Wool & Fiber

Hattie's wool showing light charcoal color and crimp.

Hattie’s wool showing light charcoal color and crimp.

Curls of off-white rovings.

Curls of off-white rovings.

Three colors of rovings.  My names from the top: Cream, Semi-sweet, and Espresso.  I also have French Vanilla (not shown) and Café au Lait (see photo for crimp discussion).

Three colors of rovings. My names from the top: cream, semi-sweet, and espresso. I also have French vanilla (not shown) and café au lait (see photo for crimp discussion).

When I first investigated Babydoll sheep I learned that their wool was very similar to that of the Merino breed, which is seen as a benchmark breed for wool quality. You can imagine my confusion when my shearer told me that if I was serious about wool I would transition to another breed. A recent article by Beth Smith titled “Everybody Get Down, down breeds and the wools that mimic them” in the Winter 2013 issue of Ply magazine for spinners helped immensely in clearing up this discrepancy. That and additional web searching provided me with the following compilation of statistics for the 4 basic descriptors of any wool texture.:

Fineness (softness): Babydoll fiber is medium to medium fine (22.5 to 26.5 microns in diameter) whereas that of Merino’s is fine (18 to 22 microns). Yearlings and white fleeced animals are frequently on the finer end of the range and dark fleeced animals on the coarser end.

Softness dictates how the wool is best used. Softer, finer fibers can be used for infant garments and items intended to be worn close to the skin, like socks or turtlenecks, that you wouldn’t want to be scratchy.

Staple (individual strand) Length: I’ve seen some web sites report their Babydoll wool as 1.5 inches to 2 inches, but the breed more frequently ranges from 2.5 to 4 inches.

In searching for a fiber mill to convert my fleeces to rovings for me, I learned that the minimum staple length accepted by some mills is 3 inches due to the limitations of their machinery. Asking about, I was able to locate a fiber mill that had a 2 inch minimum. I conscientiously skirted out anything less than 2 inches before sending off the fleeces for processing. The length restriction (plus tags and bur infestations) eliminated perhaps 20% of some fleeces. That waste can be reduced by careful shearing as some of mine had second cuts, where the shearer did not get close to the skin on the first cut and trimmed closer the second time. Even 1/4 inch can be a problem when starting with these relatively short fibers.

The fiber mill was able to successfully produce rovings, but did not fare as well in trying to spin some into yarn on her machine. A mentor told me I may need to spin more twists per inch if I found that the singles don’t hold together. However, even as a novice hand spinner, I have had no difficulty getting the fibers to draft and stay together once spun. A higher twist per inch will, however, reduces pilling.

Crimp: This trait describes the amount of kink in each strand (see photo above). This spring-like construction lends elasticity to wool. Alpaca fleece lack this, which is why alpaca is frequently blended with wool to improve its elasticity. I learned that the Babydoll fiber is not just kinked but forms a spiral. This means that the fibers tend to be quite separate as opposed to nesting next to each other. The 2 major consequences of this are – Babydoll wool is very resistant, but apparently not immune, to felting. Also, the strands trap air in those spaces between them and are highly insulating. This makes the woolen garments toasty in the winter and also appropriate for “tropic weight” woolens in the summer.

Scales: All woolen fibers have these microscopic scales on their surface to some extent or the other. Babydoll fibers have a higher degree (not sure if larger or more, at this point). This makes them less shiny or lustrous. Some texts call this condition chalky. The scales break up the reflection of light. Smaller or fewer scales on the surface of each strand would appear shiny.

So… those are the textures descriptors, but the other characteristic of interest to spinners, knitters, and weavers is the color!!!! For those of us wanting to use un-dyed wool for “Icelandic” type sweaters, there is an extensive palette. In my tiny flock of 9, there are at least 6 colors so far. My names from light to dark are: Cream, French Vanilla, Café au Lait, Semi-Sweet, and Espresso. My dark yearling ewe, Katie Babe, has a darker charcoal color darker than the Café au Lait. I’m excited that my ram J.C. seems to be holding his color well and not fading. Hattie, on the other hand, has the beautiful Café au Lait fleece. For some reason, the breed registry (North American Babydoll Southdown Sheep Association and Registry – NABSSAR) frowns on light gray fleeces. They can say what they want – I like the variety.

My first-spun skein of yarn from my flock - a "bulky" from J. C., my ram.

My first-spun skein of yarn from my flock – a “bulky” from J. C., my ram.

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  1. Pingback: Shearing Time at Prairie Plum Farm - Rochester Fiber

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