Sampling Shropshire Lamb

August 31, 2017

I haven’t dived into anything big since moving but I thought I would share the beginnings of the sampling methodology that I am developing for my spinning. It is a method derived from methods we learned during the Spinning Certificate at the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria, bits and pieces picked up from watching videos of other spinners and my own interests. It is a method in progress not anything definitive.

The fleece I am exploring is a Shropshire lamb fleece from last years shearing at Collingwood Children’s Farm, a demonstration farm in urban Melbourne.

I start with thinking about both the raw fleece as a whole and as a staple and put down my observations prior to washing. It was at this initial point that I discovered that the fleece was tender. The back section was extremely tender but the best bit over the shoulders were only slightly tender with a single break in the top third of the staple. A break is a weak spot in the fibre and happens when the sheep has been stressed for any period of time. Stress is anything that might have stopped the sheep sending nutrients towards fleece growth, it might mean a very hot day, a stray dog harassing the sheep or even a change in paddocks. I write a description about the raw fleece.

After examining the raw fleece and staple and preserving a few locks, I wash and process the fleece, sometimes just a small bit for sampling, but mostly as a whole fleece at once. I file all the fleece descriptions together so that anytime I want to make something with that fleece I can easily look up my initial observations.

The next step is a thinking step. By looking at the characteristics of the individual fleece and (by research) breed characteristics, I make some decisions about how I might approach the fleece and for what purposes it might be useful. The two books I turn to most are: The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook and The Spinner’s Book of Fleece.  They tell me about the general breed characteristics of the fleece and even suggestions for approaching spinning the fibre.

These books tell me that Shropshire is a down sheep with very crimpy elastic fibres that resists felting. It makes good socks and jumpers. It can be carded or combed or flicked, spun worsted or woollen.

Then I just try a couple of things. With this Shropshire lamb I was most interested in understanding the impact of a mid section break in the staple (the tender part) might have on its usefulness. The value of this fleece for me is in its provenance, a rare breed sheep raised by a not-for-profit urban farm, 3 km from my (former) home and its softness and elasticity. So I thought it was worth seeing if I could work with the break.

The first sample was a 3 ply sock yarn, prepared with a flicker, spun worsted with a good amount of twist. The flicker broke most of the weak section away. I spun three amounts on my bobbin and wound off onto weaving bobbins for plying.

This is a method demonstrated by Kate Larson in Spinning to Knit With and really does speed up the sampling process. The resulting sock yarn is firm and elastic.

For the second sample, I thought I would try carding a rolag and including all the staple length, break and all in the finusial yarn. For this yarn, I spun up a bulky 2 ply using a woollen short backwards draw. The result is delightful, full, bouncy and squishy.

Then I knit up a sample, trying stitches and gauges that I think match the yarn and end purpose. Whilst the resulting knitted swatches are lovely (to me!) in themselves and may provide exact information for future projects, they also prompt questions and ideas for more samples and experiments. For example, the 3 ply sock yarn is great but I am curious how the tenderness of the fleece might affect the wear of the sock over time. I could make a sock from this yarn and a sock from a non tender, adult Shropshire fleece I already have and compare the two. I would also like to try putting in a little less twist in the singles and see if I might get a bouncier sock yarn.

The bulky 2 ply would suit hats and cowls with lots of textured stitches but might not wear well as a more robust garment like a cardigan. I could try it out.

As a spinner, I find so much intellectual pleasure in sampling. I could easily spend all my time just sampling, asking questions and knitting up virtual garments in my head.

How do you sample? What is your method?



Larson, Kate, Spinning Yarn to Knit With, Interweave Press, video download

McKenzie, Judith, Three Bags Full, Interweave Press, video download

Robson, Deborah, Handspinning Rare Wools, Interweave Press, video download

Robson, Deborah & Ekarius, Carol, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook

Smith, Beth, The Spinner’s Book of Fleece


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  1. I am a bit of a slacker about sampling. And I am wondering for the umpteenth time if I can find a way to acquire a sock-yarn-suitable fleece at the Royal Show. But my big question is: you scour in Handy Andy??

  2. How thoughtfully you’ve sampled! It is fun, isn’t it. I tend to just examine the fleece closely as I wash it, and sample it in my head – your careful documentation puts me to shame.

    1. Dear Freyalyn, Thank you, it is super fun to get all geeky and detailed sometimes. I really love your habit of sampling in your head. It is quite an intellectual process getting to grips with a new fleece and sorting through the possibilities in our heads is really wonderful way to engage with that.

  3. As always, I find your curiosity and thoroughness deeply inspiring. I just came home from a guild meeting with two bags of Jacob that another spinner was destashing. This gives me many ideas of steps to try.

    My notes are not nearly as extensive as yours. Lack of space has meant that commercially prepped fibre has been much larger part of my spinning up to this point so those parts of the prep have rarely been part of my sampling. I keep a binder with sleeves for photographs for the most basic sampling (I know the breed and know basically what I want to do). Those sleeves perfectly fit my notecards that I use for control during my sampling and spinning. I currently use spindles for all my spinning so I record the spindle I used, the type of draft and samples of the singles, plyback and various plys both finished and unfinished. If it’s a breed that is new to me or something I want to go a bit deeper on I will use a full A4 page of card that also fits into sleeves and I will keep my notes, a lock or staple, the various stages of the yarn as well as the knit swatches.

    Someday I plan to do certification through my guild and I look forward to fully geeking out and the pleasure of buying office supplies which is just another part of the fun!

    It is so intellectual and tactile and imaginative at the same time that it feeds so many of my hungers. The planning and imagining and questioning are so enjoyable to me and I love to see you explore all those things here.

    1. Dear Becca, I love that you use control cards for spinning. I tend to rely on my memory of what I sampled but the control card would really improve consistency which is my weakness. It is interesting you raise the intellectual/tactile/imaginative aspects of spinning. This mirrors a conversation I was having earlier to day with a good spinning friend. We were talking about how compelling spinning is, like a mystery you are driven to solve but as you say, it operates on so many levels, engaging us deeply and impressively. It really is exciting! Yes, definitely do a certificate if you can, it is a wonderful experience. And, re space and raw fleeces, sharing a fleece is good way to sample and experiment without buying a whole fleece.

  4. This is such a great post and full of so much information. I’m like Frealyn, though, in that I investigate the fleece at a fair and then decide whether to process it myself or send it out for professional processing. Some of the fleeces have so much lanolin in them that I don’t think I could possibly get it out. I do like flick carding, even though it’s slower, as well as drum carding.

    1. Dear Elaine, I am always so envious when I hear you talk about sending your fleeces out for processing! What a wonderful labour saving service. There is much to be learned from processing yourself but when I think about the spinning you could get done with pre-processing…oooo so exciting.

  5. You are so thorough!

    I examine the fleece texture before, during, and after scouring. Combing (I prefer worsted spinning) tells me more about the fiber’s staple and strength (a recent Border Leicester wether fleece I spun felt like cotton, but was disappointingly tender – it had to be woolen spun, and spun to be a worsted weight 2ply), as well as its softness/wireyness and stretch (Targhee is *very* stretchy!). I don’t take notes, however, like the experts recommend, like you do – and like I should.

    1. Dear Sophy, it sounds like you are having a wonderful time without taking notes. I think perhaps there is no ‘right way’, no ‘should’, just spinning in the way that sparks your curiousity. Taking notes appeals to me as a researcher but there are many ways to experiment and explore spinning and it sounds like you are doing just that. Enjoy!

  6. Oh my! Those samples are beautiful, I love the natural colour. You are so much more disciplined than I am. I start with end product and work backwards to the fleece which is invariably our local merino cross because I don’t get anything else around here. I spin according to what I have in mind to use it for. And I have a determination to make it work because I don’t easily have access to anything else. If you give me some fancy fleece before I have thought of an end use it throws me a bit as the possibilities are overwhelming ?

    1. Dear Jane, that is actually a very interesting perspective, working backwards from the end use to what you can do with your limited resources. It is a very frugal approach. I like it.

  7. Freyalyn, ah yes, I am with you…put to SHAME! LOL I only keep unwashed parts of fleece in case I need to make something and put it in the Fair as that is one thing judges want to see. I had not seen/thought of wrapping some spun fleece on weaving bobbins to ply. Clever. I usually just spin on several regular bobbins and then ply. You did a beautiful job and I am not sure some breakage would affect the carding and knitting…I know, anathema. Dodgy using this one for socks though. So…..sampling? Only when I am about to start on a project (drum card/hand card/flick card/Canadian Production wheel vs Schacht) knit for gauge and off I go. No notes 🙁 bad Susan

    1. Dear Susan, your vast actual spinning experience out trumps my note taking! I am still learning and collecting the knowledge. Yes, I do think the break might make for poor sock wearing but I am still keen to try. I am also going to start using your method of dividing the fresh fleece into locks prior to washing after working through my partially felted fleece.

  8. I much admire your research, Rebecca. Your results with the Shropshire Lamb are stunning.

    I have spun from a couple of raw fleeces that I prepared myself and the results were not pretty. Nevertheless, I have not given up on the process and now see that a record of my failures would have been useful.

    1. Dear Diana, some fleeces are a big disappointment. I was very lucky that this Shropshire fleece was so easy to prepare but I have another fleece, a lovely coloured longwool that I thought I had prepared well but I have managed to partially felt it in places and it is a nightmare to prepare for spinning now. I think I need to prepare a fleece in smaller amounts for better results and will be trying this soon. All we can do is persist!

  9. Fascinating to read, Rebecca, as I’m a real naughty with a new fleece, and just pull some nice looking locks out and start spinning – sometimes don’t even wash it first – oh dear!

    1. That’s not naughty kayderouge! Not diving into a fresh fleece when it calls to you would be naughty! I haven’t had the space/time to dive straight into a fresh fleece but I have been told there is nothing as delightful in spinning in the grease with just shorn fleece.

  10. Years ago I was given a Southdown lamb fleece which had a bad break – I washed it and separated the shorter ends from the longer (well, as long as Southdown gets!) parts of the locks.

    I kept the short bits and dyed them, then carded them through another fleece. The little tufty bright bits gave me a lovely novelty yarn, and because Downs fleeces are so springy, the tufts have stayed puffy 🙂

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