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Intro-2-Wool-art - 2/21/12


"An Introduction to Wool" by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, OL


NOTE: See also the files: fabric-ident-msg, wool-clean-msg, velvet-msg, silk-msg, linen-msg, spinning-msg, knitting-msg, cotton-msg, textiles-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



You can find more work by this author on her website at: http://webpages.charter.net/siospins/



An Introduction to Wool

by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, OL


               Wool is an animal-based protein, or keratin, fiber.  Under the microscope, a single hair of wool is slightly elliptical in shape and covered with a layer of overlapping scales that point towards the end of the fiber.  Long wool breeds tend to have long, thin scales that barely overlap, giving these fibers a smooth and shiny appearance. Fine wools have an irregular surface that does not reflect light as well, making it a more non-lustrous fiber.  These scales act to direct dirt and moisture away from a sheep's body, but they also play an important in wool shrinkage and felting. In general, finer wools feel softer and wear less well compared with coarser wools.


               Although wool is the weakest as an individual fiber when compared to individual fibers of silk, cotton or linen, it is a very strong and durable fiber when spun and woven.  Its remarkable springiness and elasticity allows its fibers to be folded or bent repeatedly without breaking.  With its rough surface scales and natural crimp, it traps air well and allows for a high degree of warmth.  Wool can also absorb up to 1/3 its weight in moisture without feeling damp to the touch. It is also naturally flame resistant and will not flare or continue to burn once the flame source is removed – most synthetics will not only continue to burn, but they will often melt and/or smolder for hours.


               Sheep fleeces can vary in length, color, diameter and curl/crimp pattern just as much as human hair. Just as one hairstyle does not look equally good on everyone, no one wool can be used equally well for every purpose that utilizes wool.  Different breeds of sheep have wool with different characteristics, including thickness of the individual hairs, curl, texture and color. Therefore it helps to know about a variety of fleece characteristics and types so that you can get the best balance between the intended project and the wool you want to use.





               Wool can come in an incredible variety of thicknesses and textures.  There are two primary systems used to classify the fineness of wool: micron count (indicated by                                                                              ) which is a physical measurement of the average diameter of a fleece in thousands of a millimeter; and wool quality numbers which are a subjective assessment based on the maximum number of 560-yard skeins that can be spun from one pound of combed wool top.  Micron counts are mainly used in Australia and New Zealand. The lower the micron number, the finer the fleece is.  Wool quality numbers, which are also known as spinning count or Bradford count, is used in the United States and Britain.  In this system, the higher the quality number, the finer the fleece.


               Fine wools are usually distinguished by their low average fiber diameters (33-17  or 50s-

90s) which means that they will feel softer than other wool types.  Most of the fine wool breeds are the result of one or more of these breeds having been crossed at one or more points with merino sheep in attempts to create sheep with better meat production while still capable of producing a high-quality fleece of fine wool.  The fleeces are medium to large in size, weighing between 9-13 pounds, and the staple length ranges between 3-5 inches long.  The crimp of these breeds is very close, giving them excellent elasticity and bounce.  These fleeces are often chosen to be combined with exotic fibers like silk, cashmere and angora to add bounce and elasticity without affecting the natural softness of the yarns.  The lanolin in these wools tends to be very waxy and difficult to remove, and is often quite heavy- resulting in substantial weight loss of the fleece during washing.  These fibers are usually prepared and spun worsted into a smooth yarn with a bright finish, or spun woolen into a soft, bouncy yarn. When made into cloth, fine wools have a very soft handle, feel and drape.  These fibers also tend to felt very easily, so extra care must be used when washing these fleeces.  Breeds of fine wool include: merino,


               Long wools have a longer average fiber diameter, making them durable and hard-wearing but not as soft to the touch as the fine wools.  Longwools range in diameters from medium to coarse (32-40   or 36s-48s) which makes them suitable for outerwear garments, carpets, upholstery, and other household fabrics. These wools tend to be lustrous or semi-lustrous, with a wavy crimp pattern and a medium to long staple ranging from 5-9 inches, but occasionally as long as 12 inches.  Most of these breeds have a moderate lanolin content, but can be easily washed without the special care required by fine wools to prevent felting. Longwool fleeces can be prepared in a variety of states from worsted to woolen, but are most frequently combed, flicked or drum carded to make strong, lustrous yarns that wear well. Breeds of longwool sheep in this book include: Border Leceister, Cotswald, Dartmoor, English Leceister,


               Down-type wools come from sheep breeds that are bred primarily for meat production, but their wools usually have a well-developed spiral crimp that makes them very elastic, springy and crush resistant.  Down breed fleeces range in diameter from fine to medium and have a staple length between 2-4 inches long. Because these fleeces usually have a shorter staple, they are usually spun woollen and produce a full, round yarn.  These wools tend to have a luster-less, more matte finish than long or fine wools, but the crimp contributes to the elastic, bulky, and resilient qualities inherent in yarn or cloth made from these fleeces. Some of these breeds tend to grow colored or kemp fibers in their wool, which makes them ideal for use in tweeds, sweaters, socks, blankets, and outerwear garment fabrics.  These wools have only a moderate grease content and are not prone to felting, so no special care in washing is required.  Washing will cause the crimp to curl up more, leaving your staple slightly shorter than it was in the grease. Because of the wide variety in staple length, shorter fleeces can be hand or drum-carded, but the longer staples can be flicked or combed for more worsted yarns.  Combed yarns will have a greater durability than carded yarns, but both will have a great degree of bounce and elasticity. Down breeds in this book include: Black Welsh Mountain, Cheviot, Dorset, Norfolk Horn, Portland, Shetland, Welsh Mountain Badger Face,


               Double-coated wools come from sheep that had evolved and established themselves long before our modern wool breeds were developed. They are extremely hardy and an live in

harsher environments with meager pasturage.  Their longer, hairy outer coat sheds rain and snow while their shorter, fine undercoat provides an excellent layer of insulation against the skin.  The outer coat usually has no crimp or only a slight wave, but the inner coat will have crimp proportional to its fineness.  These breeds com in a variety of colors and fiber diameters, so it is difficult to classify these breeds according to fiber diameter. While the undercoats can be quite fine, the coarseness of the outer coats often limits the use of these wools. Most of these breeds contain little lanolin that does not require a great degree of care in washing, but treat the fibers gently if you want to combine both inner and outer coats together in your project, as extensive handling may start separating the fibers.  To prepare them together hand or drum carding is ideal, as it will allow the yarn to shed moister while providing warmth.  You can comb or flick the fibers to separate them into the two different coats, then the outer coat can be spun into strong, hard-wearing yarns and the inner coat can be spun into soft, lofty yarns or blended with other fibers.  Double-coated breeds include: Icelandic, Karakul, Navajo-Churro, Scottish Blackface, Spaelsau.


               Hair (as opposed to wool) comes from sheep breeds that originated in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world where they adapted to thrive in warm climates.  These sheep shed their fiber each year, and are raised almost exclusively for their meat. The wool tends to be very short, coarse and hairy.  Breeds of this type include the Wiltshire Horn


               Primitive breeds of sheep and feral breeds of sheep also produce fiber. Primitive breeds of sheep represent an intermediary step between the first domesticated sheep and modern breeds, and have survived where many other breeds either died out or were bred to exhibit different characteristics. For example, the Soay breed is thought to have descended from sheep domesticated in the Stone Age, and the Orkney may be the remnants of domesticated sheep from the Iron Age.  Feral sheep descend from domesticated animals that escaped or were released and adapted to environmental pressures and their isolated status, thus regaining their primitive characteristics over time.  These breeds have short, fine wooly coat intermixed with hair or kemp fibers that are predominately colored and tend to molt their fiber annually. Many of these breeds are very rare, and have thus found a niche in the specialty wool industry.  Breeds of these types include: Manx Loghtan, Orkney, Soay





               Wool that is prepared for spinning or is already spun into yarn is classified as either worsted or woolen.  This is determined not only by the type of wool, but also by how it's prepared and spun.


               "Worsted" designates yarns that are prepared from long fibers of similar length that lie parallel together - meaning that worsted preparations are usually done to fine wools or long wools, and rarely if ever to down-type or double-coated wools. Worsted preparations are combed in order to remove the shorter hairs and align the fibers in a parallel direction, known to spinners as "top." Worsted wools, when spun into yarn, are very strong and smooth, have a bright sheen when spun from a lustrous fleece, tend to wear better than their woolen counterparts, but are not as warm.


               "Woolen" designates yarns that are prepared from fibers that are carded together so that the shorter and longer fibers are blended together evenly.  They do usually not lie parallel to each other and are usually spun at a right angle to their place in the fiber preparation, which is known as "roving."  Spinning at a right angle to the fibers allows the fibers to be jumbled together, thus trapping as much air space as possible between the fibers.  Woolen yarns are lofty, warmer and have more bounce than their worsted counterparts, but tend to fill and fuzz with wear.


               In addition to worsted and woolen preparations, there are several intermediate combinations of preparing and spinning the fibers. Semi-worsted preparations can include wool that has been flicked while still in lock form prior to spinning so that both long and short fiber are still present, but all the fibers are lying parallel to each other.  Carding on a drum carder is also a semi-worsted preparation, since the constant rotation of the fibers being brushed around the drum tends to align them more than as if they were prepared on handcards.  Semi-woolen preparations usually involve fibers that have been carded on handcards, or top that is spun folded over the fingers to form a triangle so that the yarn has a more woolen structure.





British Wool Marketing Board.  British Sheep Breeds, Their Wool and It's Uses. DATE!!!!


Fournier, Nola and Jane.  In Sheep's Clothing.  Loveland: Interweave Press.  1995.


Henson, Elizabeth. British Sheep Breeds. Shire Album #157.  Shire Publications Ltd.  1986.  5th ed. 1997.


Oklahoma State Website on sheep and sheep breeds http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep


Raffino, Jonelle. The Spinner's Notebook.  2002.


Vester, Paula.  "The Wool Story." Stone Mountain: World in a Spin.  Presentation/demonstration at the GA National Fair.


Copyright 2004 by Heather McCloy. <email address>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org