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In Quest of That Perfect Fleece

The Wool Fleece Judging School at Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

Reproduced from The Shepherd, Volume 45, Number 11, November 2000, pages 14-16.

The Maryland Sheep Breeders Association sponsored a Wool Fleece Judging School at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, Howard County Fairgrounds, West Friendship, Maryland on Friday May 5, 2000. The instructor was Dr. Frank Craddock, Extension sheep and goat specialist with Texas A & M University in San Angelo, Texas. Last year Dr. Craddock conducted an excellent hands-on workshop on judging wool sheep, see The Shepherd Magazine, "If you name your sheep, they're too fat", July 1999, pages 30-31.

The purpose of this workshop was to train livestock judges, shepherds, and fiber-holics in wool fleece evaluation and production. Thirty people attended this day long workshop, some were handspinners or weavers, many were shepherds; most were from the East Coast area, with a few from as far away as California, Michigan and Kentucky.

Several subjects were discussed. The most memorable were: Important wool traits and how you can improve these traits in your flock, differences between evaluating Commercial, Breed, and Handspinning fleeces, and finally the importance of breed standards in fleece evaluation.
Wool Fleece Judging Class, 2000

Points to remember:

  • 75% of the time "crimp" is the best way to determine grade; the finest will be on the shoulder, the coarsest on the britch. The more crimps per inch usually indicates a finer fleece.
  • The finer fleeces will be the most uniform, while the coarser fleeces will be less uniform.
  • The coarser fleece with be higher yielding, while the finer fleece will have a low yield weight.
Fleece score definitions:

  1. Fleece weight (quantity or quality, depends on use)
  2. Fiber diameter (representative grade for the breed)
  3. Yield (vegetable matter and grease weight)
  4. Length/strength (the longer the staple the more valuable the fleece, up to a point)
  5. Purity (undesirable fibers, i.e. black fibers in a white fleece, kemp, contamination, stains)
  6. Uniformity (evenness of fiber diameter, length, and character)
  7. Character (luster, brightness, color, crimp indicative of breed, handle)
Important wool traits and how to improve on them

The value of wool is judged by its suitability to a specific use. Value is influenced by the following traits:

Fleece weight: Fleece weight is dependent on the density (number of follicles producing fiber and the number of fibers per inch of skin), the diameter of the individual fibers, and the length of the fiber. Genetics and nutrition during late gestation will determine the number of follicles present. Other important influences on the weight are the body size of the animal and impurities that might be present, like grease, dirt, vegetable matter, and water.

For flock improvement: cull the small ewes with short staple fleeces and select rams with heavy clean fleece weights.

Fiber diameter: The average fiber diameter or grade, while moderately genetic, is the most important property determining fleece quality and value. Breeders should select for uniformity of fiber diameter throughout the fleece. Even in fine wool breeds britch wool can be coarser than the bulk of the fleece. This variation can be minimized by selective breeding.

For flock improvement: cull ewes with hairy britch and coarse or `off ' fleeces. Select rams with finer fleeces, submit samples for micron testing.

Yield: The yield or percentage of clean fleece should be 45%-70% depending on the breed, with the higher yield being more desirable. The open and coarser fleeces will have a higher yield compared to finer fleeces. Contaminating materials can influence yield weights. There are four types of contaminating conditions:

  1. Natural: These contaminants are produced by the sheep itself and include impure fibers, urine, dung, grease, dirt, yolk, and suint.
  2. Acquired: These are environmental contaminants like vegetable matter, animal matter, mineral salts, sand, twine, and sheep ked feces.
  3. Applied: Paint brands, copper sulfate, and phenothiazine.
  4. Moisture: Be aware of the 'hidden-shrink' water, which can be 6-18% or more.
For flock improvement: cull ewes with very greasy fleeces, select rams with adequate high yielding clean wool weights. Maintain a timely worming program. Excessive yolk can be reduced by selection, timely shearing, and even a change in diet.

Length of fiber: Staple length should be adequate for its intended use. Strength is the most important aspect of length. Low tensile strength from tender wool or broken wool is the greatest contributing factor to fiber loss; these problems are caused by poor health and nutrition.

For flock improvement: cull short-stapled ewes and select rams with Long staples. Remember healthy sheep produce sound strong wool.

Purity: Purity is freedom from other fiber contaminates. Contaminating colored fibers in white sheep can be an inherited or genetic fault such as from a spotting gene; kemp or hair; stained wool; or accidental fibers from other livestock like blackfaced or colored wool sheep. Polypropylene/hemp particles or paint brands can also contribute to fleece contamination.

For flock improvement: adjust management practices, such as shearing white sheep before colored wool sheep, avoid polypropylene twines or non-scourable paint brands. Cull animals that grow undesirable fleece fibers.

Uniformity: This is a "sameness" throughout the entire fleece, a uniform fiber diameter and length. Fiber diameter and crimp are inversely related, with crimp frequency and definition important parameters. Avoid second cuts and hairy britch.

For flock improvement: cull ewes with dissimilar fleece and hairy britch, select rams with the desired uniformity.

Character: Character is a major attribute for a fleece. It involves color, crimp, brightness, staple formation, loftiness, attractiveness, style, and handle. A white fleece should be a bright white, a natural colored fleece should be bright too. It should have a fine distinct crimp, characteristic of the breed. Finally a fleece with good character should have a soft pleasant handle or feel to it.

For flock improvement: cull ewes with off colored harsh fleeces showing little or no crimp and extreme belly wool. Select rams with bright soft fleeces with a distinct crimp that is characteristic of the breed.

Evaluating Commercial, Breed, and Handspinning fleeces

Commercial Fleece: Commercial fleeces are separated by grade. The amount of clean wool in a fleece is of prime importance. Also important are staple length, uniformity of that length, and strength. Wastiness and contamination should be discriminated against. Character is not quite as important but should still be considered.

Purebred or Breed Fleece: When judging purebred fleeces, breeds are usually separated by sex. The genetic potential for desirable traits should be evaluated. Ranked for genetic qualities, such as uniformity of grade and breed type, these fleeces should be judged as though they were still on the sheep. Environmental factors such as breaks, vegetable matter, or tenderness are not as important.

Handspinning Fleece Natural colored fleeces belong in this category, and fleeces are normally separated by grade. Value is determined by color preference, spinability, and quality of fiber. The most important attributes are cleanliness, uniformity of grade, staple length of at least 3 inches, strength, plus a soft lustrous handle.

Breed Standards

Fleece characteristics of grade, crimp, staple length and lock formations are breed related and should be dictated by the standard of breed. For example a merino fleece is characterized by having the finest grade or smallest diameter of fiber (18-26 microns), the most crimps per inch and a slow growing short staple length. But a Romney fleece should have a 32-39 micron fiber diameter, a bold crimp, with a fast growing long staple length. Now, we wouldn't want a Romney fleece to look like a merino fleece or vice versa. Lesson: whether you are a judge or a breeder, know your breed standards.

The Perfect Fleece is Attainable

In order to improve the fleece on our sheep we must learn about the traits and characteristics that make up this wondrous wool fiber. We need to maintain a good selection program, remembering that many of these wool traits are heritable. Most importantly, our rams should possess all the wool qualities and trait improvements that we desire for our flock. We should provide proper husbandry practices to assure adequate flock health and nutrition. We must work tirelessly to control contamination. Wool production is a year round process, where that perfect fleece is determined by animal selection, management, and environment.

This class was so popular that they have decided to repeat it in 2001 along with an advanced class in wool fleece judging. I wish to thank Dr. Frank Craddock and the Fleece Judging School Chairman Peggy Howell for making this class possible.

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