Friday, May 5, 2017

Showing Fleeces (Caution - Your Eyes May Glaze Over)

A while ago someone asked how we choose a fleece for a show.  The quick answer is 'one that makes your jaw drop when you see it."  That's true, but more goes into choosing and preparing a fleece although the 'wow factor' is part of it.

Fleeces are shown not just to attract buyers and gain notoriety for a farm but also to help the producer gauge what progress they're making toward reaching the ideal for their breed as described in the breed standard.  All recognized breeds (of all species - sheep, horses, fowl, etc.) have written standards that individuals must meet to be eligible to be registered.  This includes ranges of acceptable height, weight and color, and traits or faults that prevent registration. In sheep the fleece characteristics are very important and each breed description includes the ideal crimp, staple length, luster, color, grade, grease content and other parameters for the wool.  Whether card grading or judging classes of like fleeces to determine the ultimate "best one" a judge should still rely on the breed standard to dictate what he/she is looking for.  Fleeces of crossbred animals can be stunning and worthy of being shown.  They are divided into fine, medium, long and coarse classes (for both white and colored/non-white categories) but the judge should still be considering the listed breed mix and determine whether the result is appropriate for the blend as regards length, weight, crimp and grade.  And the ideal fleece will have all the positive traits in overwhelming abundance - identical crimp nose to tail, staple length even everywhere, grade the same from shoulder to britch.

So, what does a fleece judge look for?  First, are there any faults?  Faults include fiber weakness or breaks, second cuts, excessive VM (vegetable matter, aka chaff), cotting/felting/webbing of the locks, bad smells (mildew, urine, mothballs) and bugs (moths, lice, keds) and are big reasons to quickly be eliminated.  Having narrowed the field down, the judge then looks for the positives.  Is the overall weight right for the breed?  Is the staple length appropriate?  Crimp, luster, etc.are all considered and the fleece best meeting the breed ideal is placed on top.

A buyer will judge fleeces based on their own needs rather than the fleece's comparison to an ideal.   Soundness, cleanliness, color, hand, luster and length may all stand in a different order of importance to a fiber artist who is looking for certain things and may not care that the fleece is smaller then the breed standard suggests it should be.  A commercial buyer is going to be very concerned with uniformity of the fiber by grade and purity of color.  Black fibers in white fleeces will be completely unacceptable to them. These are things a producer might consider when choosing fleeces for a show and sale.  Am I hoping to impress the judge or a buyer?

Likewise, the producer has to weigh the best traits of his/her fleeces against each other when deciding which to show.  Is this one's luster more impressive or that one's length?  This one is soooo soft, but it's not very big.  It's like asking a parent to decide which of their kids is better!  ;-)

Once decisions are made the fleece has to be properly prepared for show.  All fleece shows have clear rules, such as those here at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, but basically the producer wants to take away anything that detracts from the fleece while presenting it in an attractive manner.

Step one - get the fleece on the skirting table.

 This is Large Marge.  Although we try to be careful bagging the fleece after shearing it's always somewhat disarrayed and needs to be unfolded, flipped over and arranged with the cut side down and in a cohesive 'sheep shape'.  Here she really fills the table - head is at the top and tail is at the bottom. I then go around the fleece and take off any fiber that's got any kind of problem.  Marge was not covered during summer so the fleece tips are faded from the sun.  But she was covered during hay feeding season so the fleece is totally free from debris and doesn't have a swath of crud down the middle of her back requiring removal.

This fleece is Carmel's.  She's a moorit who is fading as time goes on.  Her fleece has uneven crimp in some places such as the lower foreleg and ribs but it's all pretty.  The darker lock lying on the others is much crimpier and looks shorter but if stretched out is almost the same length.  I suppose a judge could find fault with those areas being left in but it's sound and usable and a handspinner would sort the fleece by texture or color anyway so I left that type in.

Color shouldn't count either for or against a fleece (unless a fleece is stained with something - urine, marking crayon, red clay dirt) but I wanted to show how this fleece is fading.  Here the cut end (closest to the skin/most recently grown) is noticeably lighter than the tips. Next year she will be the color of warm sand.

And as the fleece is folded into the traditional English roll any second cuts that haven't fallen through the slats will come to light and can be picked out.  Even a very good shearer will inevitably leave a few short second cuts.  

Here's Large Marge again, folded and ready to go back in the bag.

Then it's off to the show for judging, both by 'the judge' and also by potential buyers!


  1. I drooled over the photo of Large Marge's fleece on your website. I'm sure someone at MDS&W bought it with joy! This fleece should have won a prize.

  2. No glazing over on my part. I was at MS&W yesterday, hanging out in the fleece sales barn, just listening and observing trying to figure out the whole process. Boy oh boy, do I wish I had read this post first!

  3. Gorgeous fleeces! Now, tell us how you did and if any of the fleeces came home again (ahem).