I suppose it’s highly appropriate, really, that I should get a copy of this book by Beth Smith just at the right time. It’s the right time because I’m celebrating the return of summer – or summer’s last flourish, perhaps – by washing fleece. Up to my arms in sheepy water while also baking bread and working. You’ve got to make the most of the weather at this time of year, and in my book that means washing the fleece of the biggest Lleyn lamb on the surface of the planet. Heaven only knows how large the animal was; or maybe it was tiny, but in a huge fleece.
I already have the magisterial Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, which I use a lot, so I wasn’t entirely sure what Beth Smith’s book would add. The answer was detail, and for me that’s extremely useful. It doesn’t have the same range of breeds as the F&FSB, but then it doesn’t intend to. This book looks at how to get your fibre choices right, and for me that’s vital: I’m a sloppy spinner and could do with being a whole lot more considered.
I could also have done with this double-page spread before I sorted my Lleyn. (It took me ages to work out – once unrolled on the lawn, and once Next Door’s Cat had been removed from it – that I was actually looking at it sideways, but I digress.)
Smith looks at twenty-one different breeds (as she says, ‘my choices were also determined by what breeds were available to me’). My first reaction, a hasty one, was that there were too many which I was unlikely to encounter, living this side of the Atlantic. In fact, there are probably only three or four – Polypay, American Karakul, California Red – and, the spinning world being what it is, I could doubtless get hold of some to sample if I wished to do so.
However, to some extent the breeds don’t matter: what matters is the categorisation. Let me quote again: ‘You don’t have to spin the actual breeds I am talking about. You can compare the characteristics of the fleece you have to a similar breed covered here and feel confident that you can successfully work with it using a similar approach.’
Fleeces are divided into four basic types. These are fine wools (Merino, for instance), longwools like BFL and Wensleydale, downs and down-type breeds (that pensive Black Welsh Mountain fits in here) and multicoated breeds like Shetlands. There’s also a catch-all ‘other breeds’ group, which includes Jacob.
Each is treated differently for the best effect, and there’s a good basic introduction to sorting and scouring, too. There’s some coverage of tools and terminology which is good for people who are newish spinners or just plain lazy (that would be me), and there’s a very useful part on buying a fleece. Note the ‘buying’: free fleeces, as I have learned, are usually free for a reason…
I’d not really thought about what I wanted to do with a fleece before I spun it; I just spun it. But look at these two illustrations from the part about spinning for lace knitting:
They’ve been spun in the same way, and the pattern is also the same. On the left is a Lincoln, a longwool, and on the right a Suffolk, a down. I’d just thought of lace spinning as spinning very finely, not particularly in terms of exploiting the characteristics of – or even considering – a particular type of fleece. Dur.
And then there’s the processing, even down to using different washing techniques for different types to achieve the best results (my ‘shove it in very hot water with green Fairy Liquid and wait until the flies go away’ method doesn’t feature, surprisingly, though it is remarkably similar to her ‘bulk washing process’ for longwools). My Lleyn – though it doesn’t feature either – is, I think, almost a mixture between a down-type and a longwool (the staple length is great, and there’s good crimp), so I think I’m doing the right thing so far.
As a down-type, she recommends carding – hand- or drum-carding – something like a Lleyn; if I were to treat it as a longwool, she would prefer me to use combs. That’s tough, because I’ve not got combs – but when I see the difference they make, I think I ought to invest in some even though I am currently swearing that I will never, ever process a raw fleece again.
But of course I will. Look, for instance, at the appearance of these two BWM samples (definitely a down type, so there are no hard and fast rules). They’re both beautiful, but the bottom one has been combed. Plus I’ve a Teeswater waiting for processing and, boy, is that a longwool.
So, what do I think, overall?
Well, I think This book is a worthwhile addition to any spinner’s library and, for new spinners, the sections on fleece prep are invaluable. I wish I’d had something like this when I first got up to my elbows in fleece straight off the (mucky) sheep’s back. I relied on telephone calls to friends, blog posts from other spinners, and an old book – a very good old book, but one without illustrations apart from a small line drawing of a fleece which looked nothing like the skanky object I’d just unrolled in the garden. As it is for me now, The Spinner’s Book of Fleece will persuade me to be a whole lot more thoughtful about how I choose and prepare fleece. It may also cost me a large amount of money, because of course I now need a set of wool combs. Of course I do.