Santa Cruz wool: how to show a rare breed’s magic with a less-than-ideal sample?

I've written before about Santa Cruz wool, in conjunction with a post about making the best of a less-than-ideal wool sample. Now that it's time to do my write-up on Santa Cruz wool, I have been distracted by my desire to show at least some of the capacity of this breed's wool, which is not evident in the sample I've already spun.

Santa Cruz is one of the rarest sheep breeds. It's on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's priority list with critical status. There's a long story behind this—one that I won't go into right now, because my goal is to highlight the superb qualities of the fiber. No one knows exactly when or how sheep got onto Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California, somewhere between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were well established by the mid-nineteenth century. By other people's best guesses, the breed was created through some combination of Merino, Rambouillet, and possibly Churro. The sheep don't look like Merinos or Rambouillets, although their wool is clearly fine enough to have been influenced by those breeds.

Remembering the magic, and struggling with the available fiber

What is most stunning about the fiber is its combination of fineness and bounce.

When I coordinated the Save the Sheep Project for Spin-Off Magazine in the late 1990s, one of the entries was a shawl that Nancy Van Tassel made from Santa Cruz wool shorn from one of the few rescued sheep. I've seen and handled a lot of handspun yarn over about thirty-five years of intense involvement with spinning. That shawl and the yarn it was made from have stood out vividly in my memory for the combination of softness and resilience. I have never felt anything like it.

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When I spun my sample last year, I got what looked like the best possible option out of the wool sample we were able to obtain—and with Santa Cruz, we are fortunate to be able to get a sample at all. With a breed this rare, the primary focus of husbandry is simply keeping enough animals alive to keep the breed going and, ideally, with enough genetic diversity for a healthy population. Wool quality is not at the top of anyone's agenda. If the genes are there, a future year's wool quality can be tended to and the crop will have some value. At this dire survival level, there's no well-defined market for the wool anyway.

Here's the sample I spun then . . . there was no way it could be regular, because of the fiber quality:

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I was disappointed but felt like I needed to settle for what I had and move on. It didn't have the "life" that I remember so well from Nancy Van Tassel's contribution to the Save the Sheep efforts, but she had control over her fiber source and some experience in spinning the breed. Last year, that skein was the best I thought I could do, perhaps because I wasn't yet desperate enough.

I've been having trouble getting the breed written up, and I finally realized why. I want, somehow, to be able to at least hint at the magic that I know, thanks to Nancy, Santa Cruz wool is capable of. My existing sample didn't do that. I had no idea what I could pull off that might. But I determined to go at it one more time.

Throwing out all the rules

This is where all standard guidelines for wool prep and spinning have to go out the window, and vision and stubbornness take over, seasoned with a pragmatic awareness that perfection is simply out of reach.

Background: I had an OFDA computerized analysis done on a small tuft of this fiber. I'm having scans run for most of the very rare wools because we don't have much data on their characteristics. A data sample of one or two or five entries isn't much at all, but it's better than nothing.

Fineness: The average micron count of the piece I pulled (clean) was 23.2. That's fine. A full 97.3% of the fibers were under 30 microns, the industrial line of demarcation for fibers to be used in next-to-the-skin applications. The finest fibers in the sample were 14 microns; there were just a few fibers at the sample's maximum of 32, 33, and 34 microns.

Fiber length: 35 mm, or 1.4 inches. That's the kicker.

Because of the short fibers, and the fact that it was difficult to separate out anything resembling a staple, I used fine hand carders to prepare the wool for my first sample. This was the obvious, reasonable, normal choice for a short, jumbled fiber. The many neps and second cuts were just something I had to live with. I did end up choosing a drafting technique that would minimize the effects of these elements on the finished yarn.

This weekend, bullheadedly determined to see if I could do a better job of showing what the Santa Cruz wool is capable of, I decided to try combing. COMBING. Fiber less than 1.5 inches long. Right.

Okay, here goes.

From yuck to yum, believe it or not

Raw Santa Cruz wool, as I received it, with gratitude that I had any at all:

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These look and feel like what would be skirtings for a "normal" fleece, but as I've mentioned this wool is probably just a shepherd's afterthought of survival care for the living animals. Based on my experience in washing, at least part of this came from the rear of the animal—not prime fleece territory. I had the sample above available to photograph in its original state because when the wool first arrived I only washed the portion I needed. It wasn't inspiring enough to wash the whole batch. That ended up being okay. I used Dawn dishwashing liquid, which was what I had at the time. I've since shifted to Unicorn Power Scour and took on the rest of the raw wool with that resource on my side. I knew the Power Scour wouldn't overclean (thus making the wool harsh or brittle), so I used more than I usually would and I ran the fiber through three, rather than two, cleansing baths, with one pre-soak and two rinses, using a mix of half hot-tap water and half boiling water from pots on the stove and not letting the water cool off for more than 20 minutes on each cycle.

Here's what the clean version looked like:

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Not beautiful, but compared to what I started with it was greatly improved. I wasn't concerned about the flecks of dirt, because although they tend to stick around in carding and cause problems, they normally drop out in combing.

Most combs couldn't handle such a short, fine fiber. Fortunately, I have a pair of two-row Louet mini-combs that I thought might do the trick. Even so, because the fibers were so jumbled I needed to load the wool onto the combs not-quite-randomly, searching out bits of the fiber mass that seemed to have long-enough fibers and simply snagging them onto the teeth of the mini-combs as best I could. While I combed through two complete passes, I didn't look for perfection. That goal would have left me with zero fiber.

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I pulled off the little sausages of prepared fiber with my fingers—there wasn't really enough there to draw off a sliver with a diz. The clump of fiber on the left in the photo above was the "waste" (which I'll use to stuff something with), and the three little bits of fiber just to its right are representative of what's in the clump—really short and useless. While the good-to-waste fiber ratio is low, I was starting with truly unpromising raw material and the end result. . . .

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got me what I wanted.

How to show the magic?

I still don't know how to show, in photographs, what the difference is.

After I washed my new little skein, I handed it to my daughter and said, "Just play with it."

She immediately started stretching it. "Spandex????"

"Just wool. Magical wool."

Let's try to get a hint here, with the relaxed skeinlet:

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And, against the same piece of flooring, the skeinlet extended, but not overextended:

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With a normal wool, I'd expect to be able to stretch a similar skeinlet to half to three-quarters of the width of that second, righthand section of flooring. Not all the way across it.

One more counterintuitive comment: You'd normally think that a carded preparation, woolen spun, would be more elastic than a combed, worsted-spun yarn. (In this case, the first sample was spun with a hybrid draw, because there were too many irregularities to tolerate a long draw, but carding generally encourages more elasticity than combing.) In this case, the combed, worsted-spun yarn is the one with the maximum elasticity.

A few thoughts

If there were a premium-rate market for the wool for the most endangered breeds of sheep, like the Santa Cruz, the people who are keeping the animals alive would have more reasons to care for the fleece in ways that handspinners and other fiber artists could value. This type of support would need to be easy for the shepherds to set up and maintain; it would require additional attention to the wool during the year, and would need to repay that effort and then some. Because I'm preparing a post for later in this week about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business model as it applies to fibers, I'm impelled to wonder what would be involved for growers of the rarest breeds to set up subscription-based CSA-type groups to give them extra income to help fund their genetic conservation work. The groups would need to be small, because the yields would be relatively small—too small for the more "normal" breed-specific marketing efforts that are helping some other breeds remain financially viable.

There have got to be some ways that fiber folk can give an extra boost to the prospects of a breed like the Santa Cruz.

I'd hate to think the magic might vanish entirely.

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Clockwise from left:

  • First sample skein, prepared on fine hand carders and spun with a hybrid draw. Nothing special.
  • Second sample skein, prepared on Louet two-row mini-combs and spun with a worsted draw. Captured some of the magic!
  • White, clean Santa Cruz fiber.
  • Black, raw Santa Cruz fiber—the breed has color genetics, and I have a sample but not enough to wash or work with.
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20 Responses

  1. Fascinating! Thanks for the education in the difference in fiber preparation methods, along with the the magic that Santa Cruz wool is capable of. I can see what you were talking about back in May when you were on your residency. On the way to make these fibers higher-value, what about selling them as varietal yarns, the way fine wines are sold? So fiber folk would have to learn what the properties of the best wools were, but that’s what you’re doing with this book. Of course, maybe there’s another book there after this one that gives more space to the history of the breeds so you could write that long story you hinted at above, and include some of the personalities involved in breed conservation. But that’s for later….

  2. Susan, the varietal yarns approach is coming along nicely, especially with the internet as a way to connect producers with artists and artisans. It’s just starting to happen. One of the purposes behind this major book project is to give that work a big nudge . . . awareness among potential users of the fiber and a spotlight on the growers.

    The problem with the most vulnerable breeds, like the Santa Cruz, is that there are so few animals that even small-batch processing is barely feasible. There are ways to work it out, but the pieces need to be put into place.

    I can only think about one huge book at a time. . . .

  3. Yes! There are knitters who would like that “brag” factor!

    I’m especially concerned about the Santa Cruz right now. The micro-flocks I knew about ten years ago don’t appear to be located where they were. The sheep have been moved around. Obviously, we found some, but it looks like they need more champions with enough passion to give them long-term homes and sustained attention.

  4. Fascinating, Deb. I once had a polypay fleece that produced a similar yarn. I’m not sure that it was representative of the breed and it was a less than an ideal fleece, but it seemed like you could make “rubber balls” out of that yarn!

    Just wondering, did you consider spinning the Santa Cruz right off the comb? There might have been less waste….but then again, the yarn might not have been so perfect.

  5. I’d sponsor a whole flock! For only half the fleece!
    This is a breed I haven’t tried and believe me, I’ve looked for fleece.

  6. Thank you for taking us on that journey. Quite enjoyable.

  7. I do spinning demos at a local park. They raise Southdown Babydoll sheep, and the fleece they get is short, crimpy, and very dirty and neppy.

    Like you, I’ve had the best luck getting a decent yarn using mini-combs (though mine are only one-row Louet mini-combs.) That yarn is very sproingy too, but that’s more due to the down breed characteristics.

  8. Your comment on the Polypay experience is interesting; because the breed was developed for commercial processing and productivity, the wool qualities vary, so it’s hard to say exactly what is representative of the breed! Except within very broad descriptors.

    I very briefly considered spinning right off the comb, but because of the irregularities and the very short fibers and the general quality of the wool, it wasn’t going to draft smoothly at all. I had to tug to get it to “let go” and give me my sausages–! The waste was a given. Tiny bits and neps. Everything you see on the comb in the photograph was spinnable, and was spun.

  9. Greg, I’m glad you enjoyed the excursion.

    Thank *you* for taking care of your Gulf Coast sheep. You’re one of the folks keeping that breed viable, and I, for one, am very grateful.

    Sometimes I wish I could have a flock. It’s just not in the cards. What I can do is study and write and share information and thoughts.

  10. I’ll bet you have looked for fleece, Beth. You would definitely love it, and you’re right, there are a bunch of us who would have fun sponsoring flocks.

  11. Janice, Babydoll Southdowns are a sweet-spinning breed, too. And yes, the Down breed characteristics give them a lot of character and elasticity. My notes on spinning that breed say “quite a bouncy mass” and “springy.” More so than the other Down breeds, I think at this point, but with a different quality of body to the yarn than this Santa Cruz. I don’t envision the Santa Cruz in socks or mittens, which is where I’d immediately want to try out the Southdown–still next-to-skin quality, but with a bit more potential resistance to heavy wear than the Santa Cruz.

  12. Of course you can only think about one huge book project at a time. I just don’t want you to forget that you’ve got more to say after this one’s done. (And what an amazing book this will be!)

  13. sgt_majorette

    I’ve been trying for years to get some Santa Cruz for my breed sample collection, and it seems that the powers that be decided that the flora were more significant than the fauna that were eating it up, so the sheep had to go. I’m a pretty good googler, but I get the feeling that there’s a deliberate effort to stifle interest in this breed!

    Where can we get some of this stuff?

  14. I wish I could help you! If what I could get was what I got, well, you know how good my source connections are.

    It’s very complicated, and somewhat painful for me to think about how the sheep’s situation was handled. There was a black-and-white bit of decision-making about the sheep and the environment. There were lots of gray-area options that could have balanced the needs of the different biological resources. Unfortunately, only a last-ditch effort by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and some interested folks saved any of the sheep.

  15. {grinning} Assuming it gets done!

    No, I’m not done talking about this stuff. I have SO MUCH more info . . . um, and rampant curiosity on the topic.

  16. Passion. You’ve got passion for the topic–it’s not just rampant curiosity. And passion can make for great writing, if you use it carefully.

    As for this book, it will get done. When it’s time.

  17. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Susan. When I’m making good progress on the book, I feel great. Then, as you know, I need to shift horses for a while and meet other commitments, including those that pay the mortgage (and for the great books I’m finding on breed histories!).

  18. Great post. I was thinking, as I read it, that combing it would do a better job to make a sproingy yarn than carding as well.

    While working on my Masters, I read an article about acoustical dampening, and the use of various finishing materials (for both flooring and walls) to either enhance or reduce noise sensitivity.

    Someone had actually done experiments with a range of fibres and preparation techniques, and came to the conclusion that long, parallel fibre preparations did a better job of reflecting sound than wall coverings or carpeting made from shorter fibres.

    And that was due to having the long fibres being able to form a more coherent reflective surface, while the shorter fibres tended to reflect less, due to the haphazard arrangement and more protruding ends.

    The kicker was that the author noted that if such long-fibre materials were used on vertical surfaces, that care had to be taken to ensure that the material was thoroughly supported on the surface, because such preparations also made the fibres have greater stretch tendencies than the shorter preps.

    As you discovered with the Santa Cruz. (grin)

    Yes, I’d also sign up to sponsor a sheep in a flock too: what you need to do is find someone who would sell shares and let people buy as many as they want, receiving a suitable proportion of skirted fleece each year.

    (Sort of like what Jim and Pam Child do @ Hatchtown.)

  19. Fascinating about the acoustical experiments, and that bit about stretching tendencies when the materials were hung with the fibers running vertically!

    One of the tricks with the “shares” process is that I don’t think it would work as well as a secondary (middle-person) business. I think the direct connection between producer and shareholder is critical–I think it’s not only about financial support but also about relationships. Which means that the best model would be direct, between shepherds and fiberists.

    This is being done at Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm in Massachusetts, and Susan Gibbs, who innovated this approach, does consult to other farms. I’ve just put up an introductory post to what she’s doing and have a second, more detailed post about three-quarters written.

  20. oh my! just came to this blog via Abby’s…My head is spinning. thank you so much for all the good info on fleece. I am waiting for my package of Southdown Babydoll that I ordered totally on a whim, knowing nothing about the breed but learning as I go.

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