Choosing Between Types of Wool

Beginner’s Series: Wool – Part 1

Why Choose?

When I first became a spinner the sheer number of wool types available boggled my brain. Was “Merino” or “Romney” a better choice for a beginner? How about “Rambouillet”? And what on earth did “staple length” or “crimp” mean? Did it really matter what I chose?

I wanted a complete list of every kind of fleece available and information on how it spun. To the best of my knowledge a list like this did not exist (yet!), so what I ended up doing was scrolling through the fiber websites looking for something — anything — labeled “good for beginners.” In my first months of spinning I found a few favorites, maybe branched out a bit, and wound up only spinning certain types of wool because, well, the others might not turn out nicely.

Thankfully this attitude of wool ineptness left after a while. I’m now willing and eager to skim the offerings at fiber fairs and on websites. I can pick a wool with confidence because I have a good bit of head knowledge that tells me how a type of wool will behave.

This article is designed to equip you with the knowledge you need to look at a type of wool and say “Perfect!” or “Run for your life!”

What To Watch For

When you look at a type of wool, whether you’ve run across it or researched it, you want to keep these things in mind. They are the keys to picking the golden fleece, so to speak.

1) Staple Length

This is how long the individual hairs are. If they’re really short they will slip and slide off each other and fall apart. (Not good beginner material.) If they’re really long the twist can get away from you and you’ll end up constantly reversing the twist to rectify an error. The perfect beginner staple length, in my opinion, is two and a half to three inches long.

Sometimes websites will not list the staple length. The good news is that staple lengths are relatively consistent within a breed, so research around a bit and see what you can find. The term “staple length” is usually used when buying a non-processed (raw) fleece, but sometimes it’s applied to roving or other prepared fiber forms.

2) Crimp

A describing word referring to little kinks in the wool. If you look at a lock (small section) of the fleece you’ll see little zig zags in it, rather like someone gave it a very tight perm. (Think: the edge of a Ruffles potato chip.) This is called “crimp” and it’s usually measured in crimps per inch.

A high crimp count means the yarn will have tons of elasticity. Think sproing-sproing perfect yarn for something that needs to stretch and return to its proper shape. Low crimp means not as stretchy. Again, this term is mainly used when buying a raw fleece.

3) Micron Count

Oh dear. A technical term. And one that I have yet to fully wrap my brain around. Micron count actually refers to (are you ready for this?) the diameter size of each individual hair. But, before you rush out to buy a ruler and microscope, let me just give you the reason for this measurement. The thinner the hair, the finer the wool (obviously). A thick hair means coarser wool. A thin hair means a fine wool, like merino, the queen of soft.

So, wouldn’t it be easier to just say thin and thick? But how thin is thin? Is it thinner than this thin or that thin? Thus micron count came into the picture. You might see a merino roving that says 64 micron count, and one that says 100 microns. Which is finer? Well, this is where things get tricky. While the actual micron count means you want the lower number, some times the wool is actually graded according to the Branford count, which means you want a higher number. (And to make matters worse, sometimes the two get confused and incorrectly labeled.) Here is a nice article on understanding the differences between Branford, micron, and an extra bonus — blood count.

4) Luster

I think everyone knows what this word means. The shine, the glow, the sparkle, the gloss that makes you weep. This is another “buying in the raw” one. (“All right,” you say, “We get the hint. You’re going to post about raw fleece next, right?” And to that I say, “Right! However did you guess?”) Sometimes the seller will mention the luster; sometimes they won’t.

5) Hand

This is a little harder to describe in text. It’s the “feel” of the wool. When you put your hand down in it and rub gently, do you think “this was a steel wool producing sheep” or “Ooooooooohhhhh”? It’s what gets us lady spinners into such trouble in a room full of fleeces begging to be taken home. One feel and it’s ours.

Sheep and Their Fleeces

All right, you have the basics; now, which breeds of sheep (and therefore fleece) go with which kinds of crimp and luster and micron count? Excellent question. The answer is, I’m still learning myself. Get out there and do your research! Call up a spinning friend, Google different sheep breeds, or just experiment.

Here are a few breeds to research to get you started.

Merino
Rambouillet
Corriedale
Cotswold
Jacob
Icelandic
CVM (No, it’s not referring to vegetable matter. It’s the abbreviation for California Variegated Mutant)
Finn
Tunis
Romney
Wensleydale
*If you can’t make up your mind what to try first, I found this wonderful Website on Knitty the other day. They carry packages of assorted raw wool in two ounce batches. Brilliant! I can hardly wait to try one myself.

And, just keep in mind, no sheep breed is set in stone. (Thankfully.) There are variations within breeds and crosses between breeds. These are usually marked by an “x” between two or three sheep names, such as a Tunis X Dorset X Romney, or a Corriedale X Cotswold. (The first raw fleece I ever got was one of those, actually. It had the ease of spinning and softness of Corridale, and the shine and strength of Cotswold.)

Now that you feel better equipped, go out there and start playing with fleece!

One Response to Choosing Between Types of Wool
  1. Grandma
    September 16, 2009 | 3:26 pm

    Hi Rebekah,
    I thought this would be a good place to put this list. Uncle Kent gave me the names of the breeds of his sheep for you. He has Dorset, Rambouillet, Cordale Targhee (which is a combo of Rambouillet and Cordale) and something called “Polypay.” He says just tell him how much wool you need this year and he’ll send you 150 lbs or so! :-)

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