning her living as a textile artist. And has mentored others individually for much of that time. In fact many of the UK textile artists you may know have been helped or started on their business journey Janet. If you want to know more, visit the createwithfibre website

A Special Retreat and Some Sheep

Ryeland Sheep & Fleece
Ryelands are one of the oldest British sheep breeds and have been in the UK for hundreds of years.  Their legs are covered in fleece as well as their bodies, which along with their cute noses, gives them the distinctive ‘teddy’ appearance.  They are great mothers, good for both fleece and meat and rarely suffer from foot problems.  They can have either coloured or white fleece.  Wow!
The wool is great for spinning or needle felt.  it has a rather unique ‘crispy feel to it without being at all scratchy and will not pill or felt easily when made into knitwear.

One of Jacqueline Bonner’s Ryeland sheep

The Best Wool for the Job

I think that imported Merino is over rated as a spinning fibre, although its availability in as coloured tops makes it a good choice for UK based feltmakers who do not want to work specifically with indigenous fleece.   If you live in a country that produces it in larger quantities such as Australia or New Zealand, it is a good choice for you of course.    And there are breeders this side of the Pond of UK version of the breed, called Bowmont.  Although Merino type wool is soft it is prone to felting, hence its popularity with felt makers.  it is lovely for babywear if the parents don’t mind handwashing.  But Ryeland is a good all rounder and I love its ancient roots as a breed.

An Exciting New Retreat for Textile businesses

Janet has launched her very first Retreat specifically for those with a yarn, fibre or fibre animal business.  She has provided 1-1 mentoring for many years and this is something she is really excited about.   The Retreat will take place at the same amazing venue as the Create With Fibre knitting and spinning retreats.  So the views, food, wine, woodburning stove and time to spin, knit or crochet will all be there.  At the same time, we will talk about the business dilemmas and plans we have.  There will be 1-1 time with Janet and also a chance to actually get down to the nitty gritty and do some work on those plans.  Together we are stronger!

Higham Hall Knitting and spinning retreat

April 2017 has been a busy month – nothing new there then!

A knitting and spinning Retreat at Higham Hall in Cumbria, English Lakes. This was a new venture.  Although I regularly deliver courses for Higham, this was  the first Retreat I have done there and I am sure it will not be the last.

An absolutely brilliant time and Higham let us use their sitting room with it’s wood burning stove.   We were knitting, crocheting and spinning. Not all at once you understand but people  chose what they wanted to focus on.  We did a wee project as usual.   this time it was mug hugs or cosies.

mug cosies was the project this time.



And courses for Wigtown and Eden Valley guilds of weavers, spinners & Dyers this month too.  An ‘Improve Your Spinning’ course at Wigtown and Silk Spinning at Eden Valley.    We stayed in the Lakes for a few days and had the very great pleasure of visiting the Camping Barn near Keswick  and having a good old knit, natter and cake eating afternoon with Sarah and her friends!

There will be another Retreat at The Old School in October 2017 by the way… They of course are our regular Retreat venue.   Only four rooms, but they can accommodate a couple of camper vans and day places are available too.

Spinning and Weaving Courses Chez Nous

One of the things I love to do most is have people to visit.  We live in a plain wee street in a lovely bungalow in a simple Ayrshire village.  Our back garden is a real surprise, as we grow a lot of veg in a relatively small space and are actually WWOOF hosts too.  (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms).

Simple living has always been a part of what we do and we decided years ago that living in a village was more sustainable and a better life than being in the hills (as we were previously).   So we have a modern, well insulated bungalow, solar panels, a wood burning stove, grow veg and live in a place with three buses an hour, people around during the day and hills in every direction.  Yes, we still have the hills.  You can set off and walk in any direction from here.

So it makes perfect sense to have ‘cosy courses’ in our living room.  People love them and the numbers are smaller – often 3 or 4 people but certainly no more than 5, depending on what it is.   Hubby makes soup for us and we eat around the kitchen table.

The most recent course was a ‘flexible’ two day spinning course.   Beginners on day one and improvers on day two.  You could book for one or both days, and all levels except complete beginners can come to day two.

Local accommodation is available and we also have a spare room where you are welcome to stay.  You can have a wee peek at our house here we are air bnb hosts.

Oh and we also do one to one tuition, anything from half a day to two days and stay the night!  Your very own micro retreat chez nous, in other words.

To see the current course list, visit Create With Fibre.

Victoria on a one to one spindling lesson