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Picking the Perfect Pieces

posted Dec 7, 2009, 3:33 PM by Mary Powell
Mrs. Brown had a half dozen fleeces spread out to look over. These fleeces, each consisting of the wool from one sheep, had been sheared in March and packed up right after shearing. That meant the wool had not been sorted or picked through, a process called skirting. This was alright with me; it gave me a chance to see the wool in its raw state. Since I was not going to be able to shear the wool myself with 18th century shears, the closer I could get to the beginning, the better.

So I got down on my knees and started rummaging through one pile of wool. I was looking for nice long wool with a tight, even curl. I wanted a silky feel and a nice shine, as well as consistency over the whole fleece. I started at one end of a fleece and pulled out a lock. Good length? My hand is exactly six inches long, very convenient. Good curl? The lock either holds together and looks like a coiled spring, or separates into wavy individual hairs. 

Fineness and sheen are more easily determined by sight than touch at this point, because the wool is still "in the grease," or coated in lanolin. Since the wool varies in texture and length over the body of the sheep, I took samples from about six areas on each fleece. The best wool is generally off of the shoulders and back. Some variation is acceptable, as long as the less good wool is still pretty good.

 I picked out two fleeces quickly, but couldn't find a third I liked among those spread out. Mrs. Brown obligingly started shaking more fleeces out of their bags. A few more minutes of pawing through wool, and I found my third fleece. It sparkled. It glistened. Its luxurious eight-inch curls bounced. It was beautiful.