For those who want to raise sheep but are uncomfortable with the idea of raising an animal that will be sold for eating, wool can be an excellent source of income Sourcing raw wool is an ever-present concern for spinners, knitters and fiber artists who do not raise their own sheep. Sheep produce a limited amount of wool per year, making it an in-demand product and excellent income opportunity for sheep producers.
Wool is categorized by the diameter of the wool fiber (fineness) and is designated fine, medium or long. Fine wool measures 20-15 microns, medium wool is 25-35 microns, and long wool is 30-40 microns. Long wool is used for outerwear and carpets, while fine wool is used for fabric and garments that are worn against the skin. Fine wool has the highest profit margin and is the type sold to hand spinners.
Sheep breeds that are primarily used for meat and dual-purpose breeds tend to have coarser wool that is unsuitable for spinning into fibers. Popular fine wool breeds include Merino and Rambouillet. Medium wool breeds are Cheviot, Dorset, Shropshire, Shetland and Southdown. Long wool breeds are Lincoln, Border Leicester and Romney. Cross-breeding can result in poor quality wool as it affects the length, strength and crimp of the wool fiber.
Most small-scale producers sell their fleeces directly to the end user simply because large wool corporations need thousands of fleeces at a time. However, with a sizable flock, a producer can sell fleeces through a wool pool or co-op. The wool pool combines fleeces from individual producers and solicits bids from wool buyers. The winning bidder buys the lot once it has been graded and weighed. Each producer receives payment for his or her wool and pays a small commission fee.
Sheep are generally sheared in the spring because they have less need for the wool in the hot summer months. Depending on the weather and housing arrangements, some flock owners shear their sheep prior to lambing in late winter and again in early fall.
Shearing a sheep correctly is an art, and it is possible to damage or reduce the value of the fleece if it is not done correctly. Shearing is also very physically demanding. Because it takes several years to develop both skill and strength, as well as a substantial investment in shears and shearing stands, many people employ a professional shearer. The shearer will usually come to a central location in order to service many producers at once, charging by the head.
Care Of Fleeces
A fleece offered for sale must be clean and good quality. The fleece should be free from bits of straw and other organic material (known as vegetable matter) as well as urine, sheep droppings and stains. While vegetable matter will come out in the carding process, it is time consuming and decreases the value of the fleece.
To keep the fleece as clean as possible, it is worth investing in sheep blankets or sheep tubes. In addition to keeping weeds and grass from becoming embedded in the fleece, the blankets protect the fleece from ultra-violet rays that can fade the wool. They also encourage the wool to grow faster.
Once the sheep is sheared, the fleece should be skirted. Skirting is the process of removing soiled wool, particularly from the belly area and hindquarters. Fleeces should always be stored in paper bags or boxes, or bags designed especially for wool.
Wool producers should also take care to breed sheep carefully in order to maintain fleece quality. The addition of coarse fibers or dark colors will reduce the value of the wool (end-users prefer white wool so that it can be dyed). The key to successful wool production is to maintain consistent quality, and to offer a range of products such as raw fleece, carded wool and ready-to-spin rovings.