Dual Coat Dynamics in Sheep
Part One: Deharing by Hand
By Jacqueline Harp
In the past, the history, legends and myths of many cultures pointed to dual-coated sheep as a key to survival — and as the backbone of whole economies, from the cold climate of Iceland to the deserts of Central Asia.
The fleeces of dual-coated sheep have been used in amazing ways, such as for a romantic wedding ring shawl for example, where the inner coat of a hand-dehaired fleece is spun and knit into a shawl of extraordinary delicacy and beauty that was fine enough to pass through a wedding ring.
Today, dual-coated sheep are known for their hardiness, mothering ability, meat quality and land management capabilities. But the handling and use of the fleeces are often overlooked. Modern shepherds may be missing out on an entire element of flock profitability.
The dual-coated fleece can appeal to a whole world of textile artists — hand spinners, felters, weavers, knitters, crocheters, mixed media artists and others — if growers know what they have.
What better way is there to plumb that depth of knowledge than walking through the hand-dehairing of a dual coated fleece?
To dehair a fleece by hand, beginners may use just their hands! It requires no other processing equipment or tools. This can be a selling point to those wishing to expand their experiences with raw fleeces, but who may not want to invest in expensive equipment. Note, however, that dehairing can be done with hand tools (e.g., mini combs, English combs, hackles, etc.), to increase both speed and volume. With practice, learners can also increase their dehairing speed by working with multiple locks at the same time, still using only their hands.
For this demonstration, let’s look at a raw, light-gray, yearling Icelandic fleece, from a fall shearing. It’s a classic example of a dual-coated fleece: It has discernable inner and outer coats. I chose this particular fleece because the outer coat is silver-gray and the inner coat is white. The two colors make illustrating the hand dehairing method easier.
A novice may wish to start with a two-colored fleece and then with practice, move on to dehairing a single-colored fleece.
Also, a major key to hand dehairing is that there needs to be enough inner coat to make the process worth it in terms of generating usable fiber. As a general guideline, if the inner coat is less than two inches long, it is not the best candidate for hand dehairing.
It’s important to know that dual-coated fleeces are known for being almost universally low in lanolin, which lends itself to ease of processing, whether at home or at a mill. By contrast, imagine home processing a typical fine wool, which would be loaded with grease (which is mostly lanolin) and would require many washes and would have high shrinkage (which is to say, the loss of weight from washing).
Thus, to highlight the low lanolin of this fleece, I hand dehaired it raw and washed the fibers after separation, but before turning it into yarn. Some customers will wash the fleece before separating. Others will work “in the grease,” not washing it until they’ve produced their final product (e.g., yarn or felt).
Step 1: Pull a single lock from the fleece.
Step 2: With one hand, secure the long, outer coat. Exactly how one secures it will vary by person and will develop with experience. Since the outer coating of fleece is usually very long, dehairers may curl the tip of the outer coat around their index finger and pinch it with their thumb. They may also just grasp the outer coat with their entire hand, or with some combination of fingers they find comfortable.
Step 3: Hold the short, inner coat (cut end) in the other hand.
Step 4: Pull the inner coat (cut end) completely away from the stationary, long, outer coat. One may need to make a few more pulls to remove any remaining inner coat. Put another way, while one hand holds the long, inner coat steady, the other hand pulls the short, inner coat away from the outer coat.
Step 5: Repeat this process, lock-by-lock, until the desired amount of fiber has accumulated.
Anyone should be able to easily see when they’ve completely separated out the inner coat from the outer coat, as the lengths are substantially different. Put simply, we’ll have short, fluffy pieces in one pile and very long, hair-like fibers in the other pile.
Again, the guiding principle is to secure both ends and pull the shorter, inner coat away from the longer, outer coat. There is no hard, fast rule for right or left-handed individuals! Each will need to experiment to discover which hands they’ll use and in what direction they will pull. We may need to add a twist with our pull; we may find it helpful to yank, or to tease. Most of the time, the entire inner coat will separate with one pull, but sometimes, one may need to pull out any remaining pieces of the inner coat several times to get it all separated.
Experience will be beginners’ best teacher, as they build on these simple instructions for hand dehairing.
Two Fleeces in One!
Hand dehairing a dual coated fleece results in two sets of fibers, each having very different textures, strengths, weaknesses and applications. Hand dehairing of this Icelandic fleece — in other words, separating the inner and outer coats of that single, dual coated fleece — produced what can be treated as two, completely different fleeces!
There are different labels for the components of a dual coated fleece, depending on sheep breed, location and culture, which growers can further research for their own circumstances and marketing purposes, But they should know the essentials when it comes to a dual coat. First, the outer coat is made up of long fibers, which keep the inner coat protected from the elements. The inner coat is made up of short, soft fibers, which keep the sheep warm.
What We’ve Obtained
Outer Coat: strong; coarse wool; good luster; little memory; great drape; great stitch definition; does not take dye well. In terms of yarn, an outer coat generally produces a true worsted yarn. For textile applications, this means outerwear.
Inner Coat: not as strong; fluffy and soft; not as lustrous; little stitch definition; great memory (i.e., springy); takes dye well. In terms of yarn, an inner coat generally produces a true woolen yarn. For textile applications, this means next-to-the-skin-wear.
Writer Jacqueline Harp is a fiber artist and certified Master Sorter of Wool Fibers through the State Univ. of N.Y. (Cobleskill) Sorter-Grader-Classer (SGC) Program. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of sheep!.