Tips and Tutorials

Buying Guide
  • Tips for Buying Raw Fleece

    Are you thinking about buying a raw fleece? All the choices can be a little overwhelming at first. But don’t worry, I’ve put together some tips to help you pick a fleece with confidence and find one that you will love working with.

    What to expect when you’re inspecting

    fleece sales at SVFF 2014 by 222handspun.comThere are several factors that go into evaluating a fleece. There’s a bit of an art and science to it. You may not get it 100% “right” at first, but that is how you learn. Understanding what to look for and what you want ahead of time will help you avoid buyer’s remorse.

    Shopping at Fiber Festivals and Fairs

    Festivals usually have tables lined up with the different breed types organized together. Each fleece will be in a clear plastic bag and have a tag with the details and pricing. Think about what breeds and colors you like before you go inside so that you don’t get overwhelmed. If you are not sure you can ask a staff member to help you. They will likely ask you if you have a specific project in mind to help you narrow down choices. Some good "beginner" fleeces are breeds like Romney, Bluefaced Leicester, Jacob, Shetland, and Finn. There are plenty of other good ones, but these come to mind when thinking about easy scouring and fiber preparation. 

    If there is a skirting table available, you can ask to see the fleece taken out of the bag. A staff member will unroll the fleece on the table and allow you to inspect it. Some shows do not have the space or staff for this, so you will have to look at in inside the bag only. Most fleeces are rolled up in their entirety with the cut side facing out and frequently the dirtier parts are at the bottom of the bag. (That's where I always look). You will want to check for fineness, lock structure and staple length, strength, the amount of vegetable matter (VM), and overall quality. Take care when digging around to not pull the fleece apart as people like it intact when buying. Also, when you are done, try to put things back where you found them to make it easier on other patrons who are shopping.

    After you have made your selection and purchased your fleece (congrats!) be prepared to take it with you as most events do not have room for storing purchased fleeces and they can weigh several pounds each. It's a good idea to make arrangements ahead of time where to stash your bags while you continue to shop at the fair. Mornings on the first day are usually busiest and have lines to get in to fleece sales, but you can usually find good quality ones later on if you wait to avoid crowds.

    MDSW Fleece Sale

    Shopping Online

    There are several sources for buying online such as Etsy and Facebook (FB’s Raw Wool for Sale group is a popular one). When buying online, make sure to use a payment with buyer protection such as PayPal. The seller should furnish the breed, overall quality, price/lb., total weight and price, amount of VM and skirting, staple length, estimated shipping, and accurate photos. Do not buy a fleece that has heavy VM, kemp, scurf, lice (more common in mohair), lots of second cuts, breaks / weak spots, has a short staple length, or is not skirted at all. Bargain fleeces take more time than they are worth so I would not bother.

    Check the seller’s return policy and reputation before purchasing. Although I have many friends who are growers and I respect the amount of work and care they put into their farms, sometimes online transactions don’t go as planned. Most of it has to do with communication and fiber education (or lack thereof). You should expect to receive your purchase in a timely manner and for the appearance and weight quoted. Open the package immediately because wool absorbs moisture and anything packed in plastic can mildew quickly. Inspect the fleece and remove any undesirables before storing. I quarantine raw fleece to make sure I don’t bring any moths inside and try to wash it as soon as possible. If you have any questions or concerns contact the seller directly and provide a description of the issue and photos if neccessary.

    Fleece Pricing

    Try to get the best fleece for your budget, but only spend only what you are comfortable with. Fleeces can be relatively expensive because the cost of feeding and caring for the animal while it grows the precious wool is not insignificant. The value comes from knowing the source of your raw materials and supporting small local businesses. If you budget ahead of time and do your homework you will make a good choice.

    How much will you pay? First, look at “comps” for other similar fleece either online, at a fleece sale, or ask someone with experience. There's a wide range from $25-$350 depending on type of animal, breed, size, quality, cleanliness, scarcity, and locality.

    Most raw handspinning fleece is priced per pound and sold as an entire fleece. Sometimes you can split a fleece with another buyer. If you have a shopping buddy you can ask them, or if buying online you can ask if the seller will split it. Not all sellers will, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

    How much fleece do you need/want?

    Fleece sizes and vary greatly. You can expect to lose around 20-30% of the raw weight after washing and some some fine / greasy fleeces can lose more than half, so you will likely have far less yield than you started with. If you have a specific project in mind, think about the desired finished weight and add 10% on top of that to your yield after washing.  

    What exactly are you getting?

    Raw fleece is just that - it has been sheared off the animal, rolled up as a whole, and put in a bag. Wool will have grease, dirt, vegetable matter (VM), and sometimes insects and unidentified gunk in it. Most show fleeces have been lightly skirted, which is the process of removing any dung tags, heavily soiled areas, or second cuts.

    When you get home, you will need to unroll it outside to pick through it and then scour it with wool-specific detergent like Unicorn Power Scour. If it’s your first time washing raw fleece, I highly recommend starting with a medium to long wool breed with a limited amount of grease. It’s very easy to felt fine, greasy fleece, so wait until you’ve had some practice before jumping in. Follow the directions and wash only small amounts at a time (8 oz. or less). Pick a good detergent - do not use soap, bleach, oxy clean, shampoo, or any other cleaning agents that do not have the correct pH to remove dirt safely without damaging the fiber.

    Mohair (Angora Goat Fleece)

    What impacts the price of a fleece?

    • Breed Characteristics: Some breeds cost more in general due to fineness, scarcity, and handspinning desirability. They can have a particular lock structure, crimpiness, and color definition that buyers look for. Sometimes a cross (X) (where the parents are different breeds) will give you the best characteristics of both.

    • Fineness: The finer the fleece (low micron count), the more desireable and higher the price. Usually the first clip, or shearing, will yield the softest fiber. Some animals like goats grow much coarser fiber as they age, so it’s best to buy the baby or young adult fleece. Lamb fleece can be identified by it's characteristic curly-Q lock tips. Fiber under ~ 25 microns (diameter of the fiber staple) is going to be next-to-skin soft and great for lots of projects like scarves and cowls. Upwards of 28 microns and it starts to be itchy and comfortable. Higher micron count fiber like longwools are generally durable and excellent when used for outerwear and rugs.

    • Staple Length: You want to make sure that there is adequate length for spinning (about 2.5+ inches minimum). Even if you blend a shorter staple fiber with a longer one you may get fraying and pills in your yarn.

    • Strength/Soundness: Avoid buying fleece with any breaks or weak spots. You can test this by firmly grasping both ends of a lock of fiber and quickly tugging on it while holding it next to your ear. If you hear a nice ping / twang and no breaking it’s fine.

    • Cleanliness: Covered (jacketed or blanketed) fleece will fetch a higher price. The sheep have had their fleece covered to reduce the amount of  VM and UV exposure. Some breeds do not do well with blankets, so if uncovered, check the amount of VM and avoid heavily soiled fleece that will be difficult and time consuming to process.

    • Color: This depends on what is desirable for the particular breed and if you want to dye it. Because raw fleece carries a lot of grease and dirt, expect for it to look lighter when washed.

    MDSW Fleece Sale

    Here are some prices I have seen or paid for different types of fleece. This is just my own experience and only meant to give you a general idea. Prices vary quite a bit by grower, locality, and demand. I am the Washington DC metro area and I have seen prices vary quite a bit between different festivals and seasons.

    (Note: For simplicity I grouped anything that is not fine or longwool in the medium + category.)

    Raw Fleece Price Ranges

    Breed

    $ Price / Lb. Range

    Avg. Fleece Size  (Lbs.)

    Fine

    Cormo

    $15-$25

    5-10  

    Merino

    $15-$25

    10-18

    Polwarth

    $20

    10-14

    Medium + / Other

    Bluefaced Leicester

    $12-$20

    3-5

    Corriedale

    $12-$20

    10-15

    Icelandic

    $10-$18

    4-5

    Jacob

    $12-$18

    3-5

    Romney

    $10-$15

    10-15   

    Shetland

    $10-$18

    2-4

    Longwool

    Cotswold

    $25-$40

    12-18

    Gotland

    $40-$70

    6-11

    Teeswater

    $50-$70

    10-15

    Wensleydale

    $40-$60

    15-20

    Other

    Alpaca  

    $20-$40

    3-6

    Mohair  

    $10-$30

    3-12



    Print this list out to take with you when shopping. Good luck and may the fleece be with you!

    Fleece Shopping List

    Huacaya Alpaca Fleece

    alpaca fleece at SVFF 2014 by 222handspun.com

    BFL Wool Fleece

    MDSW Fleece Sale BFL

  • Tips for Buying Your First Spinning Wheel

    1) Pick the best you can afford and then spend even more

    Spinning Art Yarn on a Majacraft Aura Spinning Wheel with an Overdrive Head

    Yup I said it. Splurge on your first wheel. If you're going in, go all in, not half way. Don't feel guilty about it either. If people look at you like you're crazy, just remember that people spend thousands of dollars on tech gadgets and flat screen TVs. This is no different than that. Spinning wheels cost more than people think they should, but that shouldn't deter you from saving up and buying a really good one. They cost a lot because they are all handmade by small mom and pop companies. They are designed and built by engineers and artisans that have spent hundreds of hours researching and prototyping the best designs. There are no mass produced wheels coming out of sweat shops in China and flooding the shelves at Walmart. (Thank goodness). Be prepared to spend upwards of $600-$1400. It's not just an expensive toy, it's a quality piece of equipment that you will use to make magical and beautiful fibery goodness with. 

    Yes, you can spin on a PVC or cheapo wheel you made yourself from supplies you got at the hardware store, but you won't want to do it for long. There are very few great quality wheels in the under $600 range. Every accomplished spinner I know has bought more than one wheel. I have traded up several times myself. I now own the wheel that I think is the best out there in the market. I've sold enough yarn and fiber along the way that I could get the one I really wanted. I didn't buy it first only because it wasn't made yet. So, if you're committed to spinning regularly on a wheel and want to increase your skills it will be worth it and your spinning will be better for it and more enjoyable. If you change your mind, you can always sell it fairly quickly and easily. I've had no problem selling my used wheels and there is a good secondary market for the quality ones (not the crap ones).

    2) Do you want traditional or modern aesthetics?

    Kromski Sonata Spinning Wheel

    ”hand

    When I first started to learn how to spin I had a romantic notion that my wheel should be a traditional looking style and have a place in my home like a piece of furniture. When I took my first classes I tried a few brands of wheels and I liked spinning on the Kromski Sonata. It was easy to treadle and had the aesthetics I was going for (mahogany finish, spokes, and all that). What I didn’t account for was discovering art yarn and my changing style of spinning. I quickly got over the somewhat odd look of a disk shaped wheel as opposed to a spoked one that had the mystique of traditional looking wheels a la illustrations in Sleeping Beauty. After all, I’m not living in a reenactment village and I don’t think anybody else cares what my wheel looks like. I feel silly admitting this now, but all the spinning I had seen up until then was at fairs and heritage museums. So you can see where I got the notion that that’s what I was going to have. Most traditional looking wheels are different mechanically than the ones you use for spinning jumbo textured art yarn which leads me to...

    3) Decide what kind of yarn you want to spin

    Spinolution Mach III Spinning Wheel

    ”hand

    Will you spin traditional yarn or art yarn? Do you want to primarily spin for yourself or sell your yarn? This will dictate the types of wheels that are appropriate for you. If you want to spin bulky coils like in the photo above, then you won't want to do it on a wheel with a small orifice and hooks. If you want a good production wheel that you can spin pounds of yarn on at a time without stopping, then go for a wheel that can handle those requirements. You will want a jumbo flyer and bobbins for that. If you plan only to spin small projects for yourself and mostly spin DK and lace weight yarn, then you can get a standard wheel and flyer.

    Here are the main deciding factors for selecting a type of spinning wheel based on the kind of yarn you want to spin:

    Main Deciding Factors and My Pick/Humble Opinion About Each*

    Majacraft Aura Spinning Wheel

    Orifice and Flyer Type: MY PICK = Orifice - Openring, or delta (no hole); Flyer - Ring or Pegs (no hooks)

    This is important to determine because you are not going to want to spin highly textured super bulky yarn on a wheel with a small orifice and hooks on the flyer. It is a bad idea for several reasons. What drove me crazy (especially as a beginner and just learning) was having to stop and start every time I lost the leader and had to fish it out with a hook or had my fiber get snagged on a hook. Stop, start, stop, start, stop, start. It's a total waste of time and very frustrating. You need to build a rhythm when spinning and you can't when you are constantly doing other things. Almost none of the wheels with standard orifices (the ones that are holes leading into the flyer) are large enough to spin bulky art yarn with add-ins. Wheels with delta and ring orifices and hookless flyers have an advantage because you can fit large elements through them and there is nothing for the fiber to catch on or have to squeeze through. It's also easier to find your end if it gets wound around the bobbin. Even better, they're not just great for bulky yarn, you can spin thin yarn on them too. Just a note on the flyers - I found that the ones with wooden pegs do not hold up well and can break off pretty easily if jostled (do you have kids or pets?). The best I've used is a flyer with a metal ring or delta like those on Majacraft wheels. It is more durable and less fussy than the others I've tried.

    Bobbin Size: MY PICK =  Jumbo (8 oz. or more)

    Most regular sized bobbins only hold three to maybe four ounces of fiber. I only use small bobbins if I'm going to ply two together. Then you need to do that on an eight ounce or larger bobbin. So don't get a small flyer. If you want to spin bulky yarn and not have to stop just as you're just really getting into it, then get a flyer that can hold eight ounce or greater bobbins. The ultimate size for super bulk yarn is two pounds. Yes, I've spun two pound skeins of yarn before and it's awesome. You may not do it every time, but if you want to sell your yarn you will want to spin larger sized skeins. I often spin a double size skein and split it in half to sell as a matching pair. And if you knit or crochet you can appreciate having more yardage for your projects.

    Ratios and Speed: MY PICK = Slow to mid-range for medium to bulky yarn and faster (higher) for thinner yarn

    Almost all wheels are OK for multiple types of spinning and whorls can be added if you need to change. You'll want a larger ratio and slower speeds for bulkier yarn and plying, and smaller, faster ratios for lace weight etc.

    Drive Type: MY PICK = Double

    Doubles drives are good because most can be used as single also. They are great for bulky art yarns and add-ins and can provide more control. Single/Scotch Tension is OK too, but not as good for bulky art yarn. I've used a single drive (Majacraft Pioneer) and it was OK for bulky yarn but has a hard time when I'm trying to Navajo ply really bulky yarn. The Majacraft Aura with a double drive has no trouble with this however.

    Treadles: MY PICK = Double

    I'm not sure why someone would only want to treadle with one foot unless they only had only one foot. Or they have a puny wheel. 

    Maintenance/Fussiness: MY PICK = No oil required

    A wheel like a Kromski Sonata also has to be oiled frequently which collects a lot of fiber dust and can be a messy business and a pain to do all the time. Majacraft, Louet, and Spinolution wheels, for example, do not need to be oiled and are mostly care-free. 

    Portability: MY PICK = Folds for travel 

    If you want to go to festivals or take classes then choose a wheel that can fold up or is lightweight and portable. Trust me, it's a real drag lugging around a heavy wheel or if you have a small car. 

    Materials: MY PICK = Solid wood

    I've had a plywood wheel and I have to say that it was not good material. First, it splintered and chipped easily and did not hold up to travel, and second, it weighed a ton. I have not used a PVC or MDF type wheel except the Pioneer which only has MDF in the actual drive wheel. The rest is wood and it's lightweight and durable. I have no complaints with solid wood.

    Style: MY PICK = Castle/Upright

    I would not go with a Saxony or traditional style wheel based on all the factors I've outlined here. The Saxony style wheels are nostalgic looking but not as versatile.

    Design: MY PICK = Good design decisions

    What do I mean by this? The shape of the parts and craftsmanship. The sort of materials chosen for their duty. Sleak lines. Smooth edges. Foot pedals that don't cramp your feet or make it hard to treadle. An adjustable orifice height. Easy to attach or remove bobbins. Interchangeable parts that are easy to swap out, replace, or upgrade. Parts that don't snag, wobble, or fall off.

    You can probably guess which type of wheel I think is the best out there but please don't let it stop you from trying other ones. People build spinning wheel brand loyalties on what they like and don't like just like they do with cars and clothes, and it's a personal choice. Honestly, you should go to your local yarn store / dealer or borrow a friend's wheel and try as many as you can before buying. This is just meant to help guide you towards a decision since there are many unknowns when you are starting out. It can be intimidating because of the expense, but have faith. If you stick with the top brands and their quality models and compare them based in the checklist above you should do just fine.

    * These are soley my opinions and are based on my personal experience. I have tried several types of wheels and have not been paid to make any remarks about them. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or comments.