Humans began to domesticate sheep as far back as 11000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia with the earliest evidence of wool clothing dating back to 4000 BCE. Wool as well as sheep trading quickly spread across Africa and Europe. There is evidence of a wool processing factory dating back to 50 CE in England. Today, Australia and China are the largest wool producers in the world while the United States is the largest consumer of wool fabric.
There are five major steps to process wool from sheep to yarn. Those steps being: shearing, cleaning and scouring, grading and sorting, carding, and spinning.
Sheep are shorn once a year typically in the spring. Depending on the breed, the entire fleece coming off the sheep can weigh anywhere between 6 and 18 pounds. While there are new technologies that utilize robots to clip sheep, the process is still primarily done by hand with the most experienced of shearers able to shear up to 200 sheep a day.
After shearing, the fleece is graded and sorted based on quality and parts of the body. The highest quality wool typically comes from the shoulders and sides of the sheep, but in wool grading high quality doesn’t always mean high durability. Lesser quality fleece from the legs is typically used to make rugs.
Once the wool is sorted, it goes through the cleaning or scouring process. Raw wool directly taken from the sheep contains dirt, grease, and dried sweat. 30 – 70% of the fleece’s weight comes from the contaminants alone. The wool is scoured in alkaline baths to remove these impurities. The water is then squeezed out, but the wool is not allowed to dry completely.
From here, the wool fibers are carded to straighten and blend the fibers into what are called slivers. Carding also helps remove any residual dirt and other vegetable matter like burrs or seeds. Depending on whether the final yarn is intended to be woolen or worsted determines the next steps before spinning.
After carding, wool intended for woolen yarn is split into strips called slubbings then spun into yarn. Worsted processing goes through another step called gilling which straightens the fibers by stretching the sliver, then combed to remove the shorter fibers. Before worsted wool can be spun, it is made into a roving which is about 40 times thinner than a sliver.
There are slight differences in appearance of worsted and woolen yarn after it is spun. Worsted yarn tends to feel heavier and evenly distributed. Woolen yarn feels lighter and can have more of a halo effect if the fibers are fuzzy.
Choosing between woolen or worsted all depends on personal preference for your project. Worsted yarns tend to have better stitch definition and durability, but not as much warmth as woolen yarn. However, woolen yarn is subject to piling as it abrades faster than worsted.
In addition to worsted or woolen processing, sheep breed can also affect the nature of the yarn. Merino is by far the most common wool breed as all other fine wool breeds are Merino based. It has a nice balance of strength and softness and is fantastic on its own or blended with other fibers. Long wool sheep breeds like Romney or Shetland have longer staple lengths and a natural luster. They are extremely durable, but usually are blended with other fibers to add softness.
If you don't find exactly what you want, or would like a yarn recommendation, please call the shop directly at 800-441-9665 or contact us for assistance.
Online Yarn Discounts*
Purchase 10 yarn items (balls, skeins, or cones) and receive 5% off each.
Purchase 15 yarn items (balls, skeins, or cones) and receive 10% off each.
Purchase 24 yarn items (balls, skeins, or cones) and receive 15% off each.
*Offer does not apply to any yarns noted as discontinued, specials or sales.