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Shearing to spinning: A look at fiber processing

Oct 6th, 2015 | Category: Animals, Features

by Laura Damron

People have been harvesting fiber from domesticated animals for thousands of years. Nearly every culture has some version of a wool-based garment; from the Guernsey (or ‘gansey’) fisherman’s sweaters to the colorful woven blankets of Peru, woolen textiles have been an integral part of human existence for ages due to their warmth and weather resistance.



Until I became a spinner I never put much thought into how yarn came to be, aside from the fact that wool came from sheep, angora from rabbits and cashmere from goats. I’ve since learned that there are a multitude of fiber animals throughout the world, each with their own unique fiber characteristics. Each type of fleece needs to be processed according to its makeup, which is a combination of factors such as staple length, amount of lanolin, and fiber condition.

It’s a lot for one person to do, processing a fleece. I’ve processed my own, with varying levels of success – separating and hand washing the individual locks in order to get them as clean as I could. It’s a rewarding process, but I would rather spend my time spinning than cleaning anyway, so it’s not my favorite task. That doesn’t stop me, however, from purchasing whole bags of fleece at events like Fiber Fusion, and then wondering how on earth I’m going to ever get all of that wool clean enough to spin.

Enter the fiber mill! We actually have several local fiber mills that can take a fleece and run it through all of the steps needed to get you to the end product you want. Not a spinner? Not a problem! Many mills can also either spin the fiber into a specific yarn weight, or even create giant sheets of felt for you. It’s a surprisingly inexpensive way to turn bags of fleece into a usable product, without the hassle of processing it all yourself.

But what does the process entail? As mentioned previously, each type of fiber requires different handling, but the most commonly available fiber is sheep’s wool, so we’ll use that as our example:

Shearing: Sheep are typically shorn in the spring, once the weather begins to warm. Much like you wouldn’t want to wear a heavy wool sweater in the summer, the sheep are more comfortable once their fleeces have been shaved off. This process does not harm the animals, and once shorn they’re re-released into their pastures.

Baby doll sheep at Sauked in Farm in Concrete. PHOTO BY LAURA DAMRON

Baby doll sheep at Sauked in Farm in Concrete. PHOTO BY LAURA DAMRON

Skirting: A good shearer will remove the entire fleece in such a way that it holds together when laid out flat. We then inspect the fleece, removing any sections of fleece that are excessively dirty and matted (think around their backsides) as well as any vegetative matter that is stuck. It’s not uncommon to pick out hay, pinecones, burrs and other bits of detritus from a sheep that lives outside, uncoated. Some flock owners will provide lightweight coats for their sheep to wear year round, if they wish to protect their fleeces from becoming excessively dirty. Show sheep, and sheep that are being raised for their wool are often coated this way.

Pre-Wash: This optional step would be performed by the owner as well. Pre-washing a fleece to remove some of the dirt and lanolin from the fiber helps reduce weight, in turn reducing shipping costs. After the fleece has been washed and thoroughly dried, it is ready to be sent to the mill.

Washing: Once the mill received the fleece, it is given a thorough scouring, in order to remove any residual dirt and lanolin. Lanolin is the waxy substance that sheep produce, which aids in waterproofing their fleece as it grows. (It is also the main ingredient in Bag Balm, due to its excellent moisturizing and barrier properties.) Left on a fleece, too much lanolin can become sticky and make the fiber less flexible. Traditionally, fisherman’s sweaters were knit with yarn that still contained a good amount of lanolin, in order to enhance their weather resistance.

Picking: Once the fiber is clean and dry, it’s run through a unit called a picker. This is essentially a combing device, which makes the first pass through the fibers to open up the clumps so that any residual vegetative matter can simply fall out.

Sheep shearing at a neighbor’s farm in Arlington. PHOTO BY LAURA DAMRON

Sheep shearing at a neighbor’s farm in Arlington. PHOTO BY LAURA DAMRON

Carding: From the picker, the fiber is passed through a machine what uses a series of rotating drums to comb the fiber further. The drums are covered in little tines, much like those of a dog’s slicker brush, but on a much larger scale. These tines grab the fibers and start aligning them parallel to one another. Several passes can be made through a carder, each one refining the end product further. The fiber comes off the carder in either a sliver or batt form. The sliver is a somewhat thin, airy strand of fiber which can be combined with other slivers via pin drafting to form a thicker, more plush product called a roving – the one that spinners are most familiar with. The batts are sheets of wool fibers that can be used as is in quilts or upholstery, or can be felted into fabric.

Spinning: Some mills offer a spinning service, taking your fiber all of the way to a spun and plied yarn of your choosing, in either a cone form or twisted into skeins of a certain length or weight. This can be a nice way to ensure you have enough yarn for a given project, if you are a weaver or other yarn artist.

Where you stop along the way in the process depends on what you’re looking to accomplish. If you’re a spinner like me, sending your fleece out to be turned into roving is an economical and efficient way to process quantities of wool that would otherwise take up a considerable amount of time. Cost wise, it may be somewhat more expensive than purchasing mass produced wool, but I prefer the quality.

Fleece judging during last year’s Fiber Fusion. COURTESY PHOTO

Fleece judging during last year’s Fiber Fusion. COURTESY PHOTO

Local Resources

Following are some of the fiber mills and resources in our northwest region.


Evergreen Fleece Processing

(425) 248-8967, Maltby, WA


Abundant Earth Fiber

360-969-2187, Clinton, WA


Superior Fibers 

(425) 778 – 6519, Edmonds, WA


Taylored Fibers

(360) 732-4109, Quilcene, WA


For more fiber sources and local farms, see


Fiber Fusion

Two days of fiber, education and fun on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 17-18. The event includes fleece (alpaca, wool, mohair, llama and angora) shows and sales, free demonstrations, a wide variety of classes, over 60 fiber-related vendors, a live fiber animal exhibit, fiber arts contest, people’s choice photo contest, spin-in and more. Free admission, free parking. Saturday hours 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more detail see


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