Sheep to Sweater – Part 1: Skirting Fleece

Click to watch the video!

I’m excited to start a project that I’ve imagined for several years: taking a freshly-shorn fleece from one of our sheep and cleaning it, spinning it into yarn, and knitting a sweater.

The first steps are to grow and harvest the wool, and I’ve already made a few blog posts and a video with advice about preparing for shearing day.

On the day of shearing, or soon after, you should skirt the fleece to remove any foreign material (debris, hay, etc.) or very matted or dirty fleece, to make the following processes easier.

Tips for skirting fleeces:

  1. Make sure you are healthy. You will be handling fleece that has manure in it and you want to take precautions. Check with your doctor about getting a tetanus booster if you haven’t had one in the last few years. Make sure your hands don’t have any open sores or cuts on them. Wear clothing that you can easily wash after working with raw wool. Don’t touch your face or rub your eyes while working. And of course, wash your hands after you finish.
  2. Build or borrow a skirting table. Your skirting table needs to be a work surface that can get dirty, and should have holes or slots to allow dirt, hay, and other debris to fall away from the fleece. If you can’t use a skirting table, you can cover a regular table with plastic to protect it from manure and grease.
  3. Set up your space. I prefer to work outside, and that means keeping an eye on the weather so that it’s not raining, and not windy (otherwise the fleece can blow away). If you’re working indoors make sure you have good lighting so you can see what you are doing. You’ll need a bag to gather up your skirted fleece and a second bag for discarded wool.
  4. Work quickly and efficiently. Lay the entire fleece out on your skirting table, cut side down, and gently shake it to encourage debris to fall out. Then work your way around the fleece, picking out second cuts, stickers or twigs, manure, dirty or stained wool, or sections that have become riddled with hay or matted. The first time you skirt a fleece you may be tempted to spend an hour (or more!) on the process, but ideally skirting should take no more than 5 minutes per fleece, especially if you have a lot of fleeces to get through.
  5. Store the skirted fleece in a clean bag until you are ready to wash it, which should take place within a few weeks of skirting. Unwashed fleece can become sticky and hard to clean as the lanolin begins to break down, stained from manure stored with the fleece, or infested with moths who will be attracted to the smell of raw fleece.
  6. The discarded wool can be used in a few ways: compost it with your regular vegetable compost; use it as a mulch around trees or shrubs; or discard it in the woods so that birds and other animals can use the wool as nest material.

If you wish to purchase a skirting table, farm equipment suppliers such as Sydell sell them, but these are large, heavy, and expensive, and probably not necessary unless you have hundreds of fleeces to skirt at a time.

To build a simple skirting table, use a clothes drying rack that has a flat top, and attach wire mesh or hardware cloth to the top. The holes in the mesh should be approximately 1/2 inch square, to allow debris to fall through.

Published by Sarah Scully

Sarah is a librarian as well as an avid knitter and occasional knitwear designer. She also enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking, reading, painting, and writing with fountain pens.