Even though I predominantly work in the camelid realm. I cannot help being enticed by sheep wool. There is just something very inspiring about it. The sheepy smell, the lanolin, the plain earthiness about it makes me want to buy all of the fleeces I see. Then reality sets in, I have to decide which one or two I really want and are worth the money and the work.
When you are examining a fleece, it does help to know the standard way they are folded. The wool is laid out flat, with the tip side up. The sides are folded inward to the center back line, then it is rolled starting at the tail end rolling to the neck. Often there is a tie at the center neck edge to aid in orienting the fleece. After you examine a fleece, always be sure to return it to that bundle.
Before the fleece is even unrolled, inspect it for second cuts, discoloration, and skin flakes. Take a good whiff of it. Make sure it smells sheepy. A moldy or musty smell is a sure sign of a bad fleece.
Once the fleece has been unrolled, preferably onto a large table, give it a good once over. Is the overall appearance appealing? Are there any glaring flaws? Once you are satisfied with the quick glance, take a closer look. Inspect the underbelly, this would be located along the long sides of the fleece. Has the dirtiest wool been skirted away? Along the tail end, has the dung been skirted away? Next, examine the center back from head to tail. Here you are looking for excess vegetation. Also in the spine area, the wool may be drastically shorter and more brittle due to exposure to the elements.
After examining the overall fleece, if you are still interested in purchasing it, take a sample lock. There is a definite method for removing a lock from a fleece. Begin by placing your weak hand firmly on the fleece, making a circle with your index finger and thumb. I prefer to take a sample lock from the shoulder area. Then using your stronger hand, tug one lock from within the circle formed by your other hand. Try to avoid taking more than one lock, and always check for a sample that another shopper or the shepherd may have already removed.
Once you have a sample lock, look it over for obvious characteristics and potential flaws. How long is it? Are there any changes in the color or texture along the length of the fiber? Also check to see how much dirt is in the fiber. Inspect the shorn end for second cuts, and the tips for breakage. Next, take the lock holding it at each end and give it a good tug. If it all breaks in one line, this is a sign of a weakness in the fiber that may carry over to the finished yarn. Remember, pills in wool items are a result of the short fibers being drawn out of the yarn.
Now that you have inspected the fleece thoroughly, try to be realistic as to whether you will want to do the amount of work that particular fleece will take. Sometimes it is better to pay a little more to get a fleece that you can finish out easily!