This year, I got to see another side of the lovable Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, by helping out as a volunteer on the Fleece Sale.
A fleece sale, for those not familiar with the concept, is a chance for handspinners to buy a raw, unprocessed whole fleece, just as it comes from the freshly shorn sheep. Raw fleeces are full of all kinds of stuff: bits of weeds and vegetable matter that has clung to the sheep, fresh moist natural lanolin, pleasant ripe animal smells, and -- most of all -- possibility.
The SVFF fleece sale is juried, meaning the fleeces are inspected for quality by an expert judge before being admitted into the sale. It's a big job for the two experts, and so there are opportunities for willing volunteers to help with the physical labor, listen, and learn.
The day before the festival begins, the shepherds bring their fleeces to the judges to be evaluated and entered in the sale. Some bring just a couple of fleeces, and others bring half a dozen or more, each a large double-armful in its own plastic bag.
Now the volunteers swing into action. One writes up tags, noting down the shepherd and the breed or hybrid of the sheep that supplied each fleece, and often the individual sheep's own name. Others empty the fleece from its plastic bag onto a mesh table, loose debris falling through onto the concrete floor.
Spreading out a fleece so it can be examined is a careful job. A skilled shearer will have trimmed the fleece off a sheep all in one big piece that hangs together in the shape of the animal itself, a phantom sheepskin rug. It's easy enough to dump the bundled fleece out of its bag, but the mass of wool must then be gently picked open and fully unrolled on the table, without the loosely linked clumps of wool becoming tangled and breaking apart from the delicate whole-body shape.
After the fleece is unrolled, the volunteers check it over quickly for any bits and pieces that should come out. The shepherd will already have taken out the mucky parts and poor quality areas around the hindquarters. But still, there are smaller things to be removed, like second cuts (bits of short, unusable wool where the shepherd ran the clippers over an overlapping spot again), or burrs and noticeable bits of hay or weeds.
Then the expert judges are called over. They plunge experienced hands in to feel the fineness of the wool. They check the length of the fibers in the locks of wool. They test small clumps for soundness, both visually and by a good sharp lengthwise tug. They assign the fleece to a category, be it fine, medium, long, or double-coated. Sometimes the category is clear from the sheep's breed, and sometimes the judges rely on their own assessment, particularly for hybrids, which can vary widely from one individual to another. They write notes on the fleece's tag, commenting on such things as the quality of the wool, the color, the length, the cleanness, or appropriate uses, to provide guidance for buyers.
When the judges finish with each fleece, the volunteers fold and roll it into a neat ball, stuff it back into its bag, and cart it to its spot on the long table of fleeces for sale.
It wasn't glamorous work. The temperature hit 98 degrees that day. Each fleece typically weighed 4-7 pounds. The wool was full of dirt and grease, and our hands shone from the lanolin. We were grubby and hot. But it was fascinating, and I learned a lot. One thing I found interesting is that the judges actually did reject a few fleeces, for instance, if there was a weak spot in the length of the wool resulting from the animal having an episode of poor health as it grew. Truly, only good-quality fleeces were accepted for the sale.
And the day was at times poignant. I met shepherds who handed over a number of fleeces with obvious pride, shepherds who hoped their fleeces would sell to bring in some money to keep the flock fed, and one dear lady who shears her sheep with ordinary scissors and great care.
To a spinner's eyes, a fleece is just beautiful. Just look at that rich natural color, with the tips of the sheep's coat lightened a little bit by its year in the sun.
Lovely as they are, though, I resisted buying one the next day when they went on sale. I've processed one small fleece so far, and it takes some time. The lanolin and dirt have to be washed out in a series of hot baths, the fleece laid out to dry, and the sweet-smelling clumps of clean wool carded or combed, and put away ready for spinning. I'm game to do it again, but not just yet. I've got a lot of work to do first to clear the decks.
So it wasn't easy, but I held back from buying both there and the following week at the Fall Fiber Festival, where I strolled purely as a shopper.
I simply gave the fleece sale tent a wide berth and stayed as far away as possible from temptation. :)