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Basic Fleece Evaluation

Kevin Ford

I learned how fleeces differ early from my first mentor, the late Robert “Bud” Estabrook, who with his son Joel ran 400 Corriedale sheep in far upstate New York.

I still visualize him hunched over a ewe, the stem of his glasses in his mouth (for he was nearsighted) closely looking over the ewe’s fleece.

Then stepping back, he’d ask me to look and compare the fleece with that of a second ewe alongside. He liked “stronger” Corriedale fleeces, those with good length, some luster, and good staple formation. Bud was the first to ask me to be the judge at a local fair’s fleece competition.

While I’m out on farms shearing I will sometimes spot high quality fleeces and suggest they be entered in a show, a good way of introducing the farm to buyers. The shepherds are often not aware of their fleece’s quality, and ask, “What will the judge look for?”

The judging of fleeces at shows is always a bit subjective, and different judges will be looking especially at different factors. But there are quality characteristics (pluses) and faults (minuses) that any judge should note.

Basic Factors In Fleece Judging

Here is a review of one principal characteristic of quality staple formation, a good starting point, because other quality characteristics (and some faults) are related to staple formation. When wool fibers are gathered into dense packets, or locks, and these packets, when the fleece is opened, are clearly separated from one another, there is good staple formation.

The dense packing of fibers is due to consistent, identical crimp in each fiber. Crimp is the back-and-forth curl in the wool fibers, and is clearly observable with good staple formation.

Together, these quality characteristics indicate that the fibers are nearly uniform in diameter, and uniformity in fiber diameter was the principal goal in the long development of the modern sheep fleece.

Once wool is examined from one part of the fleece (wool at or from the shoulder is the place to begin) then wool from elsewhere on the sheep (lower side, back of rear leg) is looked at to judge whether the fleece is uniform overall. The best fleeces have little variation. Since the frequency of the crimps is related to the diameter of the fibers—fine wool has more frequent crimps per inch than “strong” or larger diameter fiber—variation in the grade of the wool is
easily seen in the variation in the crimp.

A judge looks for good (white) color, the absence of yellowing or other stains that are due to an environment within the fleece, warm and humid, that encourages biological or chemical activity. The environment within the fleece is always warm, but is warm and humid for long periods only if the fleece ventilates poorly, and does not dry quickly after rain. Good staple formation allows for minimal soaking and good ventilation, and the maintenance of good fleece color. Also good condition, the absence of cotting (felting on the sheep), and with the retention of lanolin, resistance to the weathering effects of sun and rain.

Other Fleece Judging Factors

This examination of staple formation and related fleece characteristics covers a good bit of ground in evaluating fleece quality: Crimp, fiber uniformity, uniformity overall, color, condition. But a judge will look at other factors.

Soundness or Strength: Wool fibers should be strong throughout their length, without a weak point, or “break,” due to the stress of disease, difficulty at giving birth, or anything that interrupts steady wool growth. Seasonally grown double-coated fleeces should be sheared through their naturally occurring “spring break.”

Length or Staple Length: Longer staple fleece is usually better, but good length is relative to the breed and grade of wool.

Luster: This is an important trait in the longer and stronger wools, and a plus in the medium and finer wools.

Handle: Fleeces of similar grade may have different feel, one softer, or silkier; the other harsher, even “steely.”

Yield: Ratio of the clean weight to the weight of wool before washing or “in the grease.” Important when wool is sold by the pound and in the grease. May be a factor when judging a fleece with excessive grease and dust.

Common Faults

Three strands
Three strands: Left, fine wool, 2.5 inches. Center, medium wool, 4.0 inches, but showing a value-reducing “break” at arrow. Right, long wool, 7.5 inches.

Finally, there are faults that lower the quality and value of a fleece. We’ve already mentioned two, staining and fiber weakness. Other faults have to do with a fleece containing something other than white wool fiber of good length.

These are all considered contaminants: Kemp (short, brittle hair fibers), black fibers (usually from blackface sheep), tags (wool heavy with manure, dirt, dust and grease), second cuts (short pieces of wool from shearing), and vegetable matter (burrs, hay, sawdust, etc.). Most contaminants can and should be removed before the fleece is presented.

Exceptions? Sure. Kemp is acceptable in Scottish Blackface sheep, and true, old-time Tunis sheep are likely to have red kemp coming into the wool of the rear legs. The primitive fleeces of Shetland and icelandic sheep will lack staple formation and uniformity, and traditional Dorset sheep and other Down breeds with light density fleeces will not have strong staple formation but will have good fiber uniformity.

Look at a lot of fleeces and you’ll see what I mean.

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