Look here first

Learning what a fiber can tell you

Excerpted from The Field Guide to Fleece © by Deborah Robson & Carol Ekarius. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.  Photos by © Mars Vilaubi

When you are learning to tell one wool from another, consider its crimp, fiber length, and fiber diameter, and look at the types and mix of fibers in the fleece.

Crimp. Crimp, which consists of the natural kinks or waves in individual fibers, forms as those fibers grow; it is permanent. Crimp can be tight and well organized, or loose and disorganized. The crimpier the wool, the more elasticity it has, so crimpy wools make great socks or other items that need to stretch and rebound. Wools with less crimp drape elegantly.

High crimp (left), Montadale; low crimp (right), Llanwenog  High crimp (left), Montadale; low crimp (right), Llanwenog

Different fiber lengths (left to right): Santa Cruz, Norfolk Horn, American KarakulDifferent fiber lengths (left to right): Santa Cruz, Norfolk Horn, American KarakulFiber length. Our estimates of fiber lengths represent common annual growth. Many fleeces (even in our sample photos!) fall outside those ranges.

Fiber diameter. Historic grading approaches, like the Bradford Count and Blood Count, were based on the educated fingers and eyes of trained evaluators. Technology has allowed us to report fiber diameters based on micron counts. A micron is a measurement equal to one-millionth of one meter. An interesting thing about micron counts is that two fibers can report the same micron count, yet feel different in your hand. Think of it as two pieces of paper that weigh the same, but one is slick magazine-type paper and the other a natural rice paper: you know the difference as soon as you feel them, even if they weigh the same.  And trained or not, our sense of touch is still one of our best guides to fiber quality.

Single-coated fleece (left), Hill Radnor; double-coated fleece (right), Navajo Churro  Single-coated fleece (left), Hill Radnor; double-coated fleece (right), Navajo Churro

Single-coated; double-coated. A fleece can be single-coated (containing only wool); double-coated (containing two coats, a coarse outercoat and a fine undercoat); or composed of three types of fibers (add in kemp).  Wool; hair; kemp. The term wool can apply to an entire fleece, but it also refers to a specific type of fiber within a fleece. Wool fibers are relatively fine, and have crimp and elasticity; even coarse wool fibers are much finer than hair fibers. Hair fibers are straighter, smooth, strong, and inelastic. Kemp fibers are coarse, brittle, and almost always shorter than the other fibers. Dye “hides” in the hollow centers of kemp, a trait that is used in producing true tweeds.

So, with this brief intro, we wish you well as you explore the wonderful world of wool and sheep!

A fleece that contains hair (the longest fibers), wool (most of the fibers), and kemp (short, brittle fibers), Swaledale  A fleece that contains hair (the longest fibers), wool (most of the fibers), and kemp (short, brittle fibers), Swaledale