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.
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.
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.
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.