Fondling Wool

Roving, fresh from the mill

After shearing day each spring, I would send my fleeces to a local mill south of Ottawa to get turned into beautiful roving to spin or yarn to knit. Then one day, the mill closed. My sheep still had to be shorn so I saved the fleeces until I could find another mill. Finally, another opened west of Ottawa. I drove to that mill with my car so packed full of skirted but unwashed fleeces that only the windows I needed to safely drive were clear of wool-stuffed bags. This continued for two years. Then this mill closed, too. 

Losing a good mill and mill owner is akin to losing a really great friendship. One feels bereft after the closure, not quite knowing where to turn. Time is spent developing this relationship which is built heavily on trust. I am handing over my precious fleece which took a year to grow, I’m paying no small fee to have it processed, and would like it processed well. Will it come back to me as I envision? Will it come back at all? 

Many years ago, before I knew of the mill south of Ottawa (it may not have existed yet), I had sent a small batch of fleece to a mill in PEI, to test them out. Once they returned product I liked, I mailed them more than a hundred pounds of skirted fleeces. Some of those fleeces were ones I had purchased from different parts of Canada: Jacob, Corriedale, California Red… I cannot express how much I anticipated spinning these fleeces once they returned!

Only… I never got them back. I was dumbfounded.  How could I not receive any portion of the fleeces I sent to be processed? It was untenable. The many hundreds of dollars lost in postage fees, fleece purchases, and the wool from my own curated flock were not all I lost. I lost trust. When I contacted the mill, they told me they had mailed the fleeces back to me but they had no proof (a tracking number which all posted items larger than letter mail receives). Hence the devastating feeling upon the closure of another local mill and the anxious distrust of trying a new one.

Why such a dependence upon wool mills? I love sheep and I love spinning but at the time, I had to choose how to best spend what free moments I had. I didn’t love processing fleeces yet I sure loved spinning them! With the closure of that last mill, I looked long and hard at myself and took the first steps into consciously processing my own fleeces.  And once I focussed on the fibre and its unique characteristics? I discovered I quite like it. And with this burgeoning new tactile relationship, I learnt about the subtle and not so subtle differences of the wools produced by different breeds of sheep, something not so obvious in prepared roving or top.

How do I process my fleeces? Mostly, I wash them in my top-loading washing machine using Unicorn Power Scour. I lay the washed and rinsed fleeces on my back porch to dry in the hot summer sun. Then, depending on the amount of vegetable matter or second cuts, I flick card or comb my locks before hand-carding them. It is a slow process, a relaxing one. I love seeing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures which makes me feel that no fleece should be left behind. This process, for which I never had time before, grounds me and brings me great pleasure. 


A washed lock from a Rideau-Arcott fleece
I use mini-combs to open the locks and remove debris before hand-carding
Clean fluff awaiting the hand-held cards
Pile of rolags ready to spin
Some of the hand-spun skeins. Some are crisp white and others a duller shade, depending from where on the sheep the locks came

I  would like to take you along with me as I explore different breeds of sheep. I hope that you find it interesting while I attempt to capture the excitement I feel as I fondle wool.

                                                                                                                   Written by Robin

1 thought on “Fondling Wool”

  1. A very interesting read. Knowing how the mills prep the fleeces is also important…be it worsted or woolen. Ontario certainly needs more mills for processing which would also cause a welcome relief from the ever rising postage costs when using far away mills.

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