How to Raise Wool Animals for Yarn
I raise wool animals for yarn. The beginning of any wool yarn starts with fiber harvested from a wool producing animal. This is why we got into the world of keeping fiber goats and sheep. Beginning with Pygora Goats, we started to raise wool animals. I don’t spin on a spinning wheel and frankly, I have no desire right now to learn how to do that. I tried once. And promptly returned the wheel to my friend. To me it was frustrating, and really I wanted to be with the animals. If I explain the process of sheep to yarn a bit more, maybe you will understand why I don’t want to spin the wool into yarn.
Why I don’t Want to Learn to Spin Fiber
Spinning of the fiber is how combed and picked fiber is turned into yarn. It takes letting go and also holding on. And no, that doesn’t make any sense to me either. I have tried a couple of times to become a spinner. For right now, I am happy being in the trenches, the front line, of making wool. I enjoy watching and assisting my sheep and goats as they make wool. My job is to ensure their safety, provide the right food and care, and have the wool removed when the time is right.
Additionally, feeding affects the wool produced. The right balance of nutrients from the forage and possibly grain supplement goes into the wool production. We monitor these factors as the seasons change and watch the animals condition and the wool.
Shelter also plays into the quality of the fiber. Wool break can occur if the animal is rubbing on a fence or a doorway. Even pasture raised animals should have somewhere to take shelter during extreme weather conditions.
Learning the Process Even If I Don’t Plan to Do It Myself
In my situation, I would prefer to work with the artists and craftspeople who know the yarn business for my processing. I firmly believe that no one can do everything. Not only do we raise wool animals, we also raise other livestock, keep a family business going, keep up with a large family and grow garden produce for our table. Oh and the poultry. Chickens, ducks and soon geese, live here too. Taking care of it all takes lots of time. I prefer the animal care to almost any other task I could find to do, so I leave the wool processing to the fiber mill.
However, I believe in order to raise a good fleece producing animal, I need to understand how the fleece is processed. What makes a fleece optimal for different types of processing. What makes a good yarn fleece. Why would I want to know all this if I don’t plan to learn to spin yarn? Because it helps me to produce a better raw product. The sheep and goat shearer and I work closely together during shearing to remove the fleece in good condition, remove it from the shearing field and store it properly, until it is skirted for the mill.
Behind the Scenes of How We Raise Wool Animals
Much goes into a fine yarn before you purchase it from a website or yarn boutique. Learning to raise wool animals is an age old tradition. Sheep, goats, alpaca, llama, buffalo, and yak are some of the animals raised for fiber. Most people would not think that buffalo and yak could be fiber producing animals but they actually produce a soft fine fleece that is made into a luxury yarn.
Enter the Pygora Goat
I chose to focus on the Pygora breed of goat over a decade ago. After researching wool producing animals, I decided goats fit into our farm and lifestyle the most. The Pygora goat is a specialty breed that was developed in the twentieth century from a breeding program between the registered Pygmy breed and the registered Angora goat breed. Hardy and friendly, we enjoyed raising our small Pygora flock and welcoming the new babies in the spring.
We learned to shear this breed and harvest the soft downy fleece. Pygora fleece is so fine that it works better as yarn if it is blended with a wool that has more memory to it, such as Merino. Sheep were added to our flock in the last few years and we are working on developing a yarn from our farm’s wool producing animals. A few years ago we made the decision to begin using a professional shearer for harvesting the wool. This frees up more time to care for the spring chores and tasks and I don’t lose time because I strained my back shearing.
Preparing to Process the Fleece
More time is required after the fleece is shorn. When you raise wool animals the fleeces have to be skirted before going to the mill. This step is mandatory before most wool mills will accept the fleece for processing. Skirting the fleece is the step where the bad parts of the wool, the belly area, crotch, and back leg wool is removed. This wool is usually stained and matted from the animal lying down and also feces and urine stain the wool.
Vegetable matter needs to be removed. This is the hay and leaves that get stuck in the fiber while the animal is foraging and grazing. Regular soil and debris will wash out during the scouring steps but the bits of manure, feed, large vegetable material and mats should be tossed out before the fleece goes to the mill. Some people choose to coat their animals in a lightweight cover to make the skirting process easier. Again, personal choice, and one I decided to not use.
Avoid Backup of Fleece to Sort and Skirt
Having just one season of fleeces to skirt can be quite a task. If something happens in life and you don’t get to it one year, the next years fleeces get added to the pile. The once or twice a year shearing results in fleeces that pile up quickly. With just a flock of 18 wool producing animals, this was quite a pile of fleece to sort. Yes it happened and it took quite a while to sort through.
A Chance to See Where the Magic Happens- A Visit to the Wool and Fiber Mill
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the mill and learn from the owner/operator about my fiber and what she planned to do with it. I am very happy with the working relationship we are building, as our fiber is put to the test, to find out how it should be processed and spun. Or not spun as the case may be.
Sometimes the answer may be, no. The Finn fleeces I took to the mill last fall were found to be too short in staple length to spin on the large machines. The machines produce a very uniform yarn, because they are given a uniform roving to spin from. That is the key. I learned that for the machine to work it’s magic it needs to have a uniform staple length. Without this uniformity, slubs and breaks in the yarn will occur.
Sorting the Fiber for the Machines
The owner showed me how to look at the carded and picked roving. Once I was informed of what to look for, and compared to a sample of what it should look like, I could see that this roving was not going to be commercially spun into yarn. However, the roving is beautiful, soft and it could very possibly be perfect for a hand-spinner to work with as they could make allowances for the sections of shorter staple length.
In addition, second cuts in the fiber or fleece lead to the short pieces and non-uniform staple length. The spinning frame can work with lengths at least 2.5 inches long. If they are shorter than that the slubs form, or the fiber comes apart completely leading to a weak breakable yarn. Definitely not a product I want to sell to my customers.
Some of the changes we will make with our sheep flock in the coming year should yield a better raw wool for the mill to process for us. The doorway leading from the paddock into the stall for the sheep needs to be enlarged. A few of the sheep have wool break on their backs from rubbing on the top of the door opening.
We will work with the shearer reduce the occurrence of second cuts. Second cuts get into a fleece during shearing, if the blades go back over an area that was not sheared closely enough the first time through. The best way to avoid second cuts is to shear the animal without backing over any area until the fleece is removed from the shearing area. Then, the animal can be cleaned up, removing the shorter fibers left behind.
Why We Raise Wool Animals
Sheep and other fiber producing animals provide so many products. Raising a sheep or goat that also grows fiber gives you the opportunity to harvest wool, enjoy fresh milk if you breed the animals, and can provide meat for your family if you choose that option.
I chose to raise wool animals in order to harvest wool. Choosing to use a mill to produce the yarn is the right decision for our farm. We can concentrate on the farming and animal care end of this process and let the mill operator produce a quality product for us to offer as a farm product.
If you are thinking about raising wool animals, these ideas might give you some things to think about before you acquire your flock. Everyone can design their own way to raise wool animals. The important idea is to give it serious thought beforehand so you don’t become overwhelmed with all that goes into raising wool producing animals for yarn.
Our yarns and spinning fleece and finished goods for sale can be found on our ETSY shop. Please stop by and see if we have what you are looking for in quality yarns and fleece.