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