Sheep to Yarn

Looking out at a fluffy flock of sheep in full fleece easily creates images of soft, cozy sweaters and scarves. But how does that happen? It seems almost magical that wool can transfer from the sheep’s back to our own. The process is actually quite simple and has changed very little in fundamentals since ancient times.

First, of course, comes shearing. When a sheep is shorn, the shearer starts at the sheep’s underleg and belly area, and eventually works their way up to the center back on each side. This causes the sheep’s fleece to come off in one big blanket. It’s truly amazing to see a relatively dainty sheep emerge from that enormous blanket! Shearing day is the happiest day of the year for the flock. While they may not entirely enjoy being sheared (much the same way toddlers don’t enjoy haircuts), as soon as the wool is removed they act like frisky lambs, and run to the nearest fence for a really good scratch.

Because of the shearing pattern, the least desirable sections of wool (legs, belly, neck, head, tail) are located roughly around the edges of the fleece. Removing these sections from the outer edges is called skirting. For large scale commercial yarns, which will be chemically processed to remove any vegetable matter or other debris, this basic skirting is sufficient. But to produce a high quality yarn from naturally processed wools, a second skirting is performed.

For second skirting, the fleece is opened up onto a skirting table. Skirting tables are covered with a surface that allows dirt and vegetation to fall through, while supporting the fleece. Some use wood slats, or even pallets. Once the fleece is opened, it is carefully picked through by hand, removing as much visible vegetation as possible and further sorting the fleece itself. Sometimes shearing results in small, undesirable bits of wool called short cuts. These occur due to the shears passing over the same area more than once. These need to be picked out, and the fleece is inspected to ensure that the crimp and staple length are consistent. All fleeces for Spoiled Sheep Yarn go through this second skirting process.

The thoroughly skirted fleeces then need to be washed. Washing the fleece must be done with care to remove the suint (sheep sweat, dirt, and grease) and excess lanolin from the fleece, without over agitating it which could possibly cause the fleece to felt. This usually takes more than one careful wash in mild soap to ensure cleanliness.

After washing, the fleece is “picked”. Whether done by hand or machine, the picking process pulls the clumps of wool apart to make it easier to be combed or carded. This process also helps to remove more of the tiny bits of vegetation hiding in the wool.

Now, the wool is ready to be carded. Carding is basically a process of brushing the wool to separate and align the fibers so that they are easy to spin. This is done with fine metal teeth resembling slightly bent hairs that are embedded into a cloth backing. The carding cloth is attached either to hand held wooden paddles or round revolving drums on a carding machine. Either way the process is the same. The carded fiber may be removed from the carding drums (or hand cards) as sheets known as “batts” (this is where quilt batting comes from), or formed into long rope-like sections called roving. Most spinners prefer to spin from roving, as it is easier and faster than spinning directly from batts.

Once carded, the fiber is ready to spin. For machine-spun yarn such as Spoiled Sheep Yarn, the roving will next go through a pin-drafting process. Pin drafting is an additional combing process that helps to further align the fibers and make it more uniform for the spinning machines. The resulting fiber is formed into a thinner, smoother “rope” of material called a sliver.

Spinning is the simplest part of the process, but requires the most skill. Whether spun by hand or machine, spinning is the act of twisting the wool fiber. The skill required is feeding the fiber in a uniform amount and controlling the amount of twist so that it is consistent. The initial yarn created is called a “single”, as it has not been plyed with another yarn. Usually at least two yarns are twisted, or plied together. Yarns are plied in the opposite direction that the individual yarns were spun. So if the initial yarn fibers were twisted in a clockwise direction, the plies will be twisted together in a counter-clockwise direction. This locks the yarns together and helps to distribute the tension evenly so that the yarn does not twist when knitted and cause the garment to distort.

Finally, the plied yarn is washed or steamed to “set” the twist. Once dry, the yarn is ready to be wound into skeins. It is ready to be welcomed into the hands of the knitter or crocheter to be worked into something special.
Next time you see a skein of yarn you will have a deeper appreciation of the journey each skein took from the back of a wooly sheep into something you can touch and enjoy. Each skein is a work of art in its own way. Many thanks to our sheep for providing us with something wonderful.

About the Author: Katrina Walker is head shepherdess at Spoiled Sheep Yarn. Spoiled Sheep offers farm-fresh natural colored yarns that are produced individually from each sheep. You can visit her beautiful wool at the Sewing and Stitchery Expo and coming soon to