Spinzilla blog tour: Fast and easy wools to spin

So. There’s this contest coming up in conjunction with Spinzilla, a community spinning-education event being sponsored by The National NeedleArts Association (TNNA) and its Spinning and Weaving Group (SWG). The hullabaloo will occur during National Spinning and Weaving Week, October 7 to 13, 2013, and the idea is to form teams, hosted by TNNA and SWG members, and see which group can, collectively, spin the most yarn during that week.



I think this will involve some getting together and egging each other on. Spinning with friends is always a good thing. If you want to join a team, you can sign up at Spinzilla.org between now and September 23, 2013. Teams are not necessarily local: Storey, the publisher of The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook and The Field Guide to Fleece, is sponsoring a team, headed by the delightful and incomparable Sarah Anderson. (To my friends outside North America: because this is the first year
and kind of a test run, they’re limiting participation to the U.S. and
Canada, and will see if they can increase the geographical scope beyond
those boundaries next year.)

There’s a small registration fee, with part of the proceeds supporting spinning education through The Needle Arts Mentoring Program (NAMP), a non-profit effort begun as a way to get at-risk kids involved in fiber work that now offers programs more broadly through collaborations with schools and other youth activity groups. Skills include crochet, cross-stitch, knitting, needlepoint, and now spinning; mentoring programs, although individually designed to meet the kids’ needs, are generally six to nine weeks long, with an hour of mentoring each week. It’s a cool deal.

Okay, that’s enough alphabet soup.

I’ve been pleased to be asked to be part of the six-week, six-installment blog tour in conjunction with Spinzilla. Here’s the list of blog-post presenters and topics:

  • Week 1, August 27, 2013: Jillian Moreno, “Creating a Yarn Vision: Knowing What Yarn to Spin”
  • Week 2, September 4, 2013: That’s where you are now. Deb Robson, “Fast and Easy Wools to Spin”
  • Week 3, September 11, 2013: Felicia Lo, “Spinning Hand-Dyed Yarns”
  • Week 4, September 18, 2013: Beth Smith, “Fiber Prep for Production Spinning”
  • Week 5, September 25, 2013: Sarah Anderson, “Twists and Singles”
  • Week 6, October 2, 2013: Liz Good, “Resources for Measuring Yarn”

I was asked to talk about “breeds for spinning,” a topic that was a little too broad for a blog post. (For background information on sheep breeds and how to suit the wool to
the project, I did a free class for Craftsy.com called “Know Your Wool.” Six video lessons on the basics of wool-plus-craft, focusing on knitting but with a spinner’s-eye view of the yarns.)

So here’s what I proposed instead:

Sheep breeds that grow easy- (or fast-)to-spin wool

Two questions that meet in the middle:

Although there’s one set of answers, there are two questions that connect in the middle with these breeds: 

  • What wools are good for experienced spinners to spin quickly with?


  • What wools are good for beginning spinners to learn on?

The breeds I’m about to suggest share the following characteristics, for the most part (some individual fleeces from these breeds will go outside these ranges)

  • fiber lengths in the vicinity of 4 inches (10 cm), more or less (around 3 to max 6 inches, 7.5 to 15 cm)
  • moderate fiber diameters (nothing too delicate or too wiry-strong, I’m talking 28 to 37 microns, more or less, although you won’t have that information handy; just trust that the breeds I’m going to mention are in that ballpark)
  • moderate crimp (since a little elasticity is a good thing in this case, and a lot of it can be more demanding)
  • open staples (even when you’re starting with processed wool and won’t see this directly, as in top or roving, this quality ends up making a difference)

In the 1970s, when spinning was being “rediscovered” by a bunch of us, there was something called “wool for handspinning” which fit that description. That was before spinners had “rediscovered” that they could spin just about any fiber that came down the line, if they wanted to, and so now, if you want to be accurate, just about any wool is “wool for handspinning” (the felted stuff—not so much; otherwise—fair game). The “suitable for handspinners” label, smelling faintly of mothballs, does still sometimes show up in descriptions of wools.

But there’s something to that package of qualities. These are wools that beg to be spun by hand, without requiring much of the spinner. If you’re new to the wheel or spindle, they’ll support your efforts. If you’re experienced, you’ll be able to crank your equipment to the max and stay relaxed.

The answers that connect those two questions:

Although I could go on all day about wonderful breeds to spin, we’re in a hurry here. So we’re going to highlight the following wools:

  • Border Leicester
  • Coopworth
  • Perendale
  • Romney

They’re alphabetical. (I know, I said that was enough alphabet soup, but I don’t want to play favorites. They’re all lovely.)

If we’re really in a rush, we’re going to find them in top or roving form. Otherwise, they’re easy to wash and can be spun from the locks (teased open), from combed preparations, or carded. Pick your drafting method, or just punt. They’ll go with you.

Now a few more details about the breeds I’ve chosen, which will likely not be the same breeds another person would send you to. Or maybe they would. Regardless. When this topic came up, they’re the ones that leapt to mind. (Fortunately, I also had an article deadline to meet. Otherwise I’d feel bad about all the other breeds I’d left out, and I’d still be sitting here trying to pick the perfect suggestions.) Your team leader may have other suggestions, too, and these might not be the breeds I’d choose if I were sitting with a beginner and considering a casual spinning lesson. But we have to start somewhere (see me waffling? I don’t want to leave out any breed that’s remotely suitable).

The beautiful photos below (on the hand-dyed wool fabric backgrounds with the tape measure visible) are by John Polak, from the new The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds and How to Use Their Fibers. The more prosaic photos are my reference snapshots; on those, the drawn reference lines are 4 inches (10 cm) long.

Border Leicester

While it’s true that Border Leicesters can grow wool quite a bit longer than we’re aiming for—the staple lengths run between 4 and 10 inches (10 and 25 cm)—most of what you’ll find will be in the vicinity of 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm). Lots of the classic longwools, of which this is one, are shorn twice a year. (Yes, you can cut staples in half, if you want to. Think of it as shearing mid-year.)

Yes, this one looks a lot longer than I’m suggesting, but it’s a year’s growth:


When the wool of this breed goes a full year without shearing, the tips can get a little stuck together. But if you have a more moderate length, they’ll be far less likely to do that.

See some representative samples I’ve had? Although the middle locks are from the same fleece as in the photo above, most are in the shorter range, like those on the top and bottom. My favorites are about 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12.5 cm) long.


Here’s a Border Leicester fleece I bought recently (shown after washing):

Border Leicester_7676


Coopworths grow wool on the longer side of what we’re aiming for, but the wool is so open and lovely that you’ll want to experience it, and it’s speedy to twist.




Perendale staples are a little shorter, in general, than the other breeds I’m listing. But all are in about the same ballpark.




There’s a lot of variation in Romney wools (length, crimp, coarseness/fineness), but the fleece is a classic starter-wool and also versatile for experienced spinners.



Romney2_4959.JPG - Version 2

A few valedictory notes

In all of these breeds, prepared roving or top will be middle-of-the-road in representing their qualities. If you’re selecting an individual fleece, you will have the option of finding a comparatively soft one (suitable for cardigans, hats, mittens, and so forth) or a sturdier one (for bags, pillows, or rugs). None of them will be next-to-the-skin soft. That kind of spinning will both slow you down and require more attention.

These particular wools will work well for speed-spinning no matter whether you are measuring by weight or by yardage (the Spinzilla contest will measure the latter). Their fiber lengths are sufficient that they can be made into comparatively low-twist yarns in a variety of grists. If you want to crank out length, put in enough twist to hold the yarn together nicely and no more. Again, if you’re going for maximum length in minimum time, you’ll be spinning singles, and comparatively low-twist singles from long-fiber wools can be used as-is (without plying) without producing skewing in the resulting fabric.

New to the craft? These are great wools for practicing not overtwisting, just because they will tolerate low levels of twist! Be sure when you are drafting that you are keeping your hands farther apart than the length of the fibers (you don’t want to be holding onto both ends of a fiber at the same time: it won’t draft at all). These will give you good practice at not crowding right up to the orifice and hanging on for dear life. They’re also good spindle wools. Consider using a wrist distaff, because these fibers will spin up quickly enough that you’ll want to keep more fiber supply handy than if you were spinning itsy bitsy Merino or Romeldale. (There are a number of styles of wrist distaffs. A good video demo here on Flickr of how to use one of them.)

Most of all:

Have fun.

(If you want rare-breed credit, go with the Border Leicester, which was added to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s watchlist this year. But every one of these wools is worth supporting with your spinning wheel.)


1 thought on “Spinzilla blog tour: Fast and easy wools to spin”

  1. I discovered Border Leicester a couple of years ago (the year before I took your class…) and bought a silver fleece at Maryland that I’ve been combing myself. It is making a beautiful yarn, some year when I have enough it’ll be woven. I have never loved Romney except when it’s in a cross with things that make it finer… I have a little Perendale… But I have never tried Coopworth, I guess I should!

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