As we peruse the fleeces at our local fiber festivals, often there are huge differences in price even for fleeces from the same breed and farm. Why is this? The lower priced fleece is probably faulty. Before you decide whether to purchase the high priced or low priced fleece, it is important to decide what your time is worth, and how easily can a fault be corrected.
The most common faults are second cuts, matted tips or ends, a wool fault or break, and foreign matter. When examining a fleece to buy, remove it from the bag, with the shepherds permission of course. Spread it out cut side up first, this will reveal the second cuts, stains, and any skin flakes. Next, carefully reverse the fleece to the tip side up. Look for excess vegetation, broken tips, and matting. Be sure to disqualify any fleece that has pinked! This means the fleece has taken on a pink hue, which is a form of rot, that cannot be corrected.
Second cuts are when the shears pass over the same wool twice. This creates a small tuft that will cling to the cut side of the fleece. It must be removed prior to picking and carding the fiber, as it will create neps, or bumps, in the finished yarn. Second cuts are fairly easy to remove, and unless they are extreme, they should not disqualify a fleece.
Matted tips are another common shortcoming in wool. They can range in severity to just a minor case along the center back of the fleece to all over. In mild cases, the affected wool can be skirted off, and discarded. If it breaks your heart too much to discard it, often times a quick pass with a flick carder is all that is needed. After flicking just add the corrected wool back to the batch for further processing. In extreme cases, you can cut the tips off with scissors, or if you are like me and have a set of electric shears, lay the fleece out on a skirting table, and shear the tips off.
A wool fault, or also referred to as a wool break, is one of the most difficult to correct faults. When you come upon a fleece that you suspect may have wool break, an easy test is to sample a few locks from different areas of the fleece, hold both ends, and stretch the lock, if it breaks in about the same place in all of the samples, you can be pretty sure you have wool break. Depending on how far out the lock the break is, it can sometimes be remedied in the same manner as matted tips.
Excess vegetation or foreign matter is one of the most common fleece faults. It can vary from a slight nuisance to a maddening fight that can test even the most patient fiber artist. A good shake is a good place to begin to remove VM. Placing the fleece on a piece of wire fencing, shorn side up, and shaking can also help. If there is still vegetation after that, move on to a compressed air nozzle if you have one, blow air from the shorn side through to release the VM. The next option is to flick card the vegetation out of the fleece. This can be done with the fleece intact, just brace the locks to be flicked with one hand while flicking with the other.