One of the wools I'm spinning this week puzzles me to the extreme. It's sold as gray (U.K. grey) Suffolk, called in the marketing materials either "sliver roving" or "tops." It's sliver. It's sure not top or roving, and I question the Suffolk part as well, even though two of the major retail sources show photos of Suffolk sheep along with the fiber.
Reason for spinning? A natural gray Suffolk fleece would be a very interesting phenomenon indeed. See notes below for why. The question remains open whether such a thing exists.
Let's get a picture of some fiber before I talk about the reasons for my puzzlement.
What we've got on top there is a piece of the sliver. I've pulled off a fiber-length: just below are a few fibers that I used to check myself (like pinching yourself to be sure what you're seeing is real: tug on both ends of a tiny group of fibers and they don't drift apart . . . yup, these fibers are about 8 inches / 20cm long). Some of the fibers have a bit of crimp; others have almost none. There are a variety of grays—actually, a full range from white to black, with most in the middle grays. There's quite a lot of kemp, the short, white, bristly fibers.
The white lock below is Suffolk-for-real. It's on the long side for a Suffolk, 3.5 inches / 9cm, white, and has a nicely observable and consistent crimp pattern.
We're comparing a bit of apples-to-oranges here, in more ways than one, because we've got sliver and a lock, but there's plenty of info to cover the basics.
Muttering to myself
Faced with a conundrum, I go back to the basics, even though I've spun a bunch of Suffolk over the years.
Suffolk is raised primarily for meat. The wool has been, historically, a byproduct. The breed originated in England and is now raised in many places. There are lots of Suffolks in the U.S.
The breed association in the British Isles doesn't talk about the wool at all. It doesn't matter. Meat all the way.
The breed standards for the United States Suffolk Association have this to say about the fleece: "The fleece should be dense, free of dark fiber and not shading into
dark hair or wool."
As the very last comment under "History," the U.S. breed society gets a little more specific: "Fleece weights from mature ewes are between five and eight pounds (2.25-3.6
kg) with a yield of 50 to 62 percent. The fleeces are considered medium
wool type with a fiber diameter of 25.5 to 33.0 microns and a spinning
count of 48 to 58. The staple length of Suffolk Fleece ranges from 2 to
3.5 inches (5-6.75 cm)." [I think they meant 5-8.75cm.]
All the other sources of fiber information are in the same range, as is my experience.
There's a reason large-scale breeders don't want dark fibers in the fleece; the interlopers significantly decrease the value of the byproduct wool when it's sold for commercial processing. Dark fibers more commonly appear in dark-faced breeds of sheep, like the Suffolk, than in white-faced breeds. And Suffolks are more prone to having dark fibers among the white than some of the other dark-faced breeds.
A gray Suffolk would be an unwelcome oddity. To be salvaged, it would need to be kept separate from the main group of Suffolks. To produce enough gray Suffolk to make a commercially available sliver, you'd need a bunch of sheep. Many things here do not compute.
And then: Suffolks are not noted for having kemp.
Gray "Suffolk" sliver compared to my experience of Suffolk:
- way too long
- wrong color
- contains kemp
- wrong crimp pattern
- way too coarse
I have no locks to examine for shape, but I'm guessing the originating fleece for this sliver looked more like a Swaledale.
Maybe this sliver is called "Suffolk" not because it came from a Suffolk sheep, but because it was grown by some other sort of sheep in Suffolk, England?
If anyone knows anything about this fiber, or who we could reach easily to ask, I'm incredibly curious.
Now. Spinning a fiber is something else entirely. Fiber can be spun on its own terms, without being identified. Keep in mind these are samples.
First, I spun from the end of the sliver, worsted-style (short forward draw). This was the path of least resistance, both for the fiber and for my personal spinning preferences. I only controlled the fiber's unevenness minimally. I wanted to see what it would do.
The result would weave nicely into a heavy jacket fabric, would work well in a rug, or. . . .
Then, because I'm either stubborn or perverse or both, I decided to try woolen. Because if this really was Suffolk, woolen ought to bring out the best in the fiber (even though I knew that the staple length was too long, the fiber was too coarse, the crimp pattern was wrong, and so on . . . I said "perverse," didn't I?).
Even the carding set-up looked absurd, although I card longer fibers than some people do, and the rolags themselves were pretty.
The spinning, however, went badly and the results were abominable. I knew before I started that the stuff wouldn't draft out evenly, but I tried it anyway. I didn't waste much wool on this experiment.
So I took my pretty-enough rolags and used a draft that was sort of a worsted-style short forward draw but let some twist into the drafting area, so I was half drafting against the twist. That gave me some control but let me produce a bouncier yarn. It would make a good barn or gardening sweater (over a sturdy shirt) or a cushion or something:
And that was the end of my experiments.
If that gray fiber is Suffolk, then the thing with ears in this photo is a furry rock:
And I would LOVE to know what the gray fiber is, and why they are calling it Suffolk.
To clear my fiberish palate, I pulled out a bit of wool that is definitely what it is called, clamped the two-row peasant combs to the table, and prepared something nice and smooth to spin next. Note that if you are ever combing fiber at a cabin in the woods and have forgotten your diz, a knitting needle gauge works fantastically well.
Oh, and we're being blizzarded in. I might get to use my snowshoes.