I would like to begin with a story. The story of Shrek the sheep. This wooly feller fled shearing for six years, until he finally came forward to have his glorious coat shorn. The reason why Shrek grew such a fleece in the first place goes back to the Neolithic age, when humans started wearing animal pelts for clothing. They began breeding herds of wool-bearing animals, especially sheep, whose wool was recognized as the most practical. By the 12th century, a wool trade had developed, with the English raising the sheep and the Flemish processing the raw material. Today, wool is sourced and processed all over the world, and the annual global output is estimated at 5.5 billion pounds of wool.
Wool is considered a “protein fiber,” and sheep aren’t the only animals that produce it. Camels, goats, and rabbits also technically produce keratin fibers that can be called wool, but more on that at a later date. Today we’re focusing on the world of sheep’s wool.
Sheep are sheared once a year, typically in the spring, just before sheep have their lambs, so that the shorn ewes will be more likely to seek shelter in rough weather, thus protecting their newborn lambs. Experienced shearers can collect wool from 200 sheep a day. Most sheep are still sheared by hand, although a robot has been developed to do the job as well. Kids these days.
The shorn wool coat, or fleece, is also called “grease wool” because of the oil and lanolin in the wool. It also contains sand, dirt, vegetable matter, manure, and dried sweat, or suint. As much as 50% of the fleece’s total weight might come from all this non-wool nonsense. The wool from the legs and belly of the sheep can actually be too full of maure to use, so these tag ends are removed in a process called skirting.
Then, the fleece is scoured with water, soap, and soda ash, and rolled to squeeze out excess water. Next, the wool is often treated with oil to make it more manageable, and sent to be carded. This process passes the fibers through metal teeth to straighten them. Carded wool meant for worsted yarn goes through the processes of gilling and combing to remove short fibers and line up longer fibers parallel to each other. Sleeker slivers are thinned through a process called drawing. The short fibers separated from the long wool during combing are known as noils, and are reused in other products.
Carded wool that is used for woolen yarn goes straight to spinning, where a thread is formed by spinning the fibers together. Yarn is made up of twisted strands of fiber, which are twisted together in the opposite direction to form thicker yarn – hence single-ply yarn. Spinning for woolen yarn happens on a mule spinning machine, while worsted yarns are spun on a variety of spinning machines. Next, the yarn gets wrapped around bobbins, cones, or commercial drums, and from there, it gets dyed and made into what your little heart desires!