Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wool Grades and Sheep breeds

A good wool grader can recognized more than 300 grades of wool. And, wool grades are important to spinners - more so than the breed.  Having a single grade of wool at the draft triangle produces a better yarn,  and a less itchy fabric.

Any particular fleece will contain 4 or 5 different grades of wool. Card the whole fleece together as is common in modern practice, and it will not spin as well as if the fleece was graded, and the different grades in the fleece were carded and spun separately.  Of course, this means that the fleece will produce 4 or 5 different yarns that theoretically have different appearances.  In fact, the difference between the yarns due to differences in the grades, is likely less than the differences introduced by the day to day variation of most  hand spinners. And, each grade from the fleece has the same characteristics as the fleece it total, so you are still getting all the good spinning characteristics from the fleece, it is just that by grading the fleece you can spin all of that fluffy joy it to its best advantage.

I do not care what breed the fibers in drafting triangle are, I care what grade they are! If they are all the same grade, I do not care if they came from one fleece or 20 fleece.  I do not care if they came from one breed or 20 different breeds. On the other hand, sometimes the only source of the wool of a particular grade is limited to a very small area of  a very special fleece.  That special grade of wool needs to be sorted out, protected, and kept special.

If you do need enough  special wool for a large object, and it must all be perfectly uniform, then buy (or raise) several fleeces that are very similar, grade them to  prep and spin each grade separately. Get enough fleeces that one of the grades is sufficient for the whole object.  I promise you, it is still the same lovely wool, only better.

A good bit of the itch of wool is fibers of differently thicknesses responding to motion in the fabric differently, flexing to a different extent, and creating a gap in the thread. A body hair pokes into that gap and gets tugged.  When all the wool fibers are the same size, the gaps do not form, hair does not get pulled, and there is less itch in the wool.  One reason that Merino is low itch is that it has been bred to have very uniform fleece and it is very well graded.  Very well graded wool of any breed is more comfortable to wear then wool of the same breed that has not been graded e.g., the whole fleece carded together.

If you have a fleece, and you take it to the mill for carding - it is going to get all carded together, and a bit of the last fleece that they carded is likely to get mixed in.  So, if you have one exceptional fleece, what do you do? You grade it yourself.You may not be perfect, but your grading will be better than throwing the whole thing into the mill.  Now, you have 4 or 5 bins of wool. You label them, and prep them, and spin them. It does not matter if one end of a hank is spun from one bin and the other end of the hank is spun from another bin. The bins are from the same fleece, and after spinning will be very similar in appearance. Now you blend the singles by plying singles spun from different bins.  Then the fabric will be perfectly uniform.

I like Anna Harvey's Rambouilett. I like the fleece.  I like the uniformity over every fleece, and I like the flock uniformity.   When I buy, I have her send me a few fleece, and I grade, and put each grade in its own bin.  There are very small differences between the grades, but each of the grades is better than a mix of the grades.  The fleece are fine and soft, and each grade is fine and soft. The fleece have good color, and each grade has - even more uniform color.  The fleece spin into very nice yarn.  The grades spin into better yarn.  This is wool that would otherwise get baled and go to Italy.  I pay more than the Italians.  I do not care,  I get it at a reasonable price.  Today, American Rambouilett is as good as any wool being produced anywhere in the world. 

The modern spinner's infatuation with working with individual whole fleece, and carding the whole fleece together means that they are actually working with a lower over all quality of wool.  Carding all the various grades found in one fleece together diminishes the over all quality and value of the wool. Keeping the grades separate enhances the value of the wool.

However, the modern spinner's infatuation with individual fleeces and specific breeds is good for me, because then I can by anonymous graded wool that  is much better for spinning, and much, much cheaper than buying individual fleeces.   I buy graded medium wool for socks and warp (also re-purposed as worsted sweater yarn), for half the price that fancy named fleeces next to cute pictures would cost me - and then I can have 10 pounds of one grade of wool, and I can make large and uniform objects. I do not care if the fibers in my drafting triangle are all the same fleece or even the same breed, I do care that they are all the same grade. Graded wool spins into better yarn.    I like better yarn.

If your hands will not deal with all that carding, then the best hobby-sized drum carder in the world is
the Clemes and Clemes.   I use, (and abuse!) one of their old manual carders, but their new electric ones are better.  Our guild has 2 of them.  We had other brands, we got rid of them and we bought Clemes and Clemes.

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