I've written before about Santa Cruz wool, in conjunction with a post about making the best of a less-than-ideal wool sample. Now that it's time to do my write-up on Santa Cruz wool, I have been distracted by my desire to show at least some of the capacity of this breed's wool, which is not evident in the sample I've already spun.
Santa Cruz is one of the rarest sheep breeds. It's on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's priority list with critical status. There's a long story behind this—one that I won't go into right now, because my goal is to highlight the superb qualities of the fiber. No one knows exactly when or how sheep got onto Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California, somewhere between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were well established by the mid-nineteenth century. By other people's best guesses, the breed was created through some combination of Merino, Rambouillet, and possibly Churro. The sheep don't look like Merinos or Rambouillets, although their wool is clearly fine enough to have been influenced by those breeds.
Remembering the magic, and struggling with the available fiber
What is most stunning about the fiber is its combination of fineness and bounce.
When I coordinated the Save the Sheep Project for Spin-Off Magazine in the late 1990s, one of the entries was a shawl that Nancy Van Tassel made from Santa Cruz wool shorn from one of the few rescued sheep. I've seen and handled a lot of handspun yarn over about thirty-five years of intense involvement with spinning. That shawl and the yarn it was made from have stood out vividly in my memory for the combination of softness and resilience. I have never felt anything like it.
When I spun my sample last year, I got what looked like the best possible option out of the wool sample we were able to obtain—and with Santa Cruz, we are fortunate to be able to get a sample at all. With a breed this rare, the primary focus of husbandry is simply keeping enough animals alive to keep the breed going and, ideally, with enough genetic diversity for a healthy population. Wool quality is not at the top of anyone's agenda. If the genes are there, a future year's wool quality can be tended to and the crop will have some value. At this dire survival level, there's no well-defined market for the wool anyway.
Here's the sample I spun then . . . there was no way it could be regular, because of the fiber quality:
I was disappointed but felt like I needed to settle for what I had and move on. It didn't have the "life" that I remember so well from Nancy Van Tassel's contribution to the Save the Sheep efforts, but she had control over her fiber source and some experience in spinning the breed. Last year, that skein was the best I thought I could do, perhaps because I wasn't yet desperate enough.
I've been having trouble getting the breed written up, and I finally realized why. I want, somehow, to be able to at least hint at the magic that I know, thanks to Nancy, Santa Cruz wool is capable of. My existing sample didn't do that. I had no idea what I could pull off that might. But I determined to go at it one more time.
Throwing out all the rules
This is where all standard guidelines for wool prep and spinning have to go out the window, and vision and stubbornness take over, seasoned with a pragmatic awareness that perfection is simply out of reach.
Background: I had an OFDA computerized analysis done on a small tuft of this fiber. I'm having scans run for most of the very rare wools because we don't have much data on their characteristics. A data sample of one or two or five entries isn't much at all, but it's better than nothing.
Fineness: The average micron count of the piece I pulled (clean) was 23.2. That's fine. A full 97.3% of the fibers were under 30 microns, the industrial line of demarcation for fibers to be used in next-to-the-skin applications. The finest fibers in the sample were 14 microns; there were just a few fibers at the sample's maximum of 32, 33, and 34 microns.
Fiber length: 35 mm, or 1.4 inches. That's the kicker.
Because of the short fibers, and the fact that it was difficult to separate out anything resembling a staple, I used fine hand carders to prepare the wool for my first sample. This was the obvious, reasonable, normal choice for a short, jumbled fiber. The many neps and second cuts were just something I had to live with. I did end up choosing a drafting technique that would minimize the effects of these elements on the finished yarn.
This weekend, bullheadedly determined to see if I could do a better job of showing what the Santa Cruz wool is capable of, I decided to try combing. COMBING. Fiber less than 1.5 inches long. Right.
Okay, here goes.
From yuck to yum, believe it or not
Raw Santa Cruz wool, as I received it, with gratitude that I had any at all:
These look and feel like what would be skirtings for a "normal" fleece, but as I've mentioned this wool is probably just a shepherd's afterthought of survival care for the living animals. Based on my experience in washing, at least part of this came from the rear of the animal—not prime fleece territory. I had the sample above available to photograph in its original state because when the wool first arrived I only washed the portion I needed. It wasn't inspiring enough to wash the whole batch. That ended up being okay. I used Dawn dishwashing liquid, which was what I had at the time. I've since shifted to Unicorn Power Scour and took on the rest of the raw wool with that resource on my side. I knew the Power Scour wouldn't overclean (thus making the wool harsh or brittle), so I used more than I usually would and I ran the fiber through three, rather than two, cleansing baths, with one pre-soak and two rinses, using a mix of half hot-tap water and half boiling water from pots on the stove and not letting the water cool off for more than 20 minutes on each cycle.
Here's what the clean version looked like:
Not beautiful, but compared to what I started with it was greatly improved. I wasn't concerned about the flecks of dirt, because although they tend to stick around in carding and cause problems, they normally drop out in combing.
Most combs couldn't handle such a short, fine fiber. Fortunately, I have a pair of two-row Louet mini-combs that I thought might do the trick. Even so, because the fibers were so jumbled I needed to load the wool onto the combs not-quite-randomly, searching out bits of the fiber mass that seemed to have long-enough fibers and simply snagging them onto the teeth of the mini-combs as best I could. While I combed through two complete passes, I didn't look for perfection. That goal would have left me with zero fiber.
I pulled off the little sausages of prepared fiber with my fingers—there wasn't really enough there to draw off a sliver with a diz. The clump of fiber on the left in the photo above was the "waste" (which I'll use to stuff something with), and the three little bits of fiber just to its right are representative of what's in the clump—really short and useless. While the good-to-waste fiber ratio is low, I was starting with truly unpromising raw material and the end result. . . .
got me what I wanted.
How to show the magic?
I still don't know how to show, in photographs, what the difference is.
After I washed my new little skein, I handed it to my daughter and said, "Just play with it."
She immediately started stretching it. "Spandex????"
"Just wool. Magical wool."
Let's try to get a hint here, with the relaxed skeinlet:
And, against the same piece of flooring, the skeinlet extended, but not overextended:
With a normal wool, I'd expect to be able to stretch a similar skeinlet to half to three-quarters of the width of that second, righthand section of flooring. Not all the way across it.
One more counterintuitive comment: You'd normally think that a carded preparation, woolen spun, would be more elastic than a combed, worsted-spun yarn. (In this case, the first sample was spun with a hybrid draw, because there were too many irregularities to tolerate a long draw, but carding generally encourages more elasticity than combing.) In this case, the combed, worsted-spun yarn is the one with the maximum elasticity.
A few thoughts
If there were a premium-rate market for the wool for the most endangered breeds of sheep, like the Santa Cruz, the people who are keeping the animals alive would have more reasons to care for the fleece in ways that handspinners and other fiber artists could value. This type of support would need to be easy for the shepherds to set up and maintain; it would require additional attention to the wool during the year, and would need to repay that effort and then some. Because I'm preparing a post for later in this week about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business model as it applies to fibers, I'm impelled to wonder what would be involved for growers of the rarest breeds to set up subscription-based CSA-type groups to give them extra income to help fund their genetic conservation work. The groups would need to be small, because the yields would be relatively small—too small for the more "normal" breed-specific marketing efforts that are helping some other breeds remain financially viable.
There have got to be some ways that fiber folk can give an extra boost to the prospects of a breed like the Santa Cruz.
I'd hate to think the magic might vanish entirely.
Clockwise from left:
- First sample skein, prepared on fine hand carders and spun with a hybrid draw. Nothing special.
- Second sample skein, prepared on Louet two-row mini-combs and spun with a worsted draw. Captured some of the magic!
- White, clean Santa Cruz fiber.
- Black, raw Santa Cruz fiber—the breed has color genetics, and I have a sample but not enough to wash or work with.