My previous post laid out the background and my philosophy for presenting the numbers describing fiber qualities in The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. As my first example, I used a breed that was relatively simple, because it's modern and part of its definition involves very specific wool qualities: Cormo.
Although the other breeds I'm going to talk about were significantly more complicated to come up with numbers for, I was able to lay out all of the basic issues with the Cormo (which was not, of course, as straightforward as it "should" have been). So let's look at another breed's scenario. . . .
The Romney is a breed with a long history and a lot of variation. It originated, and obtained its name, in southeastern England. However, it's a successful type of sheep for both wool and meat growing and has been exported around the world. In each locale, breeders have selected for different qualities of fiber. In addition, Romney genetics include the possibility of natural colors. For large-scale industrial production, anything other than pure white wool isn't desirable, but handspinners treasure the lovely colors.
So: what types of numbers could I use to describe the Romney's wool?
As for the Cormo, the first thing I did was simply gather a bunch of data from as many sources as I could find and put the information all in one place:
As before, I sorted by geographic location, when I could tell what that was. Noticeably absent from this list is the Romney Sheep Breeders' Society in the British Isles. When I reviewed its website, there were only subjective descriptions of wool quality (although it did mention "heavy fleeces of 4 to 5kg").
There's quite a lot of overlapping data: Fournier & Fournier's Romney Marsh, The Sheep Trust (UK), and the British Coloured Sheep Breeders Association have nearly identical information. Fournier & Fournier have separate data for the New Zealand version of the breed.
Then I got out my pencil and started sketching relationships.
As the data began to come into focus for me, I started over on another sheet of paper and sketched in approximate micron-count spans for the sources that only offered Bradford or USDA numbers:
Factors I was watching for as I evaluated sources were (1) geography, (2) color (if specified), (3) date of source (since breeding goals shift with time as well as location), and (4) overall reliability of the source—not necessarily in that order!
While there's definitely overlap, New Zealand Romneys look like they have fiber on the sturdier end, and the Americans are breeding for more fineness. Fleece weights were a bit scattered.
White Romney samples, with two-ply yarn
In the summaries, I wanted to indicate the potential for variation by region. Here's what I came up with for Romney:
- Staple lengths: 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm)
- Fiber diameters:
North America: 29 to 36 microns (spinning counts listed at 44s to 50s, but micron counts suggest 44s to 54s)
New Zealand: 33 to 37 microns (spinning counts listed at 44s to 52s, but micron counts suggest 40s to 46s)
British Isles: 30 to 35 microns (spinning counts listed at 46s to 54s, but micron counts suggest 44s to 50s)
- Fleece weights: 8 to 12 pounds (or more) (3.5 to 5.5kg)
For the Cormo I gave the USDA or Bradford grades less weight, because the breed is new and part of its definition involves fleece quality and consistency criteria based on micron-count data. For the Romney, the breed's long history suggests giving the Bradford grades a bigger say in the compiled description.
Overall, wool classification is moving toward the use of more objective—i.e., micron count—measurement systems. For a number of breeds, the contemporary preference for fine wools is pushing the breeders to select in favor of the "skinny" end of the spectrum. In selecting numbers to represent the Romney, what I did was attempt to embody the effects of these forces as I saw them appearing in the data I collected.
For some breeds (although this wasn't obvious in the Romney), I observed differences in quality designations between white and colored wools. That may be because the genes that produce color in those breeds act in combination with genes that result in slightly coarser fiber, or because the breeders who are going for color like sturdier wool, or for other reasons. There's a lot we humans haven't figured out yet about sheep.
Gray Romney sample with carded rolags
In some cases, the metric/imperial conversions I'm giving here are not identical to those printed in the book. My numbers are more rounded-off, since the things we're measuring aren't manufactured to precise dimensions and thinking about them in ballpark numbers is more practical. Copyeditors, of which I was one for years, sometimes get more precise in their attention to details than the material warrants. For example, for Romney fleece weights, the book says "8–12 (or more) pounds (3.6–5.4 or more kg)." I'd go with "3.5 to 5.5kg." It's as good an approximation in the metric universe as "8 to 12 pounds" is in the imperial one. It's also easy to remember.
Charcoal Romney sample with "bird's nests" of hand-combed top.
Whatever its numbers, Romney is a versatile wool. It's easy for beginning spinners to manage. It also will accommodate any preparation or spinning approach more experienced hands may want to try with it.
Just as a point of curiosity, although all three of the samples shown here have well-defined, bold crimp, as is typical of Romney, each has a different type of crimp. Crimp patterns are fascinating! And way beyond what we can consider here and now.