Natural coloured fleece is sought after by handspinners, but the quality has to be right. A spinner may pay $30-$40 or more for a fleece, but will probably put at least 100 - 200 hours of work into it. Their total investment is huge, and they won’t choose to waste their time on an inferior product, or settle for something scratchy and full of prickles.
So if you want to earn big dollars for handcraft fleece, it takes thought and planning and some extra work.
Choosing the right sheep
- Breed is important for an indication of fleece type, and an indication of whether the sheep will thrive in your conditions. Find out what breeds the woolcrafters in your area like, then choose one that will do well and produce good wool for you.
- Cross breeding is fine as long as you keep careful records and label your wool accurately. Don’t claim it as purebred if it isn’t.
- The mid-range of fineness may be easiest to sell, but quality is the most important factor. Every breed has its uses, from the finest Merino for a luxury garment to strong lustrous English Leicester for a sturdy floor rug or a woven jacket.
Select each sheep carefully (especially the ram, who will be everybody’s father) for the fleece characteristics you want, because fleece type is largely hereditary:
- “Handle”. This is the most important of all! Put your hands into the wool and imagine wearing it. Scratchy fleeces are very hard to sell. Even quite a fine fleece can be scratchy and hairy, or have hairy parts, and this is a serious fault.
- Open fleece - spinners like the staples to be easy to separate.
- Crimp should run evenly the whole length of the staple.
- Evenness over the fleece. Part the fleece on shoulder, mid-side and haunch, and compare the staples. They should be fairly similar.
- Colour is the least important consideration. There’s a huge range: all shades of gray, from silver to black, and all shades of brown from palest cream to rich tan (moorit) and dark brown. There are buyers for spinning fleeces of every colour (even white, occasionally!).
Conformation is important too. A sheep with a healthy well-shaped body is more likely to grow good wool - so the same criteria for conformation apply as for white sheep.
- Staple length - 11-13 months’ growth is generally best (the actual length depends on the breed). Second shear wool is not usually long enough for handspinning.
- 2nd cut - spinners hate this! Train your shearer to leave tufts on the sheep, not in the fleece!
- Soundness - a break (even quite a slight one) anywhere along the staple will probably make the fleece unsuitable for handspinning. So feed your sheep well throughout the year.
- Nasties - pen stain, vegetable matter (especially prickly things), dust & dirt are all bad news for a handspinner. Try to keep your paddocks free of thistles etc, but if any do get in the wool, they need to be removed at skirting.
- Extra-heavy skirting - take out anything that doesn’t match the rest of the fleece in length or cleanness or quality generally (but leave colour variations in). Spinners expect 100% usable wool. Your skirting is what converts a commodity into a high-end niche product.
Your local branch of the Black & Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association can put you in touch with breeders who have stock for sale, and help with other questions.