This post will consist of ideas and musings, not pronouncements.
Having been fascinated by breed-specific wools for years, especially the rare breeds that will vanish if we do not have adequate financial support for the shepherds who want to care for flocks of them, I have jumped off the deep end (again) in another study of fibers.
This is the Big Project that I've been talking about. It will result in a book. Carol Ekarius and I are working on it together; I'm responsible for the fiber aspects. Done right, it would take another several decades. We have deadlines (although they have flexed as our vision has expanded, they still exist). The results will not be perfect. However, I tell myself that I've already put several decades of preparatory work into The Project, and whatever I accomplish now will help someone else in the future take this work to its next step (maybe I'll even have the opportunity to take it farther, after The Project has been completed). Similarly, I am, of course, depending on the labors and observations of those who have written down their thoughts and ideas about wool before me.
I'm going to use the Leicesters as an example for this scattered group of thoughts-without-conclusions. In these thoughts, I'm only looking at the wool from these breeds, not all the other aspects of how and why they came to exist as separate entities, what sizes the sheep are, what ecological and cultural niches they fill, and so on.
A quick overview of "the Leicesters"
"The Leicesters" is not an official group of sheep breeds. People who know very little about sheep think all sheep are the same, except most are white and a few are black. People who have dug a little deeper and know about breeds get confused by the Leicesters because of the similarities of their names—Leicester Longwool, Border Leicester, and Bluefaced Leicester. These breeds are, indeed, genetically related. Their wools can be radically different . . . or, in some cases, a bit similar. More different than similar, though, at least when seen from where I'm sitting.
Leicester Longwools came first, a breed refined during the 18th century from early Lincolns and Leicesters (geographic variants of the same ancient breed). They have a lot of other names, including English Leicesters.
Border Leicesters have also been around since the 18th century, but their breeding was based in part on the then-recently-developed Leicester Longwools.
Bluefaced Leicesters are the relative newcomers, having been developed early in the 20th century by selecting Border Leicesters that had "blue" faces (black skin under white wool) and . . . most importantly for fiber folk . . . fine fleeces.
Differences between breeds, looking at "the Leicesters" all at once
Here are some samples from the three breeds (clean locks, shearings from different sheep for each):
It's easy enough to see the relationship between the Leicester Longwool and the coarser (left) lock from the Border Leicester, as well as between the finer (right) Border Leicester and the Bluefaced Leicester.
Variations within a breed: Bluefaced Leicester
The photo also hints that it may be easier to predict what type of fiber you'll get when you have a Bluefaced Leicester fleece, as compared to a Leicester Longwool or a Border Leicester.
Although a sampling of two means nothing, there is a useful bit of information behind the consistency that we think we perceive in these Bluefaced Leicester locks: the breed standards for Bluefaced Leicester are narrowly defined, and the wool tends to be in the range of 24 to 28 microns (equivalent to Bradford counts and USDA grades of 56s to 60s), and the staple lengths are between 8 and 15cm (3 and 6 inches).
Those are, for wools, quite narrow ranges. (And just look at that crimp: all of the Leicesters have delightful crimp, although of different character.)
Differences between breeds: Leicester Longwool and Border Leicester
Here's where matters get complicated and it gets harder to make generalizations.
These are older breeds with less stringent breed society constraints. There's much more variability in the wool right from the start, and that variation is also pushed in specific directions by breeders' preferences, both in their individual goals for their flocks and in different parts of the world. In addition, white and natural-colored sheep don't have the same wool profiles.
Overall, Border Leicesters can be slightly finer than Leicester Longwools, although their micron count and Bradford/USDA ranges very nearly overlap (the finest Border Leicester is not, on paper, quite as fine as the coarsest Bluefaced Leicester, although it's very close). Border Leicesters can also be as strong (or coarse) as Leicester Longwools. (Except for . . . oops, that's a digression for another time.)
Let's say Border Leicesters run from 29.25 to 40 microns (40s to 50s) in the British Isles and North America, and between 32 and 40 microns (36s to 46s) in New Zealand and Australia.
And let's say Leicester Longwools run from 32 to 38 microns (40s to 46s) in the British Isles*, North America, and Australia, and between 37 and 40 microns (36s to 40s) in New Zealand.
* (except for British natural-colored Leicester Longwools, which, according to the British Coloured Sheep Breeders Association, range from 37 to 46 microns [40s+])
Oh, and staple length. Both of these breeds can be shorn twice a year, so depending on whether you are looking at a half-yearly shearing or a full year's growth, you may see between 12.5 and 25cm (5 and 10 inches) for the Border Leicester and between 12.5 and 35cm (5 and 14 inches) for the Leicester Longwool.
There are a lot of possibilities in these two breeds. Yet we can still draw some conclusions. I won't do that now, because that's the work of The Project, and I have to read, spin, and mull a lot for each breed in order to come up with something resembling conclusions. I'll probably be right in my conclusions part of the time, and wrong part of the time. I hope there won't be much of the latter, but I also hope that whatever "wrongness" ends up in The Project spurs someone else to dig even deeper.
Wool in the hand
Numbers can be helpful, but spinning the fibers tells so much more. It has seemed to me, over time, that fibers with exactly the same numerical identifiers—micron count, staple length, and so on—can feel significantly different, likely because of differences in the patterns of the scales on the surface of the fiber, possibly the way the cells that make up the insides of the fiber are arranged, and other things we don't usually get to look at in detail.
Nor do we need to, if we take each fleece in front of us on its own terms, having trusted (and trained) our fingers to feel the individuality of THIS fleece by comparing it to other fleeces we've spun before. (The same goes for working with commercially spun breed-specific yarns, although some of the most subtle individualities are smoothed over in large-batch processing.)
Glorious, lustrous, heavy in the hand, Leicester Longwool makes me think of rugs, and durable bags, and how beautiful and clear the colors will be when it is dyed . . . because of that luster. It could also be used to make interesting large-scale laces. It could make a lovely, nicely draping blanket, and for someone who is into making home furnishings it would also make great pillow or upholstery fabric—very hard-wearing! There's something about that crimp, too, that wants to be part of a fleece rug or heavily textured tapestry . . . especially in that shorter fleece on the right.
If I decided not to use the locks as locks or simply flick them open and then spin, I would comb both of these fleeces, to keep the fibers parallel and thus conserve as much of the shine as possible all the way through to the finished yarn. I'd use my Viking combs (I love my Viking combs). The fleece on the left would be challenging to comb, because of its length—not something for a beginner. It would require very long strokes to keep it from tangling. The fleece on the right would be better for someone who is either new to combing or impatient.
With Border Leicester, I'd have to do more evaluation before planning a project or the preparation technique. At the finer end of the breed's wool range (something like the fleece on the right), I might be inspired to make a hard-wearing everyday sweater or mittens or socks. At the coarser end, I'd be looking again (like the Leicester Longwool) at sturdy rugs or bags, wall hangings, and the like. A coarser fleece with long staples (like the one on the left) could be used to make a fleece rug or blanket. There is plenty of luster to these fibers and they will show off dyed colors very nicely.
That longer fleece on the left would require some experience to comb. It might be fun to simply flick the locks open at both ends and spin. See the different length samples in the fleece on the right? It would be best to sort that fleece and prepare the different sections in different ways. The shorter bits might be carded and the longer ones combed.
The fleece on the right could become a nice sweater. The one on the left would, perhaps, rather be spun fine and woven into a coat.
As we've noted, the Bluefaced Leicesters are more predictable, although husbandry, health, and weather all can produce fleeces that don't fit the regular profile.
The wool from Bluefaced Leicesters is soft enough to be used for next-to-skin wear. It will make lovely sweaters, scarves, mittens, gloves, blankets—it's easy to see why this wool is so popular (and it's easy to forget that there are jobs the other Leicesters can do much better). The staples are often long enough to comb, and some fleeces might be amenable to carding as well. Again, the luster means dyed colors will be clear and bright.
Conclusions, which I said I wasn't going to provide
The Leicesters share some genetics, and propensities toward luster, well-defined crimp, and enough staple length to suggest spinning from the lock, flicking, or combing as the first ideas about preparation for spinning.
Yet depending on which breed you select and which individual's fleece (from which year) you have, you could end up deciding to make anything from an heirloom-durable rug to a lacy camisole.