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A Hand Spinner’s Primer
Using Suffolk Wool

By Leigh Dudenhoeffer

Suffolk wool can be quite versatile and valuable when worked by hand. The basket on the left shows off spun Suffolk wool lying atop a Suffolk-stuffed patchwork quilt, with a stack of Suffolk quilting batts piled high behind. The basket on the right is filled with washed (scoured) Suffolk wool locks.

I’m a fiber artist who is educated in almost all of the needle arts. I’ve been spinning wool since I was about 10 years old (I’m 48 now). I was raised in New England on a sheep farm. We bred and raised Corriedales, but did have some odd “rescue” sheep that would get dropped off occasionally by people who didn’t want to keep them any longer.

This is the ram Thor in full fleece, son of a ram named Elmer, both owned by Jerry and Debra Ahrens. Behind are some shorn Suffolk ewes, with their lambs. Despite their very large size, Suffolk sheep have a reputation as easy to shear because they’re usually calm, their skin is smooth and tight (as opposed to wrinkly and baggy) and they don’t have wool on their legs, heads, udders or scrotums.

I’ve spun many different types of sheep wool and other animal fibers, cotton and silk.

One of the primary things I teach beginning spinners is to look at the staple length of the fiber they think they want to spin. I also teach them to look for something with a moderate to high amount of crimp in it so they’ll have an easier time learning to spin.

I’ve been taught over the years that the Suffolk sheep is a meat breed and that “the fleece is useless because it is short stapled (less than two inches in length), prone to matting; and not good for anything, except maybe quilt batting or toy stuffing.”

Here is what suffolksheep.org has to say about Suffolk fleece:

“Moderately short; close fine fiber without tendency to mat or felt together and well defined, i.e., not shading off into dark wool or hair.”

Wikipedia offers this much better description:

“Fleece weights from mature ewes are between five and eight pounds (2.3 and 3.6 kilograms), with a yield of 50 to 62 percent. The fleeces are considered medium wool in type, with a fiber diameter of 25.5 to 33 microns and a spinning count of 48 to 58. The staple length ranges from 2.0 to 3.5 inches (51 to 89 mm).”

After shearing, sorting and skirting (removal of poorer fibers and large contaminants) Suffolk wool is easily scoured in five-gallon buckets.

I’ve been processing and spinning Suffolk wool from lambs, rams and ewes for about nine years and I find it to be highly useful, wonderfully springy, having a good hand, moderate lanolin, and excellent crimp. I haven’t found much difference between ewe and ram fleeces. In fact, two of my favorite fleeces come from a ram named Elmer and from his son Thor.

Most Suffolk fleece I’ve acquired (prior to switching to buying direct from the farm) was mill processed. A lot of the mill processed fleece was coarse and scratchy because a lot of the people that chose to market their fleece sent it all out to the mill as one batch (several fleeces processed at the same time) instead of grading and having the fleece processed by grade.

I buy primarily from one Suffolk breeder now (Jerry & Debra Ahrens of Ellisville, Wisconsin). I skirt and grade the fleeces first according to fineness and then by how much vegetable matter (vm) is present.

I then scour each fleece separately because I can market them better because I know the fineness of the fleece.

Finer grades of Suffolk wool can be spun to a finer diameter. This sample was spun to a very fine diameter—32 wpi.

I generally spin lamb and yearling fleece into lace weight yarn or 18 to 20 wraps per inch (wpi) and use the yarn for next-to-the-skin items such as scarves, vanity sweaters and lace shawls.

Wool from two-to-four-year-old sheep, I spin worsted weight (12 to 14 wpi) or sport or fingering weight (14 to 16 wpi) and use this yarn for socks, sweaters, hats, and mittens—and to weave blankets.

When the sheep are over four years old, their fleece is coarser and I usually don’t spin it unless I want a rug or a sturdy saddle blanket. I personally think that a lot of times it is this older fleece that people have acquired (usually for free) and they expect a lot out of it.

Perhaps at one time the Suffolk was primarily raised and bred as a meat sheep, but it should and can be bred for good quality fleece as well.

Fleece quality depends heavily on what the sheep are fed and secondarily on how it gets processed. Grass fed sheep produce better wool.

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