Spring: the time for fresh fleece

Yes, the birds are singing in the trees, which are covered with bright leaves, and flowers have begun to bloom abundantly. But there’s a subtler sign of spring in some lives:


Ms. Little Bit doesn’t go outside any more. She actually hasn’t gone outside in quite a long time, which may be why she’s 21 years old. Sometimes, however, a few of the most delightful parts of outside come in to her.

I opened a box today that contained some fresh fleeces and even though the contents were wrapped in plastic she snuggled right in for a nap while I checked out the contents and made labels. She has very good taste. She decided to nestle into some exquisite Romeldale (in front), a lovely gray Rambouillet (most Rambouillet is white), and a nice, creamy puff of American Tunis.


I think the position of her nose is important. The plastic bags are not, obviously, an impediment. They aren’t sealed tightly. They have open ends to let the wool breathe, and coincidentally to release their fragrance.

This is all in-the-grease fleece, you understand. It smells like
nothing else on earth: some people appreciate the bouquet of a fine
wine, and others the complex, warm aroma of freshly shorn wool (it’s
not the same after it’s aged).

I’m always surprised to remember that Tunis have been in the U.S. since 1799. Rambouillets, which are the French branch of the Merino family, started up with some sheep sent to France from Spain in 1786 (when the Spanish finally let some Merinos be exported). They started being brought into North America in the middle of the nineteenth century. A Rambouillet association was formed in the United States in 1889.

For a while, it wasn’t clear whether there would be more Tunis or more Rambouillet in the U.S. Now it’s estimated that half the range sheep in the Western U.S. are Rambouillets, and the Tunis is on "watch" status with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Fortunately, the breed’s situation is improving slowly but steadily (there are increasing numbers of breeders and animals). They’re very nifty looking sheep with brown faces and legs. Gray Rambouillets are very special, too. The commercial flocks produce all white wool, because when you’re selling large quantities of wool any colored fiber destroys the value of the mass.

It’s such a pretty gray. . . . And just meant for handspinning.

Romeldales were developed in the early twentieth century from a cross of New Zealand Marsh Romney and the by-then-well-established Rambouillet. In the 1960s, a color variant of Romeldale appeared, which sheep expert Glen Eidman developed into a breed called California Variegated Mutant, or CVM. The odd thing about a breed is that the offspring look like the parents. As the saying goes, "breeds breed true." If these colored sheep had simply appeared randomly within a Romeldale flock now and then, the CVMs would not be considered a breed. But two CVM parents produce CVM offspring. It’s a breed, although people talk about CVM/Romeldale together because the two breeds are so closely related. They are in the "critical" (most endangered) category of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s current watchlist. Ouch. This is some of the prettiest wool I’ve ever seen in my life. (I’ve seen a lot of wool.)

Both American Tunis and CVM/Romeldale are breeds unique to North America.


Tomorrow I’m heading for the Estes Park Wool Market. This year I’m attending without teaching, speaking, or judging anything. I’m meeting up with one friend to share a hotel room with, and I’m planning just to enjoy being there.

I received nine bags of fiber today, eight small and one large. I’ll be busy over the next month or two. That’s not all the wool I’ve got, either. Although I’ve got more work to do right now than hours in the day, I’m playing with an idea that involves small amounts of wool from a number of breeds of sheep. I’ve done this kind of thing before. I start following a thread of curiosity and I can’t stop (nor do I want to, really). I spent the past few days reading Peter Wade-Martins’ The Manx Loghtan Story. It was not easy to get my hands on a copy of that book, and I only have it temporarily.

One batch that arrived recently (not the Romeldale, the Rambouillet, or the Tunis) suggests that I’ll be at least considering getting a pair of Viking combs at the Wool Market. I have English combs and Louet mini-combs, and I could make do with them. This particular fiber is so springy and appealing . . . and open, and long . . . that I don’t want to have to make do when I’m preparing it. The mini-combs are too small and the English combs will turn too much of this fiber into waste. Neither set of tools would do it justice.

And if there’s anything important about playing with varieties of wool, it’s doing justice to their unique qualities. Otherwise I might as well be working with the woolly equivalent of pasteurized process cheese food.


6 thoughts on “Spring: the time for fresh fleece”

  1. I agree completely about the way fibers should smell! And it’s possible to clean them completely and still retain a characteristic aroma.

    And yes, there will be photos posted. It will be a while. This is one of my more complicated projects.

    I leave for Estes in just a bit. Thanks for the good wishes! (I learned last night that the Bijou Basin Ranch yaks will be there again; they enchanted me the last time I was at the Wool Market, which was probably a couple of years ago.)

  2. Weren’t you at the Wool Market last year with me!? I was so glad to see you. 🙂 Also, your wool project sounds delicious. Too bad I couldn’t be there to roll in the wool and sniff with the cat!

  3. Hi! I get a google alert for tunis and found your blog through it… I raise tunis and love to spin the wool, what do you think of it? Do you mind if I ask were you bought it? A woman in NJ has very soft tunis, I just bought a fleece from her a couple of months ago 🙂

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