I’m often asked by customers to evaluate their fiber. This is usually after the customer has incurred the expense of shipping it to me. You can save yourself time and money by learning to evaluate your fiber before sending it to be processed. It’s terrible to wait with anticipation for your fiber to come back from the processor only to find that it’s really not what you expected. Here are a few things to look for:
How clean is the fiber?
The cleanest fibers come from coated animals, but you don’t have to coat an animal to have a clean fleece. How the animals are fed and the condition of their surroundings makes a big difference. Feeders that don’t allow the animal to get hay all over themselves or feeding on the ground works well. Keeping the surroundings clean, using bedding that easily shakes out (I hate wood shavings) and shearing prior to lambing is good. Also shearing on a mat instead of the barn floor is best. Look for burrs, thorns, and the like. A few is one thing, but many is not good and very time consuming to pick out.
The amount and type of contamination that will come out during processing depends a lot on the type of fiber. The more crimpy, fine fibers such as Merino, Rambouillet, Corriedale, and others, tend to hold onto the VM and dirt. Fibers such as Romney, Shetland, Cotswold, and Lincoln for instance, will release much of it during processing.
Sand will wash out much easier than black dirt or what I call manure dirt. It looks like dirt, but is really manure that has dried and the animals lay on it. Most often this comes out, but some little specks may remain in the crimpy fibers. Skirt out any really contaminated areas, like the back of the neck or down the back. If these areas have a lot of VM in them, it will just be spread throughout the rest of the fleece during processing.
How strong is the fiber?
Check the fiber for breaks. A break in the fiber will occur when the animal is stressed or sick. There are many kinds of stress, extreme heat, extreme cold, shipping, lambing and weaning, just to name a few, and a lot depends on how a particular animal handles these situations.
You can check for breaks by holding a staple between the thumb and forefinger of each hand and giving it a tug. Hold it up to your ear while you’re tugging. If you hear it crackle instead of ping, the fiber is weak.
How usable that fiber is going to be and how it’s going to process, depends again on the type of fiber and where the break occurs. The crimpier fibers will have the tendency to nep, but if the staple is long and break occurred in the middle of the staple, it may not, especially if processed on a carder with a fine cloth. Combing is another option. If the break is at the tip or the cut end of the staple, leaving short 1/4 to 1/2 inch fibers, nepping is very probable.
If the fiber is short to begin with and has a break, you might reconsider buying or using that fiber for yarn, as your resulting yarn may not be very strong and will tend to pill in your finished item. That fiber may be a good candidate for felting, depending on what the felt was going to be used for. On the other hand, the wavier, less crimpy fibers tend to shed a lot of those short fibers during the carding process and they will be left on the floor under the carding machine. Those that are left in the roving or batt, are usually easily picked out or fall out during spinning. Again though, if the staple is short to begin with, it may not make a good yarn candidate.
If the fiber is already off of the animal, how is it stored?
Many a beautiful fleece has been ruined by being stored improperly. The raw fiber needs to have air. If stored in plastic bag, make sure it has plenty of holes in it. Old pillowcases work well, and you can easily make large bags of inexpensive muslin or old sheets. I’ve seen grain sacks used often, just be sure there’s no grain left in the bottom–to be extra sure, turn the bag inside out before putting fleece in it.
Don’t store a damp fleece. In hot, humid weather, damp fleeces can mold and mildew even if the bag is open at the top. Make sure before storing fiber that all tags (manure and real heavy black grease) have been removed. I’ve successfully processed many fleeces that were years old because they were stored properly.