Skirting Your Fleece

Wool Fleece

Skirting is the process of removing “junk” wool, stains, second cuts and vegetable matter (VM) from the wool fleece prior to processing it ~~ or offering it for sale.  

The skirting process is usually done by the shepherd after the fleece is shorn and requires a special skirting table with an open mesh top. The table must be large enough to lay the entire fleece out flat – cut side down, tips up and the head and tail ends identified. A skirting table may be made simply by the handy-man (many plans are available) OR purchased ready-made.

The first step is to work around the fleece giving each part a light shaking. This allows most of any second cuts to fall through the mesh. ‘Second cuts’ are a fault in hand-spinning fleeces and, unless removed from the fleece, they will cause neps in carded wool. They’re caused by the shearer making a second pass over the sheep during shearing to give the shorn animal a neater appearance.

The next step is to actually skirt the fleece: Pick a starting point, such as the tail, and work all the way around the fleece removing from 2 to 4 inches of wool all the way around – exactly how light or heavy of skirting is needed depends entirely on the cleanliness and quality of the fleece. Remove any tags (dung or stained wool) at the tail, skirt away the lower leg wool and evaluate the britch (upper leg) wool for kemp (hair fibers) and skirt those off.

Then, skirt away any belly wool if the shearer has not tossed this aside when shearing – some shearers will do this, some won’t. Next, skirt away the front leg wool and the head wool. Then work down the other side the same way, back to the tail.

Now, look at the fleece. Are there any stains? If so, skirt away those areas. Look for areas with a lot of VM and skirt those areas away too.

Finally, check the fleece for tippiness and for wool breaks. Tippiness is caused mainly by weathering and is most likely to occur along the spine. Pull a small lock no thicker than a pencil and hold it by the butt (cut) end. Grasp the tip between the nails of your thumb and index fingers and give it a little tug. If the tip broke off, then the fleece is tippy. Skirt the tippy area away – the tips will break off when the fleece is carded and form neps in the carded preparation.
Wool breaks are also easy to detect. Look at a lock of the fleece – is there an area in the staple length that looks thinner? Take a small lock of fleece and firmly grasp it by the cut end with one hand and the tip end in the other. Give it a tug. Does it come apart? To confirm that there is a break, take a thin lock, maybe half the diameter of a pencil, grasp it in both hands, hold it up to your ear and pull. Do you hear crackling or ripping sound? If so, that’s a wool break. This would not be a good, sound fleece.

Alpaca Fleece

The best fleece comes from the saddle of the alpaca (i.e. along the back, side, shoulder and rump). Neck fleece is next in quality, followed by the coarser fiber on the legs and belly. These different qualities should always be kept separate. Stains, tags and burrs need to be removed. Before carding, always take a handful of fleece and give it a good shake. Repeat this step until the fleece is completed. This will remove most of the loose VM.

Mohair

Remove all sweaty, short, discolored or kempy mohair, cotted, tags and water stained fleece. With kempy areas, which are mainly along the back line of the animal, this will also have to be removed. In some cases it will be necessary to remove excessive VM.

Once the fleece is skirted, it’s ready to roll for storage. To roll the fleece, first fold both sides in to the spine. Pick off any remaining second cuts. Then go to the tail end and roll the fleece toward the head end just like a jelly roll. Don’t forget to pick off any second cuts.

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