Most of the time fiber folk look for and exclaim over fine, soft wools, with good reason. They're lovely to work with and they feel really good in our hands and when we wear clothing made from them. Merino is by far the most famous of these wools.
What I have been playing with recently are some wools that are the antithesis of Merino. They mix, in varying proportions, the three types of fiber that can be found in a sheep's fleece:
- wool, that familiar stuff (which comes in an array of textures all on its own)
- hair, which is stiff and smooth (think horsehair, or a dog's outer coat)
- kemp, which is bristly and coarse (pig bristles??? only more irregular? like itty bitty white twigs?)
Merinos, and many other highly developed breeds, have only wool in their fleeces.
Hair and kemp show up in the fleeces of sheep that can handle rough weather: storms, cold, damp. (Hair is also predominant in the body coverings of sheep breeds that can tolerate extremes of heat. Those sheep look a lot like goats.)
One of the breeds I've been spinning is South Wales Mountain. It's a big sheep, with a tough, weather-resistant coat.
Another spinner recently asked me whether this breed's wool is medium or long, and I had to answer that it wasn't really either, in the way we normally think about medium or long wools. The word medium could be applied to breeds like Corriedale and Suffolk and many, many others. Medium is a huge category. When we say longwool we tend to mean the English luster (shiny) longwool breeds, like Cotswold, Lincoln, and Leicester Longwool, as well as the more familiar Romney and the relatively unfamiliar Devon & Cornwall Longwool. In all of these cases—both medium and longwools—the fleece consists of wool, with little or no hair or kemp present.
South Wales Mountain is, then, neither medium nor long as those terms are normally understood. It's one of the mountain breeds, which tells us a bit more about it, but still not enough because there's a good deal of variety in that category as well.
South Wales Mountain fleeces are full of kemp. SERIOUSLY full of kemp. In addition, while most kemp is white
(and all kemp resists being dyed), South Wales Mountain can have
smatterings of red kemp as well.
Here's some of the South Wales Mountain that I've been spinning:
At the bases of the locks, there's a bit of dry scurf or clumping; you can see that in the lock on the left. The easiest way to deal with this is to trim it off, as I've done to the lock on the right.
It's a little hard to see, but the lock is about 50/50 kemp and wool, and the parts are about the same length. I could probably comb the locks and remove the kemp reasonably well, although not perfectly. The process would be tedious and the results questionable. If I tried to card this fiber, I'd end up with an exercise in frustration, with kemp flying all over the place (which it will kind of do no matter what, but this would make it far, far worse) and rolags that would be hard to roll and wouldn't hold their shape and would be misery to draft. Someone else might want to prep these fibers in those ways, and might succeed beautifully at it, but I go both for the path of least resistance and the path that, for me, preserves and ideally highlights the unique character of the breed's fleece.
What I've done isn't something I've seen or learned elsewhere, although I doubt that it's anything new. During spinning, the kemp and wool will tend to draft out at different rates, and my goal is to get them to feed into the twist together, as they are in the lock. So I open out each lock into a kind of rhomboid shape, with a leading edge from which I begin to spin, working my way down the lock and catching a series of tips in progression. As I reach the end of one lock, I add another, similarly prepared.
Kemp resists not only dyeing but twist. The two primary concentration points in spinning this type of fleece are even feeding of the fiber and corralling of the kemp. Some kemp escapes no matter what.
So what's the yarn like?
It's a natural-born novelty yarn, with texture galore. If I dyed this yarn, the kemps would stay whatever color they are (mostly, but not all, white) and the wool context would take the dye's color, increasing the contrast between the types of fiber.
Most South Wales Mountain fleeces become carpet (for us, "rug") yarn. Some can be used in clothing, but not for next-to-the-skin wear! I can easily see a yarn like this used as an accent in a garment, though, used in small amounts at places that won't come in contact with a body. And it could inspire many types of basketry, sculpture, or tapestry constructions . . . all situations that Merino doesn't have the commanding presence to handle.