A Hand Spinner’s Primer Using Suffolk Sheep Wool
When Raising Sheep for Wool, Don't Count Out Suffolk Sheep
By Leigh Dudenhoeffer – I’m a fiber artist who is educated in almost all of the needle arts. I’ve been spinning wool since I was about 10 years old (I’m 48 now), and I’ve been processing and spinning Suffolk sheep wool from lambs, rams, and ewes for about nine years. I was raised in New England on a sheep farm. We bred and raised Corriedales, but did have some odd “rescue” sheep that would get dropped off occasionally by people who didn’t want to keep them any longer.
I’ve spun many different types of sheep wool and other animal fibers, cotton, and silk.
One of the primary things I teach as a tip for spinning for beginners is to look at the staple length of the fiber they think they want to spin. I also teach them to look for something with a moderate to high amount of crimp in it so they’ll have an easier time learning to spin.
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I’ve been taught over the years that the Suffolk sheep is a meat breed and that “the fleece is useless because it is short stapled (less than two inches in length), prone to matting; and not good for anything, except maybe quilt batting or toy stuffing.”
Here is what suffolksheep.org has to say about Suffolk sheep fleece:
“Moderately short; close fine fiber without a tendency to mat or felt together and well defined, i.e., not shading off into dark wool or hair.”
Wikipedia offers this much better description:
“Fleece weights from mature ewes are between five and eight pounds (2.3 and 3.6 kilograms), with a yield of 50 to 62 percent. The fleeces are considered medium wool in type, with a fiber diameter of 25.5 to 33 microns and a spinning count of 48 to 58. The staple length ranges from 2.0 to 3.5 inches (51 to 89 mm).”
I find Suffolk sheep fleece to be highly useful, wonderfully springy, having a good hand, moderate lanolin, and excellent crimp. I haven’t found much difference between ewe and ram fleeces. In fact, two of my favorite fleeces come from a ram named Elmer and from his son Thor.
Most Suffolk sheep fleece I’ve acquired (prior to switching to buying directly from the farm) was mill processed. A lot of the mill processed fleece was coarse and scratchy because a lot of the people that chose to market their fleece sent it all out to the mill as one batch (several fleeces processed at the same time) instead of grading and having the fleece processed by grade.
I buy primarily from one Suffolk sheep breeder now (Jerry & Debra Ahrens of Ellisville, Wisconsin). I skirt and grade the fleeces first according to fineness and then by how much vegetable matter (vm) is present.
I then scour each fleece separately because I can market them better because I know the fineness of the fleece.
I generally spin lamb and yearling fleece into lace weight yarn or 18 to 20 wraps per inch (wpi) and use the yarn for next-to-the-skin items such as scarves, vanity sweaters, and lace shawls.
Wool from two- to four-year-old sheep, I spin worsted weight (12 to 14 wpi) or sport or fingering weight (14 to 16 wpi) and use this yarn for socks, sweaters, hats, and mittens—and to weave blankets.
When the sheep are more than four years old, their fleece is coarser and I usually don’t spin it unless I want a rug or a sturdy saddle blanket. I personally think that a lot of times it is this older fleece that people have acquired (usually for free) and they expect a lot out of it.
Perhaps at one time the Suffolk sheep was primarily raised and bred as a meat sheep breed, but it should and can be bred for good quality fleece as well.
Fleece quality depends heavily on what the sheep are fed and secondarily on how it gets processed. Grass fed is the best sheep for wool.
Learn more about fiber crafts from Countryside Network, including how to crochet and how to knit.
Originally published in sheep! November / December 2012 and regularly vetted for accuracy.