Thoughts on evaluating the character of a lock of wool

Some people think all sheep look the same, which is kind of like thinking all dogs look the same, from chihuahuas to Great Danes. Some people think all wool is the same, and it’s boring and it itches, which is kind of like thinking all bread is white and squishy and flavorless.

I’ve spent a large portion of my life utterly fascinated by the varieties of sheep and wool. I have no idea where this came from or why I find it so interesting that it’s been one of the major constellations by which I guide my voyage through life, both vocationally and avocationally, but I don’t argue with it. Anything that continually amazes is worth continuing to consider.

(Even for somebody who’s mildly allergic to wool, some types of grasses, and molds, and definitely has a bad reaction to mothballs.)

For example, the disparate characters of locks of wool:

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All wool is the same, right? I picked two whites, just to take the color factor out. Both breeds originated in the mountains and hills of Scotland (so did I, in part).

The one on the right is Scottish Blackface. That lock is 13 inches (33 cm) long and has a crisp feel to it.

The lock on the left is about 2.5 inches (65 mm) long and feels spongy. That word "spongy" is not quite right, although it’s often used with reference to wool. It doesn’t seem precise enough. I’m looking for alternatives and haven’t found one yet. This wool doesn’t have the "sink your face into it" quality of the very fine wools, yet it does have some nice give to it, unlike the Scottish Blackface ("crisp" does work for me).

By the way, I’m not identifying the breed of the lefthand lock, because that fleece isn’t
typical.  It is good wool, freshly shorn, and works for
my discussion: it just shouldn’t represent its breed . . . it would
have to be about twice as long to do that.

And oddly, the sheep that grow the shorter wool are about two-thirds the size of those that grow the long wool: the little guys grow the long wool, and the bigger guys grow the shorter stuff (which is much shorter than the Scottish Blackface even when it does meet the breed criteria).

Some locks of CVM (California Variegated Mutant) wool

Ellen at Sheepwreck has been pondering whether a particular CVM fleece is really a CVM (California Variegated Mutant), which is a Romeldale with a specific color configuration. (CVM is recognized as a separate breed from the Romeldale, because two CVMs, when mated, reliably produce CVM offpsring. The breeds are so close in most regards that it’s like talking about twins, though.) She’s noticed in particular the disorganized nature of her locks and the fact that the wool feels "crisper" than she expects. Sarah, in the comments, posted a link to some lovely and characteristic CVM from her own flock.

I have a few CVM and Romeldale bits around that I’ll show for comparison purposes as well:

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Those are CVMs across the top (two sheep, three locks and two locks respectively) and Romeldales along the bottom (three sheep, two locks each). The shorties (top row, darkest) are about 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) and the longies (bottom row, grayest) are about 4 inches (10 cm).

Here’s an interesting photo of the locks from CVM fleece number 1:

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Here’s a close-up of the center lock, which gives good evidence of a nice, even crimp pattern:

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And here’s a close-up of the lock on the left, which is more like the one shown at Sheepwreck—the crimp is more vaguely evident in the lock, because the structure of the lock is more jumbled:

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Here’s a nice, very long, evenly crimpy Romeldale:

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In person, it’s prettier and the evenness of crimp along the fibers is more obvious than in a photo.

Breed standard

Here’s the portion of the CVM breed standard that’s pertinent to the current consideration:

  • "Fleece should be bright, uniform and dense, of high yielding,
    long staple, fine wool. . . . with
    spinning counts from 60-62’s quality. 12 month staple length averages 3-6
    inches. Wool should have a well defined crimp from base to tip, be pliable
    to the touch and free from kemp or objectionable fibers."

The American Sheep Industry‘s breed directory gives a slightly different description:

  • "CVMs grow a soft, high-yielding, long-stapled uniform fleece. . . . Micron 22-25, USDA wool grade 58’s-62’s."

Spinning counts or wool grades?

The various wool classing systems can be confusing. Here’s what the chapter on wool from the American Sheep Industry Association’s Sheep Production Handbook (2002 edition) has to say about spinning counts and wool grades:

  • "It is interesting to note that the numbers used to express [USDA] wool grade are the same as those used in the English Worsted Yarn Count System. . . . The double meaning of the symbol for count has been a source of confusion for many people involved with the U.S. sheep and wool industries." (p. 1013)

So we can let go of any thoughts we have about the slight discrepancies in those numbers (two different systems using the same symbols).

Digression: We can also be glad that "[t]he practice of using wool grades . . . is declining on an international basis. It seems likely that [it] . . . will be wholly replaced by a measurement of diameter (in microns) and variability (standard deviation, also in microns)" (same source). Those of us who work with wool by hand will need to continue to train our fingers and our eyes, of course, because we’re not likely to run around evaluating wool with analyzers that will give us on-the-spot micron counts (lovely tools, but not suitable for the average crafter’s basket or budget).

On crimp

Another confusing factor here is that crimp is an attribute of the individual fiber, not the lock.

Crimp occurs because of the physical structure of a single fiber. To make a too-long story short enough to be useful, the main part of a wool fiber is the cortex, and it’s composed of two types of cells (orthocortical and paracortical, if you want to get serious). These occur in different divisions and arrangements in different sheep. One cell type is found on the inside of the crimp curve, and the other is on the outside of the crimp curve. (This information also comes from the ASI handbook’s wool chapter.)

The corker in this is that crimp can be easiest to see in a
neatly organized lock with all the crimpy bumps in the individual
fibers lined up together. So we may not immediately perceive the crimp situation in a disorganized lock, while it knocks us over the head in an orderly one.

I can’t get a good-enough close-up of a single fiber in that disorganized lock of mine up there, but the individual fibers are evenly crimpy, from butt to tip.

As an aside, that Scottish Blackface lock up there has minimal crimp
in the fiber. It does have a graceful wave in the lock. Because fibers
are normally separated from each other in spinning, regardless of
technique, the lock structure can be useful (even important) for
preparation but has no effect on the qualities of the finished yarn.
Crimp, on the other hand, has a lot of influence on the yarn.

What about all these CVM locks?

Reading through the breed standards, all of my samples meet the criteria. Yes, even the short one: that "3-6 inches" is an average. I just won’t have the option of combing that particular batch of wool. It will definitely get carded (or spun from the locks, or flicked).

The "crisp feel" that Ellen mentions is harder to contemplate without immediate tactile access. Breed standards call for 60s to 62s quality (listed as "spinning count"), and the American Sheep Industry’s information puts the wool between 58s and 62s (USDA wool grades). For comparison (in USDA wool grades), Rambouillet is 60s to 70s and, among the Down breeds, Southdown is 54s to 60s; the rest of the Down breeds run a little coarser than that, although there’s overlap, of course.

Shifting to the micron count comparisons, we’ve already noted that CVM is in the range of 22 to 25 microns. The Rambouillet is 19 to 24 microns and the Southdown is 24 to 29 microns.

Rounding off numbers, since I’m going for general understanding, most of the fibers in a 58s-quality CVM would be between 25 and 26 microns, plus or minus 7 microns.* A fleece like that would definitely feel more like a Down wool than a fine wool, in line with Ellen’s comments about the hand of the fiber she’s pondering.

*A USDA wool grade of 58s has an average fiber diameter between 24.95 and 26.39 microns, with a standard deviation of 7.09 (same page of the ASI handbook).

Ellen’s wool’s light-colored, brittle tips are curious, given that the sheep was jacketed. Where her red flag went up at the appearance of the lock, mine goes up at the mention of the brittle tips that break off and cause neps. That brings up questions of when and how the jacketing was done; jacketing is not a magic, easy practice that automatically produces beautiful wool.

In sum

I think it’s hard to really get a sense of what any fleece is like until I’m actually working with it. Pre-purchase evaluation can only go so far, within constraints of time, space, and wool-browsing etiquette.

Sometimes the trick is in figuring out how to make the best of what you’ve got once it reveals its full character. Even, sometimes, when that character involves neps . . . if you like the wool well enough in all other regards, which is the ultimate question.

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Note: Romeldale/CVM is listed as a rare breed with critical status by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

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Copyright 2008 Deborah Robson

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5 Responses

  1. Wow, what a super post! I am also intoxicated by wool, as you know, and I think we may even have had a CVM/Romeldale conversation last year. What I find most interesting about all this is how literal some spinners are about buying a specific breed’s wool. This makes great sense when working on a rare breeds’ project. However, when looking for a specific kind of wool for a project, I often feel it’s more important to examine and touch a variety of wools in the category I seek–I am often surprised by what I come home with, but it’s the attributes of the individual fleece that matter to me…not strictly the breed. Breed matters, of course, but individual fleeces vary, and that’s important too!

  2. Thanks, Joanne . . . glad you like the post!

    Wool isn’t a manufactured product, so it isn’t produced by machines to specific mechanical tolerances. It’s variable: within breeds, from animal to animal, from year to year, from this part of the fleece to that, and even along the length of a single fiber.

    I’m a big fan of breed-specific fibers mostly because I know we need to support the market for the rare-breed fibers if there is to be enough economic incentive to keep the populations around and viable. That doesn’t mean I spin either general breed-specific wools or rare-breed wools exclusively; it does mean I have a bias and that I pay attention to it, because I think it matters.

    And I’m also a great believer in evaluation of an individual fleece for its strengths, regardless of where it came from.

    Analysis is just one of our tools. What we apply it to, and how, depends on our own personal goals and what we need to accomplish.

    I like to be surprised with what I come home with (pleasantly surprised, of course).

    The internet gives us access to many more options, while limiting our ability to evaluate in person. Yet even on-site evaluation (at a festival or elsewhere) isn’t ideal. I always feel “on the spot,” am aware that I don’t want to disturb the fiber more than minimally, and can only do certain types of assessments before I’ve made the commitment and bring the wool home and get my hands into it. Then the truth begins to come out.

  3. And this post explains why I’ve been taking fleece-judging classes. I’m just amazed that more spinners don’t take this kind of interest in what they are buying, particularly at judged shows with silent auctions (from MS&WF on down).

    In my experience, most fleece show judges aren’t spinners: they may know the technical standards (and up here, there is a great deal of difference in the stated form requirements between grading a commercial fleece and an artisanal one), and tend to grade to the former standards even when using the form for the latter.

    Not me! I see dirt, VM, and second cuts, and I mark that fleece down. Way down.

    While I may not be at the level of my instructor in being able to pick up a lock, give it a quick squeeze, and determine micron count, yield, breed, sex, and age (and for all I know, diet and musical preference!), I have become a holy terror in buying at silent auctions…. 😉

    Great post, Deb!

  4. Thank you Deb. I -do- have plans for my fleece to use for myself. Its still a very nice fleece, just not what I expected.

    Its all about the education process. I can say this is what I have and this is why I did the things I did with it.

    Also, our definitions of “crisp” are different. My definition means it can be compressed and it springs back to the original shape. Not silky feeling nor super-fine.

  5. Ellen, I figured you would be changing course and working with your fleece to make the most of it.

    It’s a fascinating topic, though, about what we expect from a breed and what we find in front of us. I love the variability, even thought it’s sometimes inconvenient!

    Although they’re useful sometimes, I have a hard time with many of the words applied to wool, like “spongy,” “crisp,” or “cottony.”

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