From sheep to yarn

I have been meaning to write this post for the last year or so and though this project is not quite finished (the yarn has not yet been knit with) with all this sheepy action in Wovember, it seemed an apt time to finally write it.
As a learning spinner I have mostly used commercially carded or combed top - I know some spinners feel this is not really spinning - but alas I am made of lazier stuff than they - the spinning itself is what I enjoy, the carding or combing much less so.

This project was my first adventure dealing with whole raw fleeces, straight from the sheep's back and into my hands.

The fleeces I got from my neighbour, finely grown by her lovely shetland sheep, (pictured above and below at lambing this year.) It was my first real chance to deal with a whole fleece and gave me a lot of respect for the process. The work involved was enormous. Below is the very sheep whose grey/white fleece I was given, pictured here with this year's lamb - I'm afraid I can't spell her Hungarian name...
Below is her fleece from last year. As you can see, its pretty dirty and required a lot of picking through. Much of it was matted also. (I wonder how you stop this happening - coats perhaps?) Some of the black fleeces were so matted they were almost felted into little rugs, and unusable for spinning.
Much picking through ensued, sorting out the usable fibre, then washing it with many many rinses and leaving it to dry. After that I had a selection of lovely locks. The fleece pictured above gave a small amount of white fleece, and a larger amount of grey - you can see the range below in the washed locks.
After that there were hours of combing the fleece - this may have been easier with a better fleece, but it was slow work, teasing out the locks. I combed it with two small hand-combs, making about 3 passes between each comb, then pulling off a roll of top from them.

Then it was spun into yarn - some of it fairly lumpy - the black in particular as it was a more matted fleece to begin with and I only have a certain amount of patience with combing...

I have yet to decide what to knit from it. I felt some stranded colourwork a la Shetland would be most fitting, but as I am not massively fond of colourwork I am waiting for the right pattern.

I used some of it for a felted artwork, of which more anon...

The whole process was definitely a labour of love. The huge majority of the time in processing the fleece was spent preparing it for spinning, and the littlest time to actually spin it. It gave me a whole new level of respect for the process, and made me realise that the preparation is where it's at.

I remember reading in Lilias Mitchell's Irish Spinning, Weaving and Dyeing about families in Ireland producing their own wool - the older people spun and the younger ones all carded. The spinners would be annoyed if the wool wasn't carded well by the younger and less experienced members of the family - I can really see why now. You cannot make up for insufficient carding or combing while spinning.

I cannot imagine preparing enough wool to spin your own yarn to make clothes for a whole family, and thankfully I don't have to, but it was really worth doing, if only to see the sheer (no pun intended!) work involved in something I thought of as relatively straightforward.

I continue to use a mixture of prepared tops and raw fleeces to spin with, but have to admit I love the spinning and not the preparation so will be known as one of those lazy spinners who gets a helping hand from mechanical carding and combing machines. Hooray for machines!