The gray/grey “Suffolk” puzzle

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.

Fiber evaluation

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.

Spinning tests

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.



22 thoughts on “The gray/grey “Suffolk” puzzle”

  1. Deb, I’m with you, I think its wool from the Suffolk area of England.

    A couple weekends ago I had a discussion with Judith Mackenzie McCuin about what exactly is sold as “Shetland” wool. She stated that most of the shetland sold is actually a down breed. I concur, especially since down breeds, mainly cheviots I believe, were bred to the native shetland sheep to “improve them”. Many shetlands you find today reflect more of the down characteristics rather than the dual coated characteristics.

  2. It’s pretty though, even if it has about as much resemblance to Suffolk as I have to Tyra Banks…. And as lovely as those rolags are, I kept thinking “wow, this is going to be an interesting disaster.” 🙂

    Your bunnies are way ahead of ours too — all the ones I’ve seen in the wild are still white with black tips on their ears.

  3. Nice combs….
    And when I clicked over to your blog and saw your photo the first thing I thought was Swaledale. I have some processed Swaledale from Louet in the shop if you want me to send you a bit for comparison.

    Also, nice rock.

  4. Too bad there’s no CSI for spinners you could get it’s DNA analyzed :-). How lovely to be snowed in with all that spinning. Enjoy!

  5. Yeah, I’ve seen “Shetland” called a “Down” breed, and that’s just nuts.

    In putting that “Suffolk” through its paces, I kept thinking of new spinners who probably wouldn’t have seen or worked with a real Suffolk and the potential long-term confusion this label could produce. Thus the post. . . .

    The next question is: do they grow wool like this in Suffolk? I haven’t a clue. I’ve never been to the British Isles at all (alas).

  6. Linda, I’m laughing at your “this is going to be an interesting disaster” comment. Most of this project feels that way . . . for many reasons. I keep thinking, “I’M NUTS.” Followed by, “Just do the next piece of work. You have a deadline. It is an absurd deadline, but it is *your* deadline. Go.”

  7. Beth, how about *I* send *you* some of this “Suffolk”? I have some of the Louet Swaledale, but not up here on the mountain.

    Nice combs is right. St. Blaise two-row.

  8. Thanks. **Me, too.** Progress is slower than I wish even here, but *so* much faster than at home! I’m not even letting myself read the book about Roger Tory Peterson I brought along. It’s all wool, all the time.

  9. There’s very cool DNA stuff going on in some parts of the fiber world. I’m ready for more news about what’s being learned! I’d watch a Fiber CSI.

  10. Did you get that from the UK? Because I’ve been depending on UK sellers to know their sheep better than farmers do in the US; I’m often reminded of the South American shepherds quoted in Wild Fibers or SpinOff who, when asked what kind of sheep they raise, look blank for a moment and then answer “White ones.”

    And I was thinking Karakul or Gotland, but I’ll run with the herd and vote Swaledale.

  11. I got it from a US seller, but it looks *exactly* like what is online at UK’s World of Wool, and I expect (based on where slivers are coming from these days) that it’s UK-origin.

    It’s not Karakul or Gotland; I’ve spun a lot of both–they’re some of my favorite wools, in general. (I’m keeping warm up here in the mountains in a ruana that has a woolen-spun Gotland weft . . . hmmm, and I think I remember, although it was made a gazillion years ago, that I may have used a Suffolk warp . . . that would be ironic if I’m remembering correctly!)

  12. I’m late on the discussion here. I too have spun a lot of Suffolk, and that’s just not it. 🙂 I think though that I have encountered kemp in Suffolk fleeces. Towards the hind end of the sheep–obviously and I remember it being crinkly wiry white hair. It is possible it came from a cross-bred approach to building meat production–bred with some hair sheep, perhaps.

  13. I carded some Lincoln Longwool when I was just starting out. Looked gorgeous on the cards, felt fabulous as rolags.

    Discovered many new combinations of obscenities when I tried to spin it…. 😉

    But “interesting disasters” have been some of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had — former spouses included.

  14. As long as you don’t try to spin the longwool rolags with a long draw, it can work. Short backward draw (whatever that means; I’ll demo some time) works nicely. Now, how would I know that?

  15. I think you have either Swaledale or Herdwick sliver there – certainly not Suffolk nor anything like. Of course, there are all sorts of crosses out there (I googled it and found someone in the US who’s crossed Herdwick with Suffolk) but perhaps not enough for commercial processing. I like think I know my British breeds…

    Freyalyn (in Yorkshire, UK).

  16. Thanks so much for checking in from the UK, Freyalyn. I wondered about Herdwick as well, but this feels different from the Herdwick I’ve encountered (impossible to tell from a photo, of course). Not that all Herdwicks are alike, of course, and variability is part of the challenge of this game.

    We’re on the same wavelength for types of wool.

    NOT Suffolk!

  17. When I worked for Beth B-R at Knitting Traditions, we imported a breed-specific yarn from the UK called Suffolk which was light gray, so I always assumed Suffolk sheep came in that color. Here’s a link to our supplier: I’m fascinated and enlightened by the discussion here!

  18. This stuff *is* truly fascinating.

    My understanding is that the black-faced (and -legged) sheep are more likely to have genes that will let them produce gray or black wool. It’s pretty diligently guarded against in meat-producing flocks. I’m slightly familiar with that light-gray yarn, which is crisp but not *rough*, which is how I’d characterize this sliver.

    Thanks for the link and the commentary. If we continue to surround this thing, we may get it tamed.

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