Friday, March 13, 2009

Quality Control - the Fleece Department ;)

(NOTE ~ this is a very long post, but full of lots of fiber information, so I hope you will take the time to read through it all. Would you rather see it spread out over a few different posts? I appreciate all input! And as always, please don't hesitate to contact us with any questions you might have)

This year we have thirty-four sheep ~ the largest flock that Bill and I have ever had here at Serenity Farms! It is exciting and worrisome, all at the same time (grin). I am proud of each of the sheep here and looking forward to lambing in a few weeks, with the first crop of lambs from our new black ram, Eli. A few of the ewes were bred to Derek (3/4 Corriedale and ¼ CVM – a beautiful badgerface boy) and a few to the ram who is still our “main guy”, Autry. But while lambing is exciting (and stressful) and Bill’s favorite time of the year, shearing is still what I look forward to the most. Wool is my crop ;)

(This is Eli's very black lamb fleece - a raw sample, a washed sample and on the combs. See some of his yarn at the end of this post)

I wanted to shear in two batches this year, to make things a little easier on me. Sorting and skirting fleeces takes a long time and I have eager customers waiting, plus a limited amount of “safe” storage space (safe meaning a place where the fleeces can stay dry; where they won’t get chaff and dirt blown over them and where the irresponsible neighbors roaming tom cats can’t get to them…so I guess I mean safe from contamination by these things) Of course, they would be safe here in the house, but my family starts to get a bit irritated by being squeezed out by the aromatic fresh fleeces – LOL! So we began by shearing only ten – the rams, wethers and the younger lambs that I kept over but didn’t breed. And then the glory begins….as I am finally able to get my hands on my golden harvest of beautifully elegant, wonderfully warm and glowing, colorful and fine Corriedale fleece!!!

We are so happy and appreciative of the fantastic customers we have for our fleece, and do our best to live up to your expectations. I thought you might be interested in knowing just what goes into preparing a fleece to offer for sale to you. I am not talking about the year long, daily work that goes into brood stock selection; fencing and keeping good pastures for grazing; planting and producing high quality feed (hay, corn, oats) for winter feed; the cost and effort of putting a coat on each animal (each sheep has two and sometimes three different sizes to accommodate wool growth through the year); worming and vaccinations when necessary; watering and of course, the physical labor of keeping the barn clean (pitching manure, sweeping barn floor and knocking down cobwebs) Oh no, those things are just day in and day out care of animals on the farm! I’m not even talking about the effort we put into preparing for shearing day…trying to time it just right and shear the ewes before they are to close yet not to far from lambing time; hoping the weather cooperates so as not to stress the animals to much; keeping them as clean and dry as possible the night before the Shearer comes; hoping the Shearer can come the day you have scheduled; sweeping the shearing area clean; having large barrels and huge plastic bags to scoop the fresh fleece into for holding while we shear the next sheep and waiting till I have the time to skirt it properly (of course, making sure it is correctly marked with the identity of the animal donating the fleece!)

All of our sheep have names and all of them have distinct personalities and knowing these things are every bit as important to most of our customers as fleece color and staple length! For example, Charlotte is the Queen of the Barn with an exceptionally fine white fleece. Eve and Violet (mother and daughter) and their descendents are our mega-fleece producers – the smallest sheep in the flock yet producing the largest quantity of wool in the most desirable range of colors, the silver greys. We now have four generations of that family of ewes! Ainsley is the Barn Clown, always in your face and underfoot, begging for sheep cookies (Vanilla Wafers) and offering assistance while you try to work with the other sheep – in other words, usually in the way! This makes her the perfect good-will ambassador to visitors at the farm. She also happens to produce the most beautiful ewe lambs that usually manage to find a permanent place in the flock while she herself has a warm semisweet chocolate brown fleece! Amanda, our largest white ewe, loves nothing more than scratches under her chin and to literally try to climb in your lap if you sit down in the pasture! Amazing that both Amanda and Ainsley are so friendly, as they each had especially wild mothers – Amanda is from Hannah , and Ainsley from Lizzie (nicknamed Lizzie-Borden in the barn!) Then we have Celia, my only daughter of our beloved Brooke whom we lost two years ago. Celia is elegant and regal in stature, with the same fine jet-black fleece as her mother. But for all of her refined looks, Celia is rather…ummm…un-graceful! She plows her way through any situation, slopping up feed and water and knocking things over on her way (including the shepherd, if the shepherd isn’t careful!)

I share all of these quirky little sheep traits with you so that you realize that when you contact Serenity Farms looking for Corriedale fleece and I set about selecting one I think you will like, you are getting more than just the color and crimp and staple length – you are receiving a bit of our farm and the joy we take in the personalities of our animals. If you contact us about breeding stock, we have been at this long enough to know what traits we are likely to get from a particular mating of animals. We know that from Autry, our main ram, we get fantastic fleece and correct conformation and vitality. From Derek we get fleece and color and beauty, but also some flightiness. We know that Charlotte and Violet and Eve’s descendents are going to offer longevity.

This farm and this flock of sheep are not just our work….they are our daily life! I think our customers appreciate that.

Okay - back to my original topic, which was what goes into preparing a fleece for sale after it comes off the sheep! This is my version of quality control ;)


First, I weigh the fleece and record the unskirted weight. Next, the fleece is spread out on some version of a skirting table – this can be fancy, purchased, homemade or simply a screen or gate laid out on top of a couple of saw horses…that is my set-up. I look for the best light possible, which is natural sunlight for my eyes, but often it is hard to find a place out of the wind so I set up under some good strong light over the cement alley of the barn. Often the curious sheep stand on the other side of their pens to watch the proceedings!

(The sheep aren't actually so overcrowded at our farm...this is just all of them trying to find a place at the fence!)

The fleece is spread out with the outer edges facing up and towards me. The very first thing I check for is strength and soundness. I pull a few locks from different parts of the fleece and give them a sharp tug to be sure they don’t break apart. A weakness is usually caused by some stress to the sheep throughout the growing year, possibly an illness or a move (as in the purchase of a new sheep). Once soundness has been determined, we continue on with skirting away the dirtiest parts of the fleece. I have a nice photo of the skirting table and fleece, but it is in the camera and the camera needs a new battery...will put it here as soon as I can!

Right away, that is pulling away most of the edges and include manure and urine “tags” from the back end of the sheep; wet and matted areas from the lower sides and then the chaff filled neck wool. The Shearer usually tosses aside the belly and leg wool, and often he can throw aside some of the other really contaminated stuff, which is helpful to me. Second cuts are short, fuzzy pieces of wool that occur when the Shearer has to make a second pass over an already shorn area. That might not sound like a big deal, but anyone who has worked with preparing a fleece for spinning will tell you that these second cuts make for major lumps and bumps in the processed fiber! They are also unreasonably difficult to “shake out” of these Corriedale fleeces with lots of lanolin…they just want to stick onto the fiber like Velcro!!! Ugh…but I try to get rid of as much of these as possible. We also pick out any obvious pieces of chaff that slip by and are under the coats. What I end up with are three different categories from each fiber - #1) prime blanket. This is the fiber that is well protected by the blanket, is very consistent in length, soft and lovely! This is what goes to you, our customer! #2) good fleece but maybe around the edges of the coat…along the sides, hindquarter and the neck fleece if it is not to full of vm. This is what I will keep for myself. Good sound fleece, but just dirtier than I want to offer my customers. Then #3) the junk (throw-away, garden mulch, etc).

(Above, a bag of prime fleece from 2008, ready to go to its new home)

Next is my very informal, unscientific, personal “grading” system. Sometimes, even though we change coats during the year to allow for fleece growth, we will have some matting at the tips of the fleece, especially on those that grow very long wool. These have to be assessed. If they are not felted and open up during the washing process, I still consider this a prime fleece for sale. If they are dry, weak, brittle or felted, I do not. I find we have more of this matting in years where there has been a lot of humidity or rainfall. Another thing that happens during those especially moist years is that the wool retains moisture, usually those fleeces that are especially dense. They will have to be spread out to air dry before being shipped to the customer. I don’t want my customers paying for “water weight” – LOL – and believe me, it can add up! I look at the amount of crimp and the staple length. I want to be able to tell the potential buyer in as much detail as I can the characteristics of the fleece.

Now the prime, for sale fleece is weighed and that weight is recorded. This goes back into its bag – usually clear plastic with air holes poked in it and never sealed on top and again with an identifying nametag. My second grade fiber, what I will keep for myself is also weighed and recorded on the sheep’s record, identified and bagged. From that bag of prime fleece, I pull out some samples from different areas of the wool – usually amounting to a few ounces. This comes to the house with me and is washed exactly as I would wash a full fleece. When it is dry, I process this bit of fiber…usually with my Louet Mini Combs, but sometimes with my Louet fine cloth hand cards….to give me some roving to spin. I spin a sample, 2-ply yarn from the fiber.

(Above is "Eddie's" fiber being sampled)

Do you see where this is going? I have now sampled a particular fiber from start to finish! This way, I can tell a customer with certainty how the fiber behaved, how well it washed up, etc. This is quality control not only for the customer but also for me. Here at Serenity Farms we offer a full guarantee of our fibers to be as represented when you receive it or you can return it for your money back (minus shipping costs). I want to know from start to finish that the fiber is okay. I have NEVER had a fleece returned, but I have had questions asked about the tips, if there is vm, the color, the length….and I always have my “control card” to refer to ;) I know the fleece is good when it is sent to you and I know that it can be made into wonderful yarn. Now, what happens to things when you begin to work with it yourself…that I can’t control ((grin)) – but I will know from handling that particular fiber that it is sound, strong, and able to be processed and spun into yarn.

(Above is Eleanor's fleece sample. Hers is a lamb fleece, with what I term "dirty tips". But they are strong and sound and the dirt washes out, as you can see from the washed sample. Below, yarns spun from Eleanor's white, Evelyn's grey and Eli's black. Aren't they lovely?)
Whew, this was a really long-winded post but I hope that you now have a better understanding of how much time, effort and dedication goes into every Serenity Farms fleece that is offered for sale! I know how tough economic times are for many and yet I also know how important treating yourself to some small pleasures can be, too, so I want you to shop with confidence at this family farm of dedicated shepherds, hand spinners and knitters. I want you to feel like you know our sheep and that you know us, and that you feel that your dollars are well spent here. If ever they aren’t, I want you to be sure to tell me about it ;)

Be sure to visit our website to learn more about our small, Michigan family farm and our sheep. Corriedales are such a wonderful breed! And if you have any interest in a Serenity Farms Corriedale fleece of your own, please contact us at

I will be posting more fleece photos both here and at the website as I get them skirted. Most are already spoken for, but some are not, and they could go home with you!


Melanie said...

Thanks for all the great info. I can tell you all love what you do and its more a labor of love then anything.

Carissa said...

What a great post! I know that you've mentioned all that you do in the past, but it is great to have all of that information in one place to point people too. I think you wrote a fantastic article. :)

Alpaca Granny said...

What a joyful read this was, Cary. You put a lot of work and love into your product.

A Farmstead Pilgrimage... said...

Hi Cary,

Great article! Lots of good explaination to what is involved in producing/harvesting wool. It 'is' a lot of work!... I should re-state it as, 'enjoyable' work. [grin]

Your fleece is lovely! Love the black, especially.


KnitNana said...

Wow. That's a lot of good information!! And your yarn is gorgeous. I can't imagine how proud you must be!!!

Joanne said...

Cary, I really enjoyed reading about your care and preparations of your fleece. You truly do have great fleeces!

Phyllis T. said...

This post is exactly what I love about you. Your heart is really into doing the best and being the best cultivator of fibery goodness. Can't wait to see what the rest of the season brings.

Hugs to you my friend
Phyllis T.