Spinning shearling is a sure way to get pilling – those small bobbles that rub up on bought knitted garments nowadays. Shearling wool contains the short fibres from the lamb wool grown in its first year. Lambs are not usually shorn in their first year. When the short (lamb) and long (shearling, 2nd year growth) fibres are spun in the same yarn the short fibres work to the surface – due to friction of wear – and cause those annoying characteristic bobbles known in the trade as ‘pilling’. Sometimes the lamb wool is on the tips of the locks, but in this one it is at the bottom and is a darker grey which comes away in your fingers leaving the longer, lighter fibres clearly visible.
It is a common problem, and devices exist to remove the bobbles -it happens on expensive knitted garments not just cheap stuff and is due to shearling wool being used in commercial production. So how does one avoid it? You can’t easily, but once upon a time things were different…
As a farmers wife in the 1960s I had to carefully roll every fleece immediately after shearing to present the best part of the fleece to the wool graders, and still have it hold together in one piece. After I had rolled the fleece I used to stitch them into sheets – 40 at at time I think it was – and they were sent to Stamford Wool Growers huge warehouse for grading. This was an amazing sight – the graders were surrounded by an array of large rectangular baskets. A young lad would cut the sheet open and slide each fleece one at a time along a table to the wool grader. The wool grader looked at it – pulled a bit of fleece out, passed judgement, and then hurled the fleece into the appropriate basket. Payment was for what was in each basket. Farmers got paid according to quality in those days and fleece was sorted prior to any processing taking place. In this way the shearling fleece was separated out and sold separately, regardless of breed or quality. Nowadays things are different. Today, I believe wool is sold commercially according colour, weight at a wholesale price or exported ungraded.
Hence the problem was avoided in the past by previously sorting the fleece, but as this doesn’t take place in the same way any more, we now have to put up with pilling – no matter how much we pay for knitwear. This is why I never recommend new spinners to buy shearling fleece as it is tiring and time-consuming to comb out every lock to get rid of the short fibres. Spinning time is quality time and spinners deserve quality fibre and products, not second rate stuff. No-one wants their carefully handspun yarn to pill! I feel there is such a lot of fleece to choose from at the moment so why bother with shearlings? Unless you like combing and carding or don’t mind pilling of course…or its a special sheep…like this one from Tom Wallace’s flock at Stoke Albany some of which I am going to spin for him anyway – he won’t care if his beanie hat pills!