Shetland Fleece Processing and Spinning

Dear Readers,

The time has finally come for me to share with you my experience of spinning shetland.

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First a little background. I started spinning two years ago when I first acquired a second hand spinning wheel from a friend. Since then I have developed my love of spinning. Coming from saying to Husband, I would never buy fleece to process it’s just too much effort, right up to this past July when on a whim I saw that a lovely lady in Fife was selling her sheep’s fleece for the price of the shearing and I proclaimed; I want to buy some fleece! Thankfully I have a wonderfully understanding and long-suffering husband and he was very happy for me to buy some fleece. I had even said I would only get one and when I couldn’t make up my mind which to choose said oh well just get all three. Upon hearing that this was my first time processing fleece the wonderful lady gave me one of the small Shetland fleeces for free as “practice”. And so that is what this post is about, my first time ever processing a fleece.

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I must warn you that there are a lot of photos in this post and I anticipate that it will be a very long one. I took loads of photos along the way as this was my first time and I really wanted to document the process.

The first thing that I did was skirt my fleece. This is the process where you try and get rid of all the unwanted bits. Any large pieces of vegetable matter (aka VM), any clumps of poop (these are farm animals after all), any parts that are so matted that it is not worth trying to wash and comb it.

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I feel like I did this process fairly well. The one part that I missed out on was grading the fleece. At this point I should have separated out all the parts of the fleece that seem different from one another and grouped them. I did really really enjoy sitting outside with the wonderful smell of sheepy fleece (I believe that this is an acquired taste aroma but I love it) and the feel of working with my hands and the raw wool.

Next, I washed and scoured my fleece. This was another learning experience that I would do differently next time. First I will tell you what I did. I took all the fleece and put it all in one lingerie bag and washed it. Three washes in 60 degree C water with fairy liquid (dish soap) and then two rinses in 60 degree C water. I only left them in for about 20 minutes each so that the water didn’t cool too much, this is to prevent the lanolin from coagulating and staying on the fleece instead of rinsing out with the water.

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In hindsight there was actually still a lot of sand/dust and lanolin left in the fleece. I believe that this is because I washed too much of the fleece all at once. When I researched the process I saw that people do washing both in plastic tubs with holes in, or with laundry bags. Although the plastic tub method looked better to me I didn’t want to spend too much money on something I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy. So I went with the laundry bag method. (Just to let you know I have since bought some plastic tubs and washed a little bit of Cheviot fleece and this was much more successful).

Then I dried the fleece. I was lucky that the day that I washed my fleece was both sunny and a bit windy so I hung it all outside and it got mostly dry very quickly.

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It is important that the fleece be 100% dry so I did bring it inside and dry it for a few more days too.

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Interestingly my cat Jack was not as fleece obsessed as the internet suggested he would be. He was as interested in my fleece as he is with everything else I do. That is he was a little bit interested but not to the point of interfering.

There was a little gap where I didn’t work on the fleece because Husband was doing research on making me some hand combs. There are two popular methods of preparing sheep fleece for spinning and that is combing and carding. Combing produces fibre that is ideal for worsted style spinning and this produces a tighter smoother yarn. Carding produces fibre that is ideal for woollen spinning and this produces an airer fluffier yarn. As I predominantly spin worsted I wanted to comb the fleece.

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The combs that Husband made me worked beautifully.

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I made a diz out of polymer clay to work along with the combs but in the end I was not that skilled at using it and so I didn’t actually use it all that much.

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Somewhere along the line of combing, I realised that I wanted to sort out the different qualities of fleece (this should have been done at the grading after the skirting but before the washing) so I got out the plastic baskets that I had bought for washing other fleece and I grouped them out.

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Can you spot Jack?

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After the fibre was combed I drafted it off the comb and wound it into little birds nests or “bumps” of fibre for spinning later.

I did keep my waste because I wanted to document everything. I think that had my washing technique been better and possibly my combing too I might have landed up with less waste. I separated my “waste” out into two piles, I had the stuff with was predominantly dirt and that was all destined for the compost. Then I had the stuff which was predominantly second cuts or just shorter bits. That is being kept for when Husband gets around to making me some hand carders and I will card that for some woollen spinning.

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Spinning was an interesting learning experience too. My poor washing technique meant that I was partly spinning in the grease! Spinning in the grease is where you spin fleece with little to no preparation. Some people do washing it but do not scour it, this will remove some of the dirt without removing the lanolin. Why would you do this? Because lanolin makes it waterproof! This makes it ideal for spinning if you want to make a jumper that is going to be worn by someone who is outside a lot in all sorts of weather conditions. My fibre was not truly spin in the grease as I had attempted to scour it but there was still a lot of lanolin left in the wool and this meant that spinning it was different to spinning commercially prepared fibre which I was used to. It is hard to explain but it was sort of stickier but not in a bad way, the fibres smoothed together much easier and it felt a lot less dry. I actually landed up spinning this much much finer than I usually do and that is why I decided to chain ply it and get a 3 ply yarn. If I had 2 plyed it I might have landed up with something closer to laceweight or light fingering and I do not knit with those weights much.

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I spun most of the fibres all together except for the courser fibres, these I spun separately.

As I said before I chain plyed these.

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As you can see from the washing process I did lose a lot of dirt and a little bit of weight from my skeins too.

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Yarny Details:

Original fleece weight: ? Unknown; unfortunately, my hanging scales have rusted so I was unable to weight the original fleece.

Total Spun weight: 220g

Total compost waste weight: 161g

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Skein 1 weight
Before washing: 83g
After washing: 77g
Grist: 230m in 100g (Double Knit)

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Course skein weight
Before washing: 39g
After washing: 38g
Grist: 180m in 100g (Aran Weight)

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Skein 3 weight
Before washing: 110g
After washing: 105g
Grist: 248m in 100g (Double Knit)

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And that is it ❤ The story of my 3 lovely skeins of Shetland and my first time processing sheep fleece!

I hope that you enjoyed this foray into fleece processing.
Peace and Love
Ellie

18 thoughts on “Shetland Fleece Processing and Spinning

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write a thorough description of how to process fleece. Amazing, the difference between the “fresh” fleece and the three skeins of yarn. I used to want to learn how to do this myself, but there is a lot of cleaning involved. I’ll stick to the knitting end of things and leave processing fleece to others who are not fazed by this – like you!

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  2. Unfortunately we get so much rain here we do use ours more than I’d like to during autumn, winter and spring. I have about 8 balls I made in various sizes that I throw in and they definitely have shortened dryer time and static.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much! That is such a clever idea about the dryer balls! I had not thought of that, although I’ve also never used dryer balls. Coming from South Africa we only use the dryer for towels and bedding and even then not if it’s a sunny day haha. I am not very experienced with a dryer.

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  4. Congratulations on your first fleece to yarn. You did a great job and to have spun it too, very impressive. I’ve only processed one fleece so far and used most for wet felting on the lampshades I make. The scraps that came off the back of the hackle (or which would have come off combs if I had some) I shoved into tights and tied knots in and made dryer balls with. I find using a diz does make my hands ache, my Guild friends recommended I relax my grip.

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  5. And that is a why handspun and dyed wool costs what it does. That is quite a process to get 100 grams of yarn. Thanks for that tutorial. For us nonspinners, it makes things bit clearer as to how yarn is processed.

    Liked by 1 person

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