The Field Guide to Fleece - Book Review

The book I wanted to review today actually was recommended to me by Marie Spaulding, and now I'm recommending it to you. It also has nothing and everything to do with felting, but if you enjoy working with wool in any capacity, you'll want either this or its big brother The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. They're actually both put together by the same authors, but the field guide is much smaller, something you'd be likely to bring with you to a fiber festival. It is also apparently about 100 breeds shorter, which sounds like a lot until you realize the field guide itself has 100 sheep breeds. The larger book contains other fiber-producing animals, not just sheep, while the Field Guide focuses on sheep only. 

A little backstory: when I first started felting, I honestly thought there were only like 20 or so sheep breeds for producing fiber. Actually, maybe less than that initially. If you think about it, the only named breeds you might find while shopping for fiber for felting would be Corriedale, or Merino, or Romney. Then I purchased the Photo Guide to Felting, and the samples included in that book were quite a few more sheep breeds, ones I'd never heard of. I thought "Great! Now I have a more comprehensive list of fleece to look for!" Little did I know that even that list just barely scraped the surface.

Truth be told, the field guide to fleece really is like one of the popular "breeds books" except instead of focusing on the animal's temperament, it's focusing on the fleece. Each breed takes up a spread. On the left you have a one-to-two-paragraph write up, how well it takes dyes, how it's best used (even felters are occasionally mentioned, though not as often as you'd think, just on the popular ones we already know), and a photo of the sheep. On the right, you have a picture of one of the locks next to a ruler, a quick guide including origin, fleece weights (how much you could expect from a single sheep), staple length (average length of locks), fiber diameters (those are your micron counts), natural colors and a section for you to add your field notes. There's also a little interesting factoid at the bottom right of the page.

The reason I italicized how well it takes dyes is because I had no idea that different breeds of sheep take dyes differently. Did you know this? The thing is (oh this is so cool) wool can differ greatly even on the same sheep! You see, the fleeces we most often have readily available for felting come from single-coated sheep. That means the wool is all pretty much standard and consistent all over. However, just like dog breeds have single and double coats, certain breeds of sheep also have double coats. And, of course, I got to experiment with my first double coated sheep when I purchased the Icelandic fleece at the festival (more on that in a bit). In any case, a fleece might have hair, wool and also something called kemp. The hair is the long, straight stuff, the wool is what most of the fiber is like, and the kemp is (typically) short and brittle and hollow. The hollow fibers suck up dye without changing much at all. Spinning this half-dyed fleece would be a way to get tweed yarn. Another thing to note is that the overcoat is coarser (larger fiber diameter) than the undercoat, which can be soft and quite fine. When you process your own fleece, you always have the choice of separating the coats or just using them together as is, depending on your needs. 

field guide clun forest

If you enjoy wet felting, make sure you read the descriptions, because apparently not all fleeces will felt (something else I didn't know) - now, from what I'm understanding, "does not felt" pertains to wet felting/fulling, as in whether or not a sweater from it will shrink. Needle felting isn't as much of an issue, since we use needles to tangle the fibers together. Pretty much anything can be needle felted if you can get it as a fiber. Even poly-fill will "felt" even though you can't wet felt with it. 

As a needle felter, you will want to pay attention to the fiber diameters. Anything in the 25-40 micron range should feel pretty similar to what you've used thus far. A few breeds have micron counts below 25 (like Spaelsau, Santa Cruz, Rambouillet) which would be similar to Merino. Since most breeds seem to be within that "coarser" range, they should be fairly easy to needle felt. 

At first I wasn't sure what to do with the "field notes" section. The book suggests that you can write down the names of farms/suppliers as you go out and meet them; however if you do most of your shopping online in destash/discount groups or ebay (ebay is a great place to get fiber) and just grab whatever you need, I would think that it would have limited use. That is, until I picked up that Icelandic fleece at the fiber festival...


Now, I want to talk about something that isn't mentioned in the book, isn't really talked about online, and left me cursing under my breath quite a bit. SCURF. That is some really nasty stuff. Really really nasty stuff. It's like dandruff, but worse, because it's created by mites and nearly impossible to get out of the fleece. You can't scrub it out, can't card it out, and can't really pick it out. The only thing I read that really works is going over the fleece with a lice comb or using ammonia when washing the fleece. I may try that, but I can't stand the smell of ammonia so we'll see. I thought VM was the bane of my existence until I dealt with it for the first time. Imagine my horror when I was washing this fleece and these annoyingly stubborn specks just glowed at me from the dirty water. After some attempts to pick it out and cursing when unable to do so, I ran off to google "WTH IS THIS STUFF ON MY FLEECE?!" Well, after some searching, I learned that Icelandic fleece can be scurfy, which I assume means that I'm not the only one who's had this problem. Guess where I wrote that little note? Still, it is an otherwise beautiful fleece, and not all of the fiber is plagued with it, so... I'm just taking a deep breath and trying to get over the gross factor and annoyance of it. I am NOT faulting the shepherd, because apparently itch mites are difficult to spot so they would not necessarily know until after the fact; however I spotted it on the fleece prior to washing it, and I know that they divided it up because, thanks to The Field Guide to Fleece, I know the Icelandic sheep yield 4-7 lbs and these were split up into 1-2lb bags and skirted. So I guess it depends on how closely one looks at the fiber. I certainly did not at the festival, it wasn't until I started working on it. Then again, I didn't even know such a thing existed, or was problematic when it comes to getting it out.  

Here are the things I wish they'd added to the Field Guide. First, a chart with just the stats (weights, staple lengths, micron counts, etc) would be AWESOME. I may end up making an excel sheet based off that info, as it's much easier than skimming through the book. Second, if this book is meant to help guide fiber enthusiasts on buying fleeces, maybe a quick guide on how to pick a good fleece? And, on that note, reasons you might want to pass up a fleece. Like scurf. I know it's not fun to talk about, but spending our hard-earned dollars on a fleece that is more work than it's worth is not exactly a fun thing. Or, I could have at least haggled a bit. Or even just brought it to their attention so they can get their flock treated. Maybe I'll throw together a quick guide at some point to fill in the gaps. Either way, I do recommend getting either this book, or the big guide, or both. I will probably get the larger one at some point, but for now, at least my knowledge of available sheep breeds has expanded beyond the initial 20 or so breeds.