Although we discussed skirting briefly in this post, I thought it would be beneficial to go into more depth. Skirting is one of those processes that is sometimes misunderstood. In some ways, it sounds straight forward and in other ways it isn’t. Skirting is the process of removing the outer edges of the fleece and any bits that have a lot of vegetable matter or other matter in it.
When we look at a sheep, the prime fleece (or firsts) is located on the animal’s back. This is usually the softest, cleanest and most consistent part of the fleece. Around the sides and the neck are consider seconds (not to be confused with second cuts). These are the parts of the fleece that are often coarser, shorter, stained and/or dirtier. Thirds sections of the fleece that may be felted, heavy with vegetable matter, or otherwise unusable.
When Joanna of Wildflower Acres skirts a fleece for hand spinners, she has an eye for detail. She begins on the underside, picking out and second cuts or visible vegetation. Second cuts are short bits of fiber, usually less than an inch long, where a shearer went over the same place in the fleece twice. A fleece with many second cuts is a sign of an inexperienced shearer and is often considered undesirable. Joanna’s husband, Ken, does the shearing for their flock, and is a obviously skilled. As she skirted Glacier’s fleece for me, there were very few second cuts in the fleece.
The fleece is then flipped over and the brunt of the work begins. First, she works around the edge of the fleece, removing most of the outer edge of the fleece. For Glacier’s fleece, she worked maybe 8-12″ into the fleece, removing a large amount of fiber. My first instinct was “wait, I’d still spin that,” but she was able to point out that much of what she left had vegetation in it that I hadn’t seen at first glance.
She even mentioned that she’d spin seconds for small projects and much of the fiber is still good, but she is very discerning as to what constitutes firsts and seconds. With Glacier’s fleece, despite heavy skirting, I still came home with more than nine pounds of fiber. She removed several spots of vegetation from the center of the fleece as well.
The final step is to fold the fleece up and bag it. Joanna suggests keeping the tip ends of the fleece together to prevent the fleece from sticking to itself and this makes it easier to roll out when you unbag it. When I began to sort locks after I brought the fleece home, it became clear that I really made it home with the creme de la creme.
When purchasing a fleece, it is important to know whether or not the fleece has been skirted. A farm that has a background serving hand spinners will always skirt their fleeces. However, you may run into farmers new to selling to hand spinners who don’t. If you are paying the same price per pound for an unskirted fleece as you would for a skirted fleece, you are paying the same price for waste fiber in addition to the prime fiber you may want.
Ask to lay out the fleece and take a look at it. If the seller balks, I consider it a red flag. A good seller wants you to see the quality of the fleece you’re buying. Even if it is skirted, ask yourself if it is well-skirted or if you may have to further skirt when you get home. If it is unskirted, make sure that is factored into the price and be ready to lay out your fleece and take a good look at it when you get home. Separating out the prime fleece is an important step in making the yarn you want. Save your seconds for a different project.