As you shop for raw fiber you may feel as though the sellers are speaking in a foreign tongue and that the less you speak of the language the more you are paying for fiber. The quality and characteristics of wool are spoken in a language all their own. What are wool count systems, and what do all of those numbers mean?
The Bradford Count is a uniquely British system that is used to evaluate the yield of cleaned and combed wool top. This system estimates the number of 560 yard single ply hanks can be spun per each pound of wool top. Why 560, you ask? After some checking, I can only think that it is one of those random numbers that was assigned for no obvious reason. The system is largely based upon the experience of the person doing the grading and is somewhat inexact. It will aid spinners in getting a general idea of the fleece characteristics. The finer the fiber, the more hanks it would yield. Of course, if you are shopping for strength, you would look for a lower Bradford number. To insure that the yarn will be suitable for next to skin wear, select a high Bradford count.
The USDA has attempted to improve the Bradford system by setting guidelines for assigning a Bradford Count. For example, a fiber that has a micron count of 17.70 to 19.14 microns would be rated at a grade of 80s. Where a coarser fiber that has a count of between 31.0 and 32.69 microns would be rated as a 48s, and would best be used in non wearable items.
What is a micron, you ask? It is a measurement of the diameter of the individual fiber. It is equal to one millionth of a meter. To determine the micron count of a fleece, it is measured in several areas to insure consistency.
A lesser known system that has pretty much gone by the wayside is called the Blood Count System. While shepherds did not always agree on what makes a fine wool, they did all agree that Merino wool was the finest, hence it was referred to as “full blood”. A sheep that was half Merino and half of another breed was called a “half blood” and so on. The Blood count system has been quantified a bit more in recent years to have specific staple lengths and crimp required to better define the Blood rating. It is rarely used in the hand spinning market, but I have found it used quite a bit at wool pools.
So, now that you can speak the lingo a little bit, you will feel more at ease as you shop for your next yummy fleece!