Presentations following a wool fleece competition on Saturday, Oct. 12, will enlighten festival goers on the surprisingly wide variety of wools in the world. Last year, more than 70 fleeces from 50 breeds of sheep were entered in the competition. A fleece is a shearing of one year’s growth of wool.
“Sheep aren’t all just white—they’re brown, black, gray,” said Julie Noh, a sheep producer in Kimberly, Idaho, and a festival board member. “They come in all colors and textures—they’re coarse, they’re smooth, they’re soft.”
The fleece competition will include measurement of the fineness of each fleece by an optical fiber diameter analyzer. Ron Cole, one of the judges and a wool education consultant with the American Sheep Industry Association, said the device can measure the diameters of 30,000 fibers in 30 seconds. He said a human hair is 50 microns in diameter, while wool fibers measure from 20 to 40 microns.
Cole said there are 88 breeds of sheep in the United States, chosen for their fitness to local climates and for the type of wool they produce. Those in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have coarse wool of between 35 and 40 microns to protect them from the wet climate there. That wool is used for outerwear, including felted clothing. Cole said that grade of wool is protective but itchy—you wouldn’t want to wear it next to your skin.
In the warm, dry climate of Texas and New Mexico, he said, sheep typically have wool of about 20 microns. He said fine wools, which can range down to 18 microns, are very easy on the skin.
“It feels like silk,” he said.
Cole said the fine-fleeced breeds were originally imported from Europe in the 1600s—Rambouillets from France and Merinos from Spain.
In the middle ground are the sheep raised in the Rocky Mountains, which have wool in the 23-26 micron range.
“We want something that’s hardy and can do well in the dry conditions here,” Noh said.
Cole said wool is a secondary product of Idaho sheep, which are raised mostly for lamb production. He said four breeds of sheep predominate in south-central Idaho—Columbia, Rambouillet, Suffolk and Hampshire. Ewes of the first two, white-faced, varities are bred with black-faced rams of the latter two, producing speckled-faced lambs valued for their meat.
“He weighs more and he grows faster,” Cole said.
Cole said the Columbias have medium-coarse wool and the Suffolks and Hampshires, originally from rainy England, have coarse wool. He said a lot of Idaho’s wool is sold to Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland, Ore., to make shirts and blankets.
Cole said wool can absorb up to 80 percent of its weight in water and retain half its insulating capacity. He said synthetic fabrics absorb virtually no water but don’t insulate as well.
Cole said recent development of new wool products has been stimulated by military uses to produce fabrics, some blended with synthetics, that are washable, nonshrinking and low-microbial, which means they don’t smell. He said several companies have new sock lines with more loft, comfort and durability.
He said all the washable, nonshrinking wool fabric sold in the United States comes from a factory in Jamestown, S.C., which went into operation about two years ago using technology developed in Europe. The process treats the microscopic “scales” on the fibers—the larger the scales, the coarser the wool—so they cannot lock down and cause felting and shrinkage.
Judging for the fleece competition will take place at the National Guard Armory in Hailey at 10:30 a.m. It is closed to the public, but a public discussion of the judging will follow.
Lonna Alexander-Steele, a fiber arts instructor living in McCall, Idaho, will demonstrate general fleece processing and preparation for spinning from 12:30-1:30 p.m.
At 2 p.m., Cole and Lisa Surber of the Montana Wool Lab at Montana State University in Bozeman will give a wool skirting and grading educational program and talk about what’s new in wool. Cole said the presentation will be geared both toward the general public and toward sheep producers to help them improve the quality of their wool and maximize their profits.