Fleece: More Than a Fuzzy Fundraiser

1/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Jessica Rose Spangler Reporter

HARRISBURG, Pa. — When it comes to sheep, most non-agriculture-minded spectators see cute, cuddly critters, not a means of warmth, profit and a business venture wrapped in a wool bundle.

But that’s precisely what many exhibitors at the Pennsylvania Farm Show use their sheep for, specifically their wool (the wool sheared from one sheep is called a fleece).

It’s not all that uncommon for the general public to have heard about wool fabric. But having a sheep that can produce a quality fleece for spinning, and thus turning into fabric, is a bit more uncommon, and difficult.

“But every fleece has value, it just depends on what you’re using it for,” said Beth Vamvakias, Boyertown, Pa., whose daughter, Sarah, entered multiple fleeces for judging at this year’s Farm Show.

Robert Calvert, Mercer, Pa., judged 74 fleeces on Friday, Jan. 4, at the Farm Show, and 43 of them were auctioned off Wednesday, Jan. 9, with all proceeds benefiting the Farm Show Scholarship Fund.

So what goes in to deciphering a champion fleece from the rest of the flock?

Fiber diameter, crimp, staple length and strength, uniformity and cleanliness — six areas of judging that Calvert takes into considering when evaluating each fleece.

Fiber diameter is measured in microns (a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter). Finer fibers will be around 17 microns, while longer, coarser, thicker fibers can be upwards of 40 microns.

Crimp is the natural curl of the wool fiber. Fine wool has more crimp per inch. The crimp should be consistent throughout the fleece.

Staple length refers to the unstretched length of a wool fiber. A good staple length is 3- to 3-1/2-inches, according to Calvert. When the staple is stretched, it should not break or tear.

Fleeces should be uniform throughout in all categories. They should also be clean and free of manure, plant matter or other foreign material.

Natural colored fleeces (typically black or brown, but including anything other than white) need to be uniform in their color as well. Calvert said that darker-colored fleeces are typically better.

The weight or amount of the fleece doesn’t necessarily matter. Quality trumps quantity.

For judging, fleeces are first categorized as purebred, non-purebred (commercial flock fleece) or natural colored. Within those three categories, fleeces are further divided by ram or ewe, and further yet by spinning count.

At the Pennsylvania Farm Show, fleeces are further divided into auction and non-auction categories. All receive premiums, but only the auction fleeces were sold at the Wednesday evening auction.

Calvert said that fine fleeces will have a spinning count around 80, medium between 60 and 70, and coarse will be 58 or lower.

A spinning count is the number of hanks of yarn that can be spun from a pound of wool. One hank of wool is 560 yards. Theoretically, one pound of 80-count wool will make 44,800 yards of yarn, while one pound of 58-count wool will make 32,480 yards.

Finer fleeces typically are worth more because they are used for items such as suits. Medium fibers can be used for things like sweaters, while coarse fibers are more commonly used for outer garments, according to Nancy Bowman, Farm Show wool department volunteer and wool exhibitor, from Lenhartsville, Pa.

“Imagine it’s a lot like braiding hair. Fine wool is like fine little kid hair. It’s hard to braid,” she said, adding that finer fleeces could sell for $5 to $6 per pound at festivals, while commercial fleeces may only bring 85 cents per pound.

But judging the fleeces is a little easier than actually “making” the fleeces.

Lauren Steele, 14, Mercer, Pa., said that shearing a sheep for the wool judging contest could take her 1-2 hours because of the effort made to shear the wool in one continuous piece, instead of multiple chunks of wool.

Additionally, she chose to use the fleece from an older ewe, Jackie, because of the longer staple length.

She admitted that she and her sister, Blair, currently don’t use their fleeces for anything. Her grandma has tried to teach her how to spin, but Lauren didn’t find it to be one of her strengths, hence her decision to enter in the auction fleece category.

Sheep breeder Kate Bostek, Fairfield, Lancaster County, Pa., said that finding a sheep that can produce champion-quality fleece isn’t as easy as one might think.

“It’s a combination of breeding, good quality feed, nurturing the fleece by keeping it covered and protected from the elements. Plus you have to have a good shearer,” Bostek said.

Beth Vamvakias said that the quality of food fed to the sheep could greatly affect the quality of the wool.

“Food’s not cheap. But if you cut back, you start to lose the luster (of the wool),” she said.

Bostek hires Emily Chamelin from Maryland to do her shearing. Chamelin was part of the national Golden Shears team that competed internationally in New Zealand in 2012.

Bostek said that Chamelin is capable of shearing a prize-winning fleece because she’s able to keep the clippers at an even position to ensure consistent staple length throughout the fleece. If the clippers are held at varying heights, the fleece needs to be combed through to remove the double cuts.

To help achieve the champion-quality fleeces she wants, Bostek has imported ram semen from the U.K.

“The English semen has more bone, more style, the classic Border Leicester head. We want the fleece to be right for the breed. We want little locks or curls on a Border Leicester,” she said.

At the conclusion of the Farm Show fleece auction, the 43 lots generated $1,140.50, averaging $26.52 per fleece. The highest seller was the grand champion auction fleece from Charles Orr Jr., Jackson Center, Pa., for $70.

Bostek said that the prices of the Farm Show auction are typically very reasonable, with the best fleeces selling for between $50 and $60.

“For the quality of fleece, it’s a pretty good price,” Bostek said.

A list of the champion fleeces is as follows.

Non-Auction Fleeces

Grand Champion and Champion Breed Fleece

John and Kate Bostek, Fairfield, Pa.

Reserve Grand Champion and Champion Natural Colored Fleece

John and Kate Bostek, Fairfield, Pa.

Champion Commercial Farm Flock Fleece

Lisa Logue, Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Reserve Champion Commercial Farm Flock Fleece

Terry Flanagan, Halifax, Pa.

Reserve Champion Breed Fleece

John and Kate Bostek, Fairfield, Pa.

Res. Champion Natural Colored Fleece

John and Kate Bostek, Fairfield, Pa.

Auction Fleeces

Grand Champion and Champion Breed Fleece

Charles Orr Jr., Jackson Center, Pa., $70

Reserve Grand Champion and Champion Commercial Farm Flock Fleece

Terry Flanagan, Halifax, Pa., $27.50

Reserve Champion Commercial Farm Flock Fleece

Christine Flanagan, Halifax, Pa., $12.50

Reserve Champion Breed Fleece

Roger and Nancy Bowman, Lenhartsville, Pa., $25

Champion Natural <\n>Colored Fleece

Ralph and Marian Lovell, Linden, Pa., $42.50

Reserve Champion Natural Colored Fleece

Christine Flanagan, Halifax, Pa., $30

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