Suffolk and gray not-Suffolk, revisited

A gray Suffolk fleece would be a curious and remarkable thing indeed. So when I saw "grey Suffolk roving" advertised, I had to order some.

("Gray" is the U.S. spelling; "grey" is the U.K. spelling, and the way the fiber is labeled. I'll try to be consistent in my usage, but I'm not copyediting right now, I'm writing. So.)

Why would natural gray Suffolk wool be so interesting? Suffolks are grown primarily for meat. The wool is a byproduct, sold primarily to a wool pool for industrial processing. Suffolk wool, while it can be truly lovely for handspinning, may not even be mentioned by growers, even those who are aware of wool for the handspinning market.

Non-white fibers are anathema in that marketplace because they reduce the value (low-end in the first place) of the whole batch. Normally a breeder would not want an off-color fiber anywhere near a clip that's intended for a wool pool.

So where might this "grey Suffolk" be coming from, and why?

And why do I care so much? The fiber itself is just fine. It would work great for many applications, including the making of rugs, bags, and other sturdy textiles, and it looks like it's a good candidate for felting.

But people will buy and work with this wool thinking they are getting to know what the Suffolk breed of sheep grows, and they're not. I don't think the misleading information is intentional. I just think the labeling is not accurate and it's being passed along without being questioned.

The not-Suffolk that's labeled Suffolk

I began working with this "grey Suffolk" wool in March, and it was immediately obvious that it wasn't Suffolk. I have some previous posts on the topic. Below is a revisited photo. The gray is the "grey Suffolk," and the white is a bit of real Suffolk that I had about four locks of, for comparison.


Here's a closer look at the fibers: different fiber length and diameter, crimp pattern, everything. Lots of kemp (very coarse fibers) in the gray—another disqualifier for a wool pool.


Sources for this particular fiber on the internet (found by searching "grey Suffolk roving") show photos of what are, indeed, Suffolk sheep. Somebody clearly thinks this wool was grown by Suffolks.

(Rowan has a grey yarn called Suffolk in its Purelife series. Nice-looking yarn. Here's the description: "Rowan British wool is shorn & blended from 4 classic British
sheep breeds (Jacob, Black Welsh, Bluefaced Leicester & Suffolk).
Then the beautiful undyed wool is spun into 5 natural shades capturing
the beauty of each breed's fleece."

The five shades are called Bluefaced Leicester (white), Black Welsh (black), Mid Brown Jacob (brown), Dark Grey Welsh (dark gray), and Steel Grey Suffolk (light gray). For these yarns to work together without having radical texture differences—a consistency question that would be essential for marketing the wools as a line—they have to consist of the same blend, shifted slightly to produce the natural colors, which would be coming from breeds other than the Suffolk. The Suffolk would be used to, among other potential reasons, smooth out the differences between, say, the Jacob and the Black Welsh.

In this case, "Suffolk" is just an identifier given to the marketing color, because they used the name of one of the component breeds for each of the five colors and "Suffolk" was left over at the end of the naming, since Bluefaced Leicester had already been used for the white.)

My concern is that people will buy this roving and spin it thinking they have Suffolk in their hands. NO WAY. The wool may have been grown in Suffolk, but it did not come from sheep of the breed known as Suffolk.

Now, THIS is Suffolk wool

I recently acquired a beautiful sample of Suffolk. I don't think it's from a spinner's flock, but it shows the delightful qualities of Suffolk wool at its best.


The unwashed fibers measure about 5 inches (12.5cm), which is long for a Suffolk (often closer to 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5cm), but otherwise the characteristics of this wool—fineness, crimp pattern, and so on—are right on. The length just makes a good wool better. There are no specifications for staple length in the breed standards for U.S. Suffolks (because it's a meat breed).

After washing, the crimp contracted and slightly reduced the apparent (but not actual) fiber length. The tips washed clean. The fiber contained quite a few tiny bits of vegetable matter (VM), but with wool this long and a pair of wool combs VM of this type is not a big deal (two-row St. Blaise Viking combs from The Spinning Studio of Vermont).

Lashed on and ready to comb:


Is this gorgeous, or what? (The top, ready to spin, is up in the locks photo at the beginning of this section.)


On the left, true Suffolk. On the right, might-have-been-grown-there not-Suffolk.


The true Suffolk would make great socks or sweaters. It's on a nice balance point, for wools, between softness and durability. The not-Suffolk surpasses it by miles in durability, but would drive most people crazy if worn next to the skin.

To get a gray true Suffolk, you'd need to add a dyepot to the processing sequence.


9 thoughts on “Suffolk and gray not-Suffolk, revisited”

  1. I bought a couple suffolk fleeces back in 76 when I lived in Steamboat. The sweater and the vest I still have from them are perfect – still springy and lovely to wear. I don’t need more fleece in stash, but oh, those photos are tempting.

  2. Suffolk can be one of life’s great pleasures. It can also be an extreme disappointment. As long as the wool hasn’t been completely discounted by the shepherd, yes, it’s tempting. If I had time, I would be spinning for a project from this one.

  3. I think you are referring to the true Suffolk. Yes, it is. I could have happily just kept spinning.

    The not-Suffolk is also fun, and I could see weaving a nice rug from it, especially with some subtle overdyeing on that dark color. But not now. . . .

  4. Back a million years ago when I was a teenager, we raised Suffolks on the family farm. I remember carding wool on hand cards, but I don’t remember spinning it. (We didn’t own a spinning wheel at that time.)
    We sent the wool (in giant gunny sacks) to the wool pool. My job was to tread down the wool inside the gunny sack. I don’t have fond memories of Suffolk wool…

  5. I could see not having fond memories of Suffolk. It can, as you see, be grand. I started spinning with Suffolk and Dorset and the like–it was all we could get at the time.

    We had old-style Holstein cows. I *do* have fond memories of them, and cannot make the connection to their genetically engineered successors.

  6. I’m very curious myself, and maybe some time I’ll find out. It could be a crossbred, rather than a breed. There’s a LOT of kemp, which should help the tracking, that and the color. I don’t have time right now to make a mission out of getting more info. But it’ll be in the back of my brain as I collect clues.

  7. Hi,
    Currently looking at what’s out there on spinning Suffolk as I want to use it in a demo class.

    Glad to find your post as it shows Suffolk in the light which I think it deserves. The bad comments about it out there are most likely because some have tried to use it for the wrong purpose or haven’t spun it in a way which maxes it’s potential.
    Catherine .

  8. You're most welcome. Suffolk is great. After I'm through spinning samples for The Project, I have some Suffolk saved back to spin and knit up, precisely as a demo of what it can be. Thanks so much for your comment!

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