Wool Knowledge is Power
More Earnings in Small Flocks
By Virginia Scholomiti
Except Where Noted, Photos Courtesy of
Small niche markets for wool are not only well established but growing. This factor can be a great opportunity for smaller flock owners, who have smaller quantities of fiber available, enabling each fleece or group of fleeces to be judged and sold on its individual merits rather than as a large bulk commodity. This isn’t a judgment against large scale producers, rather an exploration of the smaller markets they typically don’t serve.
The best part is there is great potential to sell some of your fiber for a greater profit than a wool pool can normally offer. If you are willing to put some thought and planning, perhaps a little more work and a bit of extra time understanding our role as producers, the payoff can be worth it.
This is a huge topic with many interesting twists and turns and it may take several articles to really scratch the surface, giving both newer wool producers and more experienced folks some useful and inspiring information.
As with almost all farming-related endeavors, focusing on and improving the farm’s wool sales will probably not land you on the Forbes list of the wealthy, but it can improve your bottom line and may turn something you have thought of as a byproduct into a paying asset.
Shepherds start their flocks with many priorities and goals in mind. For many, the wool produced by their flocks isn’t of much consequence. That may make total sense for your farm if your flock goals are already being achieved: Breeders prioritize genetics choices when planning breeding programs.
Sometimes, putting a high emphasis on the type and quality of fiber produced from our flocks may have been overlooked in pursuing other goals. Perhaps it’s time to rethink that strategy.
Are Such Market Substantial?
Let’s look at some facts:
• The National Needlearts Association, in its 2016 Market Summary, surveyed over 15,000 individual fiber enthusiasts. They found that 98 percent of spinners indicated wool was their preferred fiber. And the average amount each spinner spent on spinning supplies per year was $1,200.
• Eighteen percent of those spinners spent $2,000 to $4,000 or more for one year’s supply of spinning materials.
• The textile crafts oriented publisher Interweave Press has listed 425 spinning guilds nationwide in their guild directory. Think of how many individual members might be in each guild.
Just for fun, I searched the internet video site YouTube for “spinning yarn” and it returned 126,000 video titles on this topic. Choosing one, titled “How to Spin Yarn on a Spinning Wheel,” I found that one video had been viewed 378,000 times.
Next, let’s look at Facebook. (Keep in mind that certainly not all spinners or fiber enthusiasts use Facebook—or may not use a computer at all, for that matter—so this will only be a sample indication of interest in the broader general public.)
Facebook has individual pages, but also has groups you can join that focus on specific topics:
• I chose a group called “Fiber Artists and Yarn Spinners” and it has 24,301 members.
• Another group focused on knitting had 19,000 members.
• One group that focuses only on “Fleece and Fiber” had 2,500 individual members.
Not exactly a scientific way to come to conclusions, but effective nonetheless.
Those may seem like pretty dry statistics and pretty far removed from the daily chores and thoughts involved with shepherding our flocks.
We are the source, the producers of wool fibers.
We have the opportunity to produce what these fiber ‘addicts’ seek.
We are, in fact, the experts on our flocks (some buyers actually look to the producer to help them decide what to do with the fiber).
We control the production, type and quality of the fleece. The more we arm ourselves with information, the more likely we are to improve our product and find outlets for our fleeces. I dare say some of us, having done that, may even begin to put a higher priority on the fiber when making breeding choices.
Yes, But Who, In Particular, Would Buy My Fleeces?
One of the most exciting and encouraging elements to this is that the market demands an extremely wide variety of fibers, sometimes the more unique, the better. That means flocks should stay diverse, not trying to all move in the same direction, as that would be self-defeating.
Those seeking our fleeces range from the mainstream, more conservative or “traditional” spinners and knitters, to the more experimental, who seek to push the envelope on fiber arts. But the majority fall somewhere in between.
There are hand spinners (of course), indie dyers (independent, small-scale wool buyers who arrange to have the wool spun into yarn and then dye it themselves), felters (both dry and wet felting, needle felting and machine felting), weavers, folks who knit or crochet, those who do rug hooking, or locker hooking, or macramé, or who create wall hangings, or lampshades, or who stuff pillows and comforters and on and on.
What’s the point?
Each of these processes and artists or crafters are looking for very different individual characteristics from the wool fiber they seek. Without a general knowledge of what fiber your sheep produce—and how it is best used—you may be at a disadvantage.
Just as a cook seeks perfect ingredients for that special recipe and carefully examines the type and quality of produce at a local farmers market, fiber folks are equally discriminating when seeking wool fibers for a specific purpose.
Are you aware that the base wool used for socks is quite different than that used for hats? That fiber with great potential for use an infant’s layette is unlikely to be suitable for winter mittens?
Did you know spinners are extremely discerning about what fibers will perform well with various different spinning techniques and projects?
Different fibers take dyes differently, felt more (or less) easily, or have different amounts of lanolin. The wool’s crimp and curl characteristics affect how the fiber reacts, as does the staple length, diameter and handle.
Thankfully, the saying “a rose is a rose is a rose” does not apply to wool: The wide palette of fibers produced by widely varying sheep breeds is exactly what makes our fiber so universally coveted.
Here is some very general information.
Durability demands a strong, perhaps longer fiber, to stand up well to abrasion. Rug wool is generally the strongest and most durable and that can include hair fibers that give extra strength to the finished product.
Some folks separate the dual coated breeds and use the longer, stronger, less fine fibers for things like rugs, where the strength is put to good use.
There are also special ways to prepare and spin yarn for extra durability and strength. You can imagine that you would not want to do a tremendous amount of work making a rug only to have it wear thin in spots right away.
There are specific ways to spin yarn for strength, and a strong multiply or cabled yarn is helpful here. Socks demand durability for longevity, but spinners are a flexible bunch and will sometimes blend nylon into the fiber before spinning to give it strength.
Some of the long wools, mainly the luster longwools have a lovely lustrous fleece that falls easily into open curls or ringlets. The fiber grows quickly and tends to produce the longest staple length per year. Little to no kemp in the fibers give many long wools a lovely handle. These fibers are quite versatile. Some like to spin them to produce a worsted type of yarn, which has a less lofty effect and provides more “drape” to the finished article. The locks of the long wool are frequently in high demand for their outstanding individual character.
Bouncy, elastic fiber (from the medium wools, and some long wools) is frequently used in warm wooly outerwear. These are very versatile fibers.
The more air spun into the yarn, the warmer it is. The spin used for a wooly project is typically a “woolen” spin, which is a particular technique used by spinners to actually keep as much air in the yarn as possible, giving it a round, buoyant feel. The fleeces are a bit more open than the finewools, but denser than the longwools as a general rule. They grow less length than the longwools per year, but more than the fines.
Finewools are synonymous with next-to-the-skin softness. These breeds produce a tiny, crimped-very-fine and soft fiber. The fleeces are usually very tightly packed together and grow more slowly, producing a shorter staple length in a year’s clip. Put your hands into a lovely finewool fleece and you will immediately recognize the softness.
Some of the meat breeds growers may be familiar with are “Down” breeds. They also produce fiber that can be in demand. Generally, these breeds are fine-to-medium wools, but the emphasis has historically not been on the fiber they produce. That is changing in many places, and people are appreciating these fibers. Their shorter staple causes some hand spinners to have difficulty spinning them, but for those who persevere, a lovely yarn is produced.
Hearing from those who desire your fiber, learning what they may be looking for and knowing how to discuss the attributes, gives you opportunity to step up your game.
Knowledge about what types of fibers are sought after—what purposes and the characteristics folks are seeking—can only help when looking at understanding and improving the quality of the product you produce. It also just may give you the confidence to try marketing your fiber and the tools to be successful.
Originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of sheep!.