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:
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:
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:
Here’s a close-up of the center lock, which gives good evidence of a nice, even crimp pattern:
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:
Here’s a nice, very long, evenly crimpy Romeldale:
In person, it’s prettier and the evenness of crimp along the fibers is more obvious than in a photo.
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).
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.
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.
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