Preparing the Fleece

Read This Before You Call The Shearer

 

By Chet Parsons

In recent years, the price of wool has been so low that shearing has become just another chore and added expense for many producers. Small producers are sometimes further frustrated because it is difficult to find professional shearers who want to stop and shear a small flock. Shearing doesn’t have to be a bad experience. With a better understanding of the shearing process, producers can do a lot to make it a more rewarding experience.

Read more: Read This Before You Call The Shearer

Parlez-Vous Degree of Skirting? Tippy? Staple?

 

By Nadine Chounet

Hello again to everyone. Over the course of this series of articles I have had several people ask me:“Yeah, but what do all of those terms mean when my fleece is judged?”

 

It seems that people get their form back after they have had a fleece judged - whether at the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival or another venue - they read it, try to enjoy it and get some insight from it, but they just aren’t sure about the terms often used when talking about a raw fleece in a judged competition.

 

I will refer to the form used at the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival, but a very similar form is used throughout the industry. To begin with, we are talking about the evaluation of a raw fleece. That means the fleece has been handled enough to skirt and pick through it and roll it for show – but it has not been washed or carded or had anything of that sort done to it. Simply raw, like a carrot before you cook it. Maybe you have cut the tip and end off, but it isn’t peeled yet – it is just lying there waiting for someone to fall in love with it. We do not allow micron counts etc.to be displayed with the judging, so don’t expect me to discuss them here. We are only going to talk about the subjective-type terms used in most judging.

 

We will start with your rolled fleece. I have talked in other articles about rolling fleeces so will not address that here - just suffice it to say it is rolled perfectly and exhibited in the clear bag that the NH Sheep & Wool Festival requires. It is placed on the skirting table that we use for judging, a hush falls over the crowd as the judge approaches your fleece. The judge takes a breath and simply looks, maybe lightly runs a hand over the top of the roll - and smiles. Wow! You have just passed the first part of the test. Did your fleece just “speak” to the judge?  When a judge approaches a fleece they expects it to grab him or her, to excite the judge, to make him or her want to dump it out of the bag and look further. Remember this moment for later in the judging.

 

The first critique that most judges will perform is Condition of Fleece. He or she will look for the strength of the fiber. You will see the judge unroll your fleece and take a good hard look at it. It does hurt any if, when your fleece hits the table, the crowd gasps and offers a collective OOOOOoooooh!

 

In the back of their mind the judge realizes that this fleece is also speaking to the crowd! He or she will then pluck a lock from several locations. They will hold that lock by both the cut end and the tip and snap it near their ear. The judge is listening for the sound of health. The sound of a ping, almost like a tuning fork. If he or she hears the snap, crackle and pop of a breakfast cereal, the judge will frown and heavily penalize that fleece. It means it is weak, whether from the animal being ill, a change in diet, lambing or simply a horrid year of weather. This fleece is not in prime condition. The judge has pulled locks from various parts of the fleece looking for uniformity. It is just weak along the top line or throughout the entire fleece? In a moment or two the judge will know. He or she will look at the fleece and run their hands over it, checking to see if the feel, or hand, of it is the same across the entire expanse. Are the britches especially harsh? Are they reasonable for that fleece? All of these are things the judge will look at for uniformity. The judge also will check to see if there is matting or felting. This is more common on certain breeds and he or she will check for it’s the fleece tippy? That means the weather has worn and dried out the tips so they are slightly felted or crunchy even though the rest of the lock is still doing fine. Many a colored fleece will bleach in the sun, but that does not mean it is tippy. That is a color change which is common on many animals. The judge is looking for bad tips that a spinner would not want in her/his work. The judge also wills flip over the fleece and look for second cuts. Did the producer do a good job shearing? Or did the shearer they hired do a good job? A second cut is when there is a small hesitation in the blow of the blades that causes a small second cut near the base of the lock. This tiny piece will infuriate any hand spinner. A hand spinner will demand no second cuts. If there are any, they should be removed from the fleece before it is sold or judged.

 

The judge usually then backtracks slightly and judges the presentation. Remember that first moment of ooooohhhhh the judge experienced when he or she looked at your fleece? Now that comes back into play. The first category on Presentation is the Overall Appearance of the fleece. The judge will think back to his or her first look at it, and then will think back to their first look at your fleece as he or she unrolled it.

 

Did it sing to the judge? Or make him or her want to stuff it back into the bag and go on to the next fleece. Does your fleece shine and have a healthy glow? Or does it smell of mildew and mold? Eek!

 

The judge will also look at the degree of skirting. Are there any second cuts? How about that skirting? He or she will check for tags (manure/urine clotted onto a lock), belly wool, and general scruffiness. All of that should have been skirted off. The judge also will check for general cleanliness. You, I, and the judge all know that these animals have not been living in your house. They are farm animals and live outdoors or in a barn with dirt and dust and other animals. He or she will however be looking for things like excessive VM (vegetable matter/hay chaff) or burrs tangled into the fleece. He or she will be aware of barn dirt, but will penalize you for caked mud or bits of baling twine. Your fleece should definitely be picked through before you even think about showing it. They all will have occasional VM, but can you take it out by the handful? If so, then maybe this fleece would be better used as compost, or maybe you could have skirted off that section. Necks are tough places – I think many of my girls purposely place hay in their neck wool for snacking later after a hard day of being a sheep.

 

The next thing the judge will look at is Quality of Fleece. He or she will look at the crimp and lock formation. The judge again is checking for uniformity of crimp and lock formation – not the exact number of crimps or little waves – that varies by breed of sheep. Some fine breeds have a crimp that is almost invisible as it is so tiny and fine. Some of my more primitive Shetlands have a very slow wave that can appear almost straight and stiff! So the judge has to know which breed is expected to have what type of crimp and take it from there. The lock formation is also one of those breed things. A Shetland should look “feathered” or have a very distinct lock formation, but many sheep have a more dense, closed solid-looking fleece which counts just as importantly in the lock formation part of its judging if that is what is expected of the breed.

 

Staple length also is examined. This does not mean that if you have the longest fleece you win. It means that the staple length in your fleece should be what is expected from your breed. Do you have a Dorset cross that is expected to have a 4-5 inch staple and instead has a 12-inch staple? You will be marked down. Do you have Leicester Long wool that is expected to have a very long staple and yet yours is only 2 inches? My breed, which is Shetland, is an especially tough one for an inexperienced judge. There are now, through imported semen, a couple of varieties of Shetland wool. It is all purebred Shetland, but one is much shorter, at only 3-4 inches, and crimpier, almost in ringlets, while the other is longer, silkier and flowing, often up to 10 inches long! Both are correct. This category is a hard call for a judge.

 

The final thing a judge looks at is the Correct Wool Characteristics for Breed. That is an overall look at the fleece. Is the fleece the right size for the breed? Is it a 12-pound fleece coming off a 45-pound Shetland lamb? Or is it a 2-pound fleece coming off of a huge Montadale? Is it a fleece which screams that it belongs to a certain breed – or can’t the judge tell? How usable is the fleece? If it is a fleece from a breed that is bred to grow a rug yarn – is it appropriate? Is it too soft and fine? Above all, your fleeces must match the breed that grew it, in both appearance and purpose. One of the other and final things the judge will look at in a fleece is how much use can one get out of it? Is half the fleece worth saving and the other half destined for the compost pile? Again, using my breed of Shetland as an example, the original sheep were used for all things in life – the undercoat of the neck and upper saddle of the fleece were used for the very famous wedding ring shawls and the fine hose that, at one time, could only be owned by royalty. The combined sides and lower back area were used for sweaters and such items that needed to be warm and heavy and weatherproof. The britches were used for long wearing socks. The Shetland is an all-purpose sheep and makes for a judges worst nightmare by the fact that it is less than “uniform” but is correct for the breed!

 

That brings me to my final comment. The judge is doing the best he or she can do, with the experience and knowledge that he or she brings to the judging table. If you have an unusual breed, try to get some breed information to the judge prior to the event. I know that the judge we use is always thrilled to get that type of thing in the mail. The judges are constantly striving to increase their knowledge of sheep breeds and their requirements. Judging is an art learned over many years. It is subjective in nature, and if your fleece wins at one venue that does not mean it will win at another venue. On one day your fleece just stood out as “the one” and on another day maybe another fleece stood out as perfect. Thank the judge and go home happy that you bred, raised and presented the very best fleece you could produce for that year. Take the judge’s comments, go home and lecture your sheep about their cleanliness and then come back next year with an even better fleece. See you in May at the NH Sheep & Wool Festiva at its new location at the Deerfield NH Fair Grounds.

 

(Nadine Chounet can be contacted via her website: www.paintedknollfarm.net )

 

To Blanket or Not to Blanket: That is the Question

By Nadine Chounet

 

Blanketing is a highly controversial subject among sheep breeders. It can produce exquisitely clean fleece and it can produce absolute train-wrecks for fleeces.

Read more: To Blanket or Not to Blanket: That is the Question

Don't Fleece Yourself Out of a Great Fleece

By Nadine Chounet

Know your breed. What type of fleece should it produce? Are your fleeces within those breed standards? Does your Romney look like a Romney? Or a poodle? The hand spinning market is a discerning bunch of buyers – when they want a certain breed of fleece, you can be sure they come armed with the knowledge of what type of fleece should be coming off of that breed of  animal.

Read more: Don't Fleece Yourself Out of a Great Fleece

So You Say You Have The Perfect Fleece

 

But There’s This Ewe and She’s Still Wearing It

By Nadine Chounet

 

So youve read all the articles and books, fed your animals for their breed standard, picked and cleaned,

lectured or blanketed, worried and fretted ...and there it is! You think you have grown the perfect fleece but what now?? How do you get that creation off the back of your animal and to the NH Sheep and Wool Festival? Or into the hands of an appreciative hand spinner? Or sold for top dollar to a commercial enterprise that values great fleeces?

Read more: So You Say You Have The Perfect Fleece