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Let's Talk about Fleece: Harvest and Handling

Originally published in the September 2000 issue of Marker, quarterly magazine of the National Colored Wool Growers Association. Reproduced here with permission. See also Part 1, The Basics and Part 2, Genetics and Nutrition.

Harvesting

Shearing: Ideally a fleece should be shorn when it is ready, at its prime so to speak; which unfortunately may not be when the shearer is available. A good shearer will generate a minimum of second cuts and may do the initial skirting for you by setting the belly wool, leg wool, and topknots aside so they won’t contaminate the fleece.

Your job would be to make sure the sheep are dry by bringing them into a secure shelter the night before. If holding area is dusty, sprinkle with water. Remember - don’t bed on fresh straw, and be sure to withhold water and feed for 8-12 hours. The sheep will be more comfortable during the shearing with an empty stomach and you’ll have less chance of having feces contaminated or urine soaked fleeces.

Be sure to provide a smooth level shearing surface and a good source of lighting. Natural light is the best, but it may need to be supplemented with well positioned artificial lights. The shearing area should be out of the wind and protected from the rain or snow. Animals should be penned within reach. It’s good to have extra help available, especially someone to present the animal to the shearer.

A trip board or barrier across the threshold to the shearing floor will keep animals from dragging bedding into the area. Have a good broom handy and know how to use it quickly to clean the shearing floor between animals. Try to arrange to have the white or lightest colored animals sheared first; and the finer fleeces before the coarser.

Body heat and moisture: When you remove a freshly shorn fleece from the shearing floor, let it rest for a few minutes, preferably spread out on a skirting table. It is important to allow the body heat to escape from the fleece and for the wool to cool. Never put a warm freshly shorn fleece into a plastic bag and tie it shut. If the fleece is unavoidably damp, spread it out on an old screen or panel and with minimum handling, let it air dry.

Skirting: Second cuts are easily shaken out before spreading the fleece, cut side down, on a skirting table or screen. Remove the grease and manure tags, soiled or stained wool, and britchy wool, as well as areas with hay chaff. Most of this skirting material can be found around the edges of the fleece, and can easily be removed. If you’ve done a good job of managing your sheep the skirting material should only amount to about a handful.

Rolling and tying: With the skirted fleece in one piece, cut side down, fold the rump end in a few inches toward the center, and then fold each side to the center. Roll the back end toward the front, so that the nicest shoulder area is on the outside of the bundle. See diagram below. Label or identify the fleece with the animal’s name or number, the date, and skirted weight. If fleeces are tied they should only be tied with paper twine.
Tieing a fleece, step by step:
  1. With the bottom of the rolled fleece facing up,
  2. use two pieces of paper twine (and and b), each cut long enough to encircle the fleece twice, plus a foot.
  3. Tie one piece, then tie the other at 90 degrees to the first.
  4. Flip the bundle so the top is up, tie the leftover lengths of twin between the first two ties.
  5. Secure the excess twine into a handle.
Diagram of tieing a fleece
Tieing a Fleece
Storage: Natural colored fleeces can be ‘wrapped’ in newspaper, while white fleeces can be ‘wrapped’ in brown paper, like flattened grocery bags. They can then be placed in opened or otherwise well-ventilated plastic bags or ideally in cardboard boxes, and stored in a clean, cool, dry place. Never store a fleece in a closed plastic bag, and never with mothballs. Process the fleece for use or for show as soon as you can, before it loses its bloom.

Fleece Selection

Selecting a beautiful, top-quality natural colored handspinning or handcrafting fleece is easy, just remember to look, listen, and feel. There is no difference between selecting a fleece to show, to sell, or for your own personal use. The most significant characteristics when comparing or evaluating fleeces are the same whether you are looking for the next-to-the-skin softness of a merino or the rugged durability of a Karakul. The evaluating criteria are basically the same.

Look: Stand back and look at the fleece. A fleece should be appealing, look for cleanliness, color, and eye appeal. Character should be a main determinate, and is generally associated with crimp or waviness; but other qualities like color, staple formation and handle are involved. The staple length should be adequate for its intended use, and the color should be clear and bright, not muddied or yellowed. Staple formation is important, a bulky staple indicates quality, density and yield. Uniformity of grade is essential. Hold a thin lock up to the light, look for a break, thinness or tenderness in the fibers.

Listen: Thump or pluck a pencil-thick lock between your fingers, you can actually hear a distinctive twang of healthy soundness in comparison with the dead sound of weakness. The fibers in the lock should be strong and not break as you pluck it.

Feel: Give the fleece a hug. If it weighs about what you think it should in relation to its size, then it has an average yield or amount of clean fiber. If it is heavier than what you would have thought, expect a low-yielding fleece with a lot of waste in dirt or grease. Smell the fleece while you are hugging it. There should be no musty, moldy, sour, soapy, strong-ram or mothball smell. Tips should be easily opened and not be brittle or cemented together. Close your eyes and feel a handful. This is called ‘handle’ and is the most important characteristic of a fleece. The handle should feel pleasantly soft and silky, with lots of body; not harsh, sharp and rough, or limp, dry and lifeless.

Show Fleece Presentations

Showing a fleece in competition is an excellent and inexpensive form of advertising. Many shows will accept shipped fleeces, so you don’t even have to be there. Show fleeces often bring premium prices and repeat customers, but you must have a desirable product. A show fleece should possess good eye appeal or character, a nice handle or feel, and freshness or bloom. Color, cleanliness, length of staple and presentation are all an important part of that appeal. Emphasis should be given to larger, bulkier, higher-yielding fleeces.
Prize Winning Karakul Fleece
Prize Winning Karakul Fleece
Show fleeces should be well skirted but still large enough to be worth while; 2-3 pound fleeces don’t normally make good show fleeces. Shows will vary as to presentation requirements, be sure to check if fleeces must be ‘tied’ or rolled into a clear plastic bag. Properly prepared and tied fleeces will place higher than improperly prepared and tied fleeces. A properly tied fleece will have the best shoulder wool exposed, this should be uniform in grade, length, color, and character. Fleeces should be tied only with paper twine. And tied tight enough to restrain loose ends, but loose enough to retain its loft and high-yielding feel.
As Kevin Ford says at the end of his book, (Shearing Day, Feet on the Ground Press, 1999, pg.137), "Any well grown fleece deserves good handling, for it is a wondrous product, freshly cut from the sheep, still with the warmth of life in it". Amen and THE END.

Addendum: One of the most asked questions is "How do I keep the vegetable matter out of my fleeces?" Sheep maintained on well cared for and properly managed pastures stay remarkably clean. It’s when we start feeding hay that the trouble begins, especially when sheep are able to burrow down and bury their heads in the hay looking for those choice tender green leaves.

There are many so-called hay feeders on the market; finding one that effectively manages the hay is a challenge. Perhaps the simplest is a discarded rubber tire or a cut off barrel. Ground feeding is never recommended, because of parasite spread, except on clean snow covered areas, but the concept is perfect. The secret is to prevent sheep from burrowing into the hay. The easiest way to do this is to feed in small amounts, feed low to the ground, and don’t crowd the sheep. This may mean you’ll have to use several tires or feeders, each with a leaf or two of hay (not a whole bale); and as a result you may have to feed more often. Never throw the hay, but instead try to shut the sheep out of the area or distract them while you distribute the hay.

Many of us over feed our sheep, like Dr. Frank Craddock says in his judging workshops, "If you name your sheep, they’re too fat." Overfeeding means waste. Just watch what that old ewe does when you give her a leaf of hay - she’ll go through it picking out all the choice tender leaves, then ask for more. If you believe her and give her more, you can almost hear her snicker as she dives in for the choice stuff again. If you ignore her and walk away, she’ll almost say "Humph!" in disgust and start eating the larger, less tasty stems.

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