Book review: The Spinner’s Book of Fleece

book coverI 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.

fleece parts

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:

compare and contrast

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.

BWM samples

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.


10 thoughts on “Book review: The Spinner’s Book of Fleece

  1. Elaine

    This is a great post, Kate. I have never heard of a Lleyn sheep. Do you have a picture of it?
    We also need a picture of Cat Next Door lounging on the fleece. I’m waiting for someone who is visiting Ireland to post a picture of Cat Who Herds Sheep!!
    Even though I have F&FSB This one sounds like it should go beside it on my shelf.

    1. kate Post author

      I’ve not got a pic of this particular one, but there is a good shot in the F&FSB, though they don’t get much coverage there, just a page. They’ve got lovely black noses (I know that’s got nothing to do with the fleece, but I think it makes them look a bit like soft toys, which they are far from being, ahem). Nice sheep, growing in popularity. The photos on the breed society website don’t do justice to the fleeces, sadly.

      Cat Next Door is little ^98247@***$@@@1& and will be very lucky indeed if– ahem. She doesn’t lounge on fleece so much as snorgle it (technical term: bury her head in it, wriggle about, rip at it, etc, etc, bit like snorkelling but with tooth and claw involvement). However it’s drizzly today so fleece is inside while cat is outside. Phew.

      1. Elaine

        Kate, check out this website before purchasing combs.
        I got the 4 pitch wool comb and blending hackle set from them and I think this is more useful than a pair of combs. Also, go through all of their site as Doug (owner) has provided instructions on how to BUILD the comb and hackle set. You seem like an enterprising young lady so you can probably do this yourself.
        Also, look up Valais Black Nose Sheep. They are the most adorable ever. I did see your Lleyn and she has a hefty, fluffy fleece!!

        1. kate Post author

          That looks interesting… never thought about that possibility. I’ve got a home-made hackle which is very effective (good strong afro combs have many uses) – wonder how to use that for fleece prep? Hmmm…

          The Valais Black Noses are gorgeous. Wonder how their fleece spins up?

    1. kate Post author

      So useful, isn’t it? Now all I need is to find a way of turning it into a living person who would scour all my fleece for me (guess what I’ve been doing, grumble, why can’t sheep wear nappies?)

      1. starproms

        Someone gave me some fleece (bits off different sheep) and I’ve washed it all (at last). Now it’s in bags all round my office while I try to find the time to card and spin it! I love it but it is taking lots of time to process. The book is a big help and I love all the pictures of sheep in it.

        1. kate Post author

          It does take ages, and I do swear – almost every time – that this is the last time… but… it’s special. It’s so different from just buying processed fluff. Control of the means of production, I guess – it really is all my own work. Well, and the sheep’s, but you know what I mean!

  2. Annie

    Finally catching up here after my extended hols! This looks like a fabulous book even to me, a non spinner fascinated by the properties of wool. Would I find plenty in it to interest me do you think.

    I missed your more recent post. I do hope you’re finding a way forwards x

    1. kate Post author

      It is good – I’m not sure, though. Check it out in the library first, perhaps? It’s more practical than the Fleece and Fibre – oops, Fiber – Sourcebook, but there’s a ton of information in it.

      (Thanks for the support. It’s taking me some time to shake off the feeling of being followed, but at least X isn’t as obvious as previously, and stopped completely after the post itself. Stopped being visible, that is…)


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