Earlier this month I ordered a lock sampler from Sherry Tenney; she was running a 4th of July deal 5lbs for $50. Granted, I'm still working through the fleeces I've already got, but this was too good to pass up. $10/lb is not a bad price at all. When I ordered I requested no Lincoln since I bought a fleece of it last year, but otherwise left it open to "surprise me." So, of course, it was like a fiber afficionado's christmas when it finally arrived. Upon opening I found Cotswold, Romney, Icelandic (which I also had but forgot, lol), Border Leicester, and Racka. I'd heard of/used all of them except Racka, which is so rare on this side of the world that it didn't even get a mention in The Field Guide to Fleece book. Maybe it's in the bigger fleece book, which I don't have yet. Anyway, I just had to see what this looks like washed, dried and dyed. Oh, and the moment my daughter saw it she said she wanted it to be the unicorn hair for the unicorn she wants me to make for her. Side note, if you want to keep up on what's being listed, I recommend joining her group on Facebook. Things don't stay listed for long. Also, if you're looking for a specific (raw) fleece, she can get it for you. I pulled a lock out of the bag and measured, it was 10" long! I'd never heard of Racka before, so I looked it up.
The Racka (another name for the Wallachian sheep) hail from Hungary, and have gorgeous, straight, corkscrew horns, which both sexes possess, that can reach up to 2ft in length on rams. Ewes' horns are a bit shorter. They come in a wide range of colors, from black with reddish tips, to brown to white. The fiber can have a huge range from coarse to fine, and staples average 12" in length. The only way to obtain this fleece in the US is to import it - they cannot be exported to the US. Not sure if that's true for other countries.
So, onto the fleece I got. It cleaned up beautifully, with a bright white undercoat and long straight top coat that ends in golden-cream tips. Granted, I've never worked with this fleece before, so I'm not sure if the tips are stained - the topcoat is really coarse so it's difficult to tell if it's dry. If I had to give it a comparison, I'd say it feels a bit like horse hair, though not nearly as coarse. Horse hair ranges 50-150 microns, the mane being the softest.
And yes, you read that right, this is a double-coated sheep, with hair and wool (and kemp). This is different than working with the more popular wool breeds here, where what you shear is what you get. Wash, dye, start felting (or spinning, spinners are welcome here too). My first time working with a double coated fleece was last year when I got my hands on some Icelandic, and I noticed that there were two different types of fibers. Actually I noticed that they came apart by total accident and I freaked out momentarily thinking I "broke" it. These fleeces have a longer fiber (the top coat), and a softer shorter fiber (the undercoat). And double coated fleece also tend to have something called kemp, which is short, brittle, and more coarse. I noticed when I shook out the washed and dryed fleece to fluff it up a bit (and to get the VM out), there was a fine dusting of short little hairs floating in the air in the light. I tried to separate some of the kemp from the wool in the photo below but I'm not sure it worked out quite as well as I hoped (also, there is a lot more wool in this lock, I just set some of it aside).
examining the fiber
Now, a cool little tidbit about kemp. Kemp his hollow, which means that when you dye it, the dye tends to hide inside the hollow fibers. So it will look like it didn't dye or you'll barely see it. This is how true tweeds were produced. Most tweed yarns you'll find now are made to look that way commercially, and from what I've read, it seems that the type of fleeces that produce true tweeds are pretty coarse, aka the type that are going to be really scratchy. Modern tweed materials are made using softer wools so it's not an issue, but if you were to come across your grandfather's or great-grandfather's tweed jacket, you'd know what I mean. They're certainly tough though, and hold up well.
The staples in this fleece appear to be on average 10-13 inches in length (the first one I pulled out of the bag prior to washing was 10). The top one you can see with the top and undercoat still together, and the bottom one you can see the hair on its own. Together they create a triangle-shaped lock, and to separate them you just grab the bottom firmly while slowly pulling the hair. They should separate quite easily. People who spin will often spin the two together, since the wool is crimpier so it'll give it loft, while the hair will help gift it strength. As a needle felter I see another purpose - the undercoat should be great for needle felting, and the hair will make great locks.
After being separated, the undercoat is very lofty and surprisingly soft in comparison to the hair. I don't have the means to measure the diameter of the fiber, so I do the skin test. I grab the wool and hold it against my neck. If it's too scratchy it's coarse, if it's pleasant/silky it's fine, and then there's everything else in between. This is in-between/bordering on coarse, as in when I place it on my neck it's not bothersome, but there are a few prickly bits.
Also, the lock is mostly undercoat. The other picture I took I only showed a bit of it, as the entire fluff was too big to fit with the other two for a good picture. You get a surprising amount of wool just out of one lock.
This is how much yarn I was able to spin out of the wool of one lock. Granted, I'm not a spinner, and the only spinning I do is just tiny samples on a stick of some sort (here I used a paint brush). Some day I'll get into spinning and already have a few wheels in mind. I don't knit, and I used to crochet (this was 10 years ago), so this would mainly be for the purpose of spinning art yarns, ones I could use in my projects or for weaving. In any case, I was rather impressed with how much wool there was in one lock with the hair removed.
Side note: I'm curious if anyone has spun an entire yarn on a stick. It's a great alternative to twiddling your thumbs.
Do you see it? At the tips (or rather the ends) of the fleece, flecks of white fibers? That would be kemp. You could keep throwing dye at it and it just won't take. I've seen this with my Icelandic as well. I'd try adding a bit of acid to it, there was still dye in the bath, making sure that the wool was submerged, etc., and nothing. And I'd know there was still dye in the bath because if my dye is done, I like to throw a bit of wool in there to soak up the rest (I'll get into this more in next week's post on immersion dyeing).
Did I mention that I'm in love? Also did I mention getting these colors took two tries? Maybe I did, maybe I didn't... There was a definite blooper before I got this result, which ended up looking like a brunette who loves to dye their hair and the colors faded. In any case, Racka took the dye amazingly well. It may not be lustrous, but it's saturated.
Just one more photo for drooling purposes. I almost don't want to use this for the rainbow dash project that it was dyed for, just stuff it in an apothecary jar on a shelf for decorative purposes. I love processing and dyeing wool simply for the sake of seeing what colors I get, even if I never end up using it.
This wouldn't be a blog about felting if I didn't tell you how it felts. For the purpose of this test I'm talking about needle felting. If I ever decide to wet felt and find a reason to include this fleece, I'll add it in an update.
While playing around with this wool, I learned there are two ways to use it. The first is to separate the hair and the wool, which is what I did here. If you intend to use the entire lock (and to feature it in a way that shows off the lock) then keep it intact. I'll explain...
Felting with just the wool, hair removed, was fairly easy. It took me about 5 minutes using a double 38 spiral to felt the wool into this 2 inch by 1 inch egg. It is rather hairy, and does not leave a smooth finish (those little fibers sticking out just did not want to get poked in), but it does felt. It's worth keeping that in mind if you were to use it for a project, because you might be going for an effect that does not leave a smooth finish.
If you were to ball up the whole thing, hair and wool together, and felt that as a core (I have no idea why you would do that, why waste the beautiful hair), you'll be pretty frustrated. Unless you wrapped the hair up inside the wooly part. On the outside it just won't felt like that. I did try, for science.
If you want to attach a lock with a bit of fullness to it, keep it intact. The wool will help give it volume. The hair by itself will lay rather flat when you attach it. You can attach/needle felt the hair from the root end just fine. The tips on the other hand have zero desire to be felted. Give yourself extra room to attach it, like an inch or so. If you don't have as much room to attach the hair/lock, then leave it all intact, and the wool will help you attach it to the piece. Another option would be to cover up where you attached it with more wool. I will warn you that due to the thickness of the hair, the needle gets quite a bit of resistance, so for attaching purposes you might want to go even heavier-duty than a 38g. More like a 36 or lower. But it is doable with a 38.
That's all I got for you regarding Racka. I'll try to remember to post a photo of the finished project here where I include racka, so you can see how it looks featured. If you love exploring different fleeces and seeing what you can come up with, I'd definitely add this one to your list, just because it's so completely different and would possibly open up additional possibilities for your projects.