Unless you are a very dedicated hand-spinner, a small flock of sheep or fibre goats will soon produce more fleece than can be easily processed at home. One good way to deal with this is to have the fleece cleaned and spun at a mill.

Having it commercially spun will not only deal with your smallholding’s “fleece mountain” and save it from ending up on the compost heap, but can also add considerable value to the fleece.

“You can make a good profit from selling mill-spun skeins,” says Kay Dalloway, who keeps a herd of angora goats on her smallholding in Worcestershire and runs a small fibre business with their fleece. “Customers are interested in knowing where the fibre is sourced and how the animals are cared for. Having a batch of your own fibre mill-spun is very good for this and you can still process the rest for hand spinning.”

Choosing a mill

There are a number of small mills in the UK which will handle smallholding-scale quantities of fleece, so the first step in dealing with your fleece overload is to choose a mill.

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“There are a handful of mills where you can send your fibre, so look up what they have to offer and what suits best,” says Kay. “I’ve used the Natural Fibre Company, who I was very pleased with, but I would advise exploring what each mill has to offer, and then phoning to speak to someone about your order.”

Different mills have different requirements for how the fleece is sheared and prepared, so it’s worth choosing well in advance of shearing. Mills often also have some restrictions in what chemicals can be applied to your livestock that you’ll need to be aware of in the run-up to shearing. “Always check the paperwork,” warns Kay, “as the animals must not have been treated with some pour-ons, such as Crovect, within three months of shearing.” Booking early will also help reduce the waiting time for your spun yarn to come back!

Some mills will handle as little as one fleece, while others have minimum weight of 10 or 20kg. This might mean you’ll need to store some fleece to combine with the next shearing, or pool your fleece with that from a fellow smallholder. However, as a typical Downs type sheep will produce a fleece of 3-4kg per year, and a longwool sheep such as a Cotswold 6-8kg per year, you don’t need many sheep in your flock to have a suitable weight.

Preparing the fleece

Once you’ve chosen a mill, you’ll need to get your sheep sheared and the fleece ready to send off. Mills need clean, uniform fleece free of vegetable matter or other stray material such as baler twine, so your shearing set-up needs to minimise contamination, with no straw or hay near the cut fleeces.

It’s best to pick over your sheep beforehand to remove any large bits of hay, straw or vegetation, as this pulls out much more easily while the fleece is still attached. Some alpaca owners have even been known to go as far as vacuuming their animals!

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As the fleece comes off during shearing, be sure to keep any felted or dirty sections separate. If you have a professional shearer in, it’s worth telling them that you’re having the fleece mill-spun, and don’t want any belly or crutch wool to get mixed up with the main parts of the fleece.

After this basic division on the shearing platform, each fleece needs to be sorted by hand, “skirting” off dirty, stained or felted sections and then removing as much of the other vegetable matter as possible.

“Sorting can take a while,” says Kay, “but the better you sort your fibre the better the yield and the more yarn will be returned to you. Mine was well sorted and I had an 86% yield which is very good.”

As well as picking over, the fleeces will also need some grading, such as putting coloured fleeces separately from white, or dividing up multi-coloured fleeces from breeds like Jacob sheep.

If you have just one breed of sheep, this will obviously be simpler, but it may still be worthwhile to grade the fleeces for age and fineness, putting similar age and quality fleeces together in batches. You don’t want the fine lambswool to get muddled up with the coarse fleece from the ram!

Fleece in the post

The sorted fleece can then be packed into clean paper or woven plastic bags, which allow it to “breathe” during transport, and sealed up with cable ties. Each bag needs to be clearly labelled, and the entire batch accompanied by a letter with your details and the processing requirements.

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If you live relatively locally to a mill, it’s usually possible to deliver the fleece in person, or you can send it by courier. “I actually arranged to have mine collected at a show where the Natural Fibre Company had a stand,” says Kay, “then I collected it at another show later in the year, to save on costs.” However you deliver it, you’ll need to let the mill know the fleece is on its way so they will be expecting it.

Wash and dry

At the mill, your fleece starts by being sorted again, which is usually a relatively quick business if you’ve done a thorough job at home. It’s then assessed to make sure it’s suitable for the type of processing you’ve asked for.

If they feel the fleece is unsuitable, the mill will get in touch with you and suggest an alternative, but if you’ve sent good fleece and “done your homework” about suitable processing beforehand, this problem shouldn’t arise.

The fleece is then washed and tumble-dried, before having a water and oil mix added to prepare it for spinning.

From fleece to yarn

The next step depends on the type of yarn you’ve chosen. Fleece for woollen-type yarns will be carded into broad “batts” of fibre, like sheets of loft insulation, and then divided into narrower strips called “slubbings.” 

Fleece for worsted-type yarns are put through a combing and “gilling” machine to produce a fine, silky, rope-like “top.” These soft tubes of fibre are then fed into the spinning machine, where they are twisted into yarn and wound onto large cones. From the cones, the single strand yarns are plied together, made into skeins or balls of a specified weight, and finally washed to remove the spinning oil. Extra treatments such as dying the yarn, or fitting paper ball-bands are usually available.

Back home

Your finished yarn can be collected in person, or sent back by courier. The whole process from shearing to finished yarn can take three to four months, depending on how busy the mill is, but it’s always well worth the wait, and the cost.

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Mill-spinning is a significant outlay – “the price varies but averages out at about £40 per kilogram of raw fleece,” says Kay – but the end result is a high-quality, high value product, not to mention there being a certain thrill in seeing your flock’s shaggy coats coming back as neat, perfect skeins of yarn.

“Having your own home grown fibre mill-spun is both rewarding and exciting to see when it returns,” enthuses Kay. “I would definitely recommend it!”

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This article was first published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe here or call 01778 393313.

Photos courtesy of Kay Dalloway/A Cookley Yarn and Sam Morgan Moore/The Natural Fibre Company