Thursday, January 19, 2012

Further notes on Arapawa sheep and their fleece

Wedge from Warwickz Farm
In discussing these sheep and their qualities with other people, including other hand spinners I discovered there are two discordant opinions about the fibre from ‘don’t bother spinning the fleece which is always rubbish’ to ‘this is a really interesting fibre and feels like merino’.

carded batts and handspun yarn

ewe and lamb from Warwickz farm

From further reviewing other Arapawa fleeces from different sources I can begin to see why there might be such a divergence. The fleeces can have some variation from each animal and even within a single fleece. It is short too. Washing it makes the staples appear even shorter. This isn’t a problem if you are prepared to change your hand movements a little to accommodate and spin finer. The fleeces I have are easier to prepare for spinning than a merino fleece but some of the same issues arise. For example once the grease is removed the staples are light and curl around making the fibre look disorganised. Care is required not to card neps into the fibre. Over carding causes these small noils throughout the batt. In fact I have found it difficult to make an absolutely smooth preparation without hand combing this fibre. This is not really a problem as it just creates a yarn with a little more texture, ‘tweediness’ and a rustic look to it. The wool does puffs up and fills the carding surface. There are also variations in colour across the fleece so the yarns have a heathered appearance which I find really pleasant too. Whilst some information sources suggest the Arapawa fleece can be as low as 11 microns my fleeces feel like they have a wide micron variation in even a single fleece with different diameter fibre present sprinkled throughout the fleece. Some are more uniform than others.

handwoven fabric from the arapawa fleece shown
In hand combing some fleece (which is the only way to obtain a smooth preparation with this fibre) I pondered on whether Arapawa had reverted back to a primitive fleece which would explain the big variation in micron throughout the fleeces.
 Imagine my surprise when I pulled off the top from the stationary comb to find I had separated two shades of the grey. The steel grey colour was in the longest fibre coming off first followed by the shorter brown-grey ones. This is not that unusual as you can do this with lamb fleeces from Gotland sheep who change colour from black to grey after a few weeks of life. However the shorter brown grey fibres were softer and felt more merino-like than the longer grey ones. Whilst the difference in feel is not as obvious as an Icelandic sheep’s two fibre types, the length of isolation and number of generations of sheep living alone on the island could have encouraged these sheep to grow a softer warmer undercoat with the longer, stronger fibres providing some protection from the weather as in Scottish Hebridian sheep.  I would need to sample many more fleeces to test this theory. To spin a smooth yarn without the variations in colour contrasting too much in the yarn (unless desired) I recarded the top now free of any noils on the drumcarder.

cosy handspun hat from carded and spun fleece

  Why bother to spin such a variable fibre you may ask?

Because they are extraordinary sheep. They have survived living feral for over 100 years, no easy task for a domesticated animal. They have been hunted almost to extinction. They are still shot today for the trophy of a fine pair of horns. Although game farming has also helped the breed’s survival. They are a rare genetic pool of traits (such as possibly a higher tolerance to fly strike) desirable but lost in modern sheep and they represent a living history of New Zealand’s past. The properties in their fleece are unusual and interesting to spin. Being so few in number it is a treat to handle fibre that is generally unknown and scarce.
Asking for and using fibre from rare breeds of sheep encourages people to keep breeding these sheep.
A big thank you to Elaine and Chris from Warwickz Farm near Christchurch for sending me the beautiful photos of their sheep. They have accommodation if you want to stay on the farm.
Elaine writes that her rams are all good natured and handle well in the yards but can jump if ‘they feel they need to’. I think ‘Wedge’ is just gorgeous with his impressive horns.

 The cloth samples in the photos need to be felt to appreciate the bouncy elasticity of the fibre. Overdyed in the indigo vat it developed a lovely dark blue tweedy shade. This is hand combed top spun for warp thread for my loom.
Different weaving patterns show off the bounce in the fibre
The cloth samples will be crossing to the North Island and back to the sheep owner from whence the fibre came from. I’m looking forward to putting more from these sheep onto my loom.
NB part 1 can be found here.