The Spinner’s Book of Fleece by Beth Smith

When I started spinning last April, I did something I almost never do: I went into it blind.  I love research.  I’m the person who reads and reads and learns the nuances of something before I dive in and start doing it.  I knew I wanted to learn to spin, so when I went to The Fiber Event in Greencastle, I planned to try out wheels so I could start to get an idea which wheel I liked best.  I did not expect to buy a wheel, but that’s exactly what I did.  I spun a little bit with almost no instruction, then started looking for resources to learn more.  It was then, in mid-May, that I found The Spinner’s Book of Fleece by Beth Smith on Amazon.  I preordered it and totally forgot until I got the e-mail telling me that it had shipped!  The book is both more and less than I expected, and I truly love it for what it is.

The Spinner’s Book of Fleece: A Breed-by-Breed Guide to Choosing and Spinning the Perfect Fiber for Every Purpose

What the Book Is Not

If you, as I did, read the subtitle of this book and thought it was going to be an encyclopedia of breeds with instructions for the best methods of spinning each one, you, like I was, would be not exactly wrong, but perhaps confused.  This is the major point at which the book was less than I expected it to be.  The last 5 chapters of the book do including breed-specific information.  Each of these chapters include groupings of sheep breeds based on fleece characteristics.  At the beginning of each chapter, there is a two-page spread that lists breeds in that category and characteristics of their fleeces.  There is a total of 42 sheep breeds listed in this fashion.  The majority of the chapter is a closer look at a few of those breeds, with detailed descriptions of fleece preparation and varying spinning techniques.  A total of 19 sheep breeds are examined in this detailed fashion.  The book only discusses sheep and does not include any other fiber animal.

What the Book Is

If I were subtitling this book, I would call it The Spinner’s Book of Fleece: How to Hand Process Raw Fleece into the Perfect Yarn for Your Purpose and Why You Should.  I would have hesitated to buy the book if that were its subtitle.  I want to hand process a raw fleece sometime, just to say that I did, but I don’t expect to do it regularly.  This is likely the reason the book isn’t subtitled as I suggest, even though it is more representative of scope of the book.  The number of people interested in hand-processing raw fleece is certainly a small percentage of the total number of spinners!  However, I would have been wrong to hesitate, even if I were not yet a spinner.  I found the book to be a wonderful education in the ways that the process of creating yarn affects the objects that will be crafted with that yarn.  These are details I have never considered before.  I haven’t taken all those details in yet, but already the information in this book is changing how I think about creating not just yarn, but also knitted and crocheted objects.  I am certain that I will reread and consult this book regularly.

Introduction: Spinning with Purpose and Confidence

The introduction is short, only 5 pages.  As you would expect, it is an overview of the author’s approach and methods in the book.  The most important part of the introduction is this:

I had several goals in mind when writing this book.  The first and most obvious is to show spinners all that is possible to do with a wool just by combining a variety of preparation techniques with a range of spinning methods.  Because the kinds of yarns you can spin are endless, what I illustrate here is just a taste.  Second, but maybe more important, I hope to help spinners learn to try things just for the joy of experimentation, to get beyond worrying about doing it “wrong,” and to stop thinking that they will somehow ruin the wool.  In my spinning life, I’ve had an abundance of yarns gone wrong, but those accidents have taught me more than I have ever learned from my “successes.”

You might say Beth Smith is a process spinner!  She does care a great deal about the final product too, as I will discuss a little later.  But it is her love of the process, and her attention to every small detail of the process that shines through on every page of The Spinner’s Book of Fleece.

Chapter 1: The Value of Raw Fleece

As we all know, fiber has a way of drawing you deeper once you take a small step towards it.  You pick up a hook or needles and some Red Heart at your local big box craft store and before you know it, you have a stash of indie-dyed sock yarn and you accidentally bought a spinning wheel.  This is one of the reasons behind the name of my blog: Through the Yarny Curtain.  I have a literal curtain of yarn in my office and the title is an invitation into my fibery world.  In my head, I picture walking through that curtain of yarn and emerging in a fantastical world, like Alice in Wonderland.  Beth Smith gets this:

I began knitting because there were things I wanted that I couldn’t find in the store.  I began spinning because I was curious about where yarn comes from.  I continued spinning prepared fiber from a mill because I realized that I could make yarns I couldn’t find in the store.  Preparing your own fiber from raw fleece takes that exploration one step further.

After that introductory paragraph, the chapter walks through processing a fleece.  Skirting, scouring, storing, and the tools used in hand-processing fleece are all covered in this chapter.  There is also a brief description of how to spin worsted versus woolen and the tools a spinner needs.

Chapter 2: Buying a Fleece: Dos and Don’ts

This chapter walks you through the process of buying a fleece, from deciding how much you need to buy to evaluating the fleece.  She describes and includes pictures of potential problems, like second cuts and staining, and explains why these things are or are not a problem.  The chapter concludes with a short discussion of carpet beetles and moths, describing how to store your fleece to avoid these pests and how to manage an infestation should one occur.

Throughout this book, I came across lines that I just loved.  Sometimes they were funny, sometimes joyful, sometimes profound, sometimes just exquisitely perfect in their description.  One of my favorites was in this chapter.  I kept thinking about it and laughing, days after I read it.  While describing the excitement of the fleece barn, Beth Smith writes

Be calm and remember that the sheep are growing more wool.

Chapter 3: Getting to Yarn

This chapter is all about the spinning.  The Introduction through Chapter 3 is a total of 64 pages.  This is all the preamble before we get to the breeds.  Chapter 3, at 27 pages long, comprises nearly half of that preamble.  Chapter 3 is, on its one, worth the purchase price of the book.  It was the most valuable chapter for me as a new spinner and the one I expect to reference the most often over the next few months.  Beth Smith is a master at explaining the small details, and not just the how but the why.  She starts the chapter by saying, “Spinning is not an end in itself: It’s a way to get yarn to make other things.”  Every section of Chapter 3 is about how the decisions you make in spinning will affect the objects you make with the yarn and how to manipulate spinning to get exactly what you want.

I will say that if I had read this chapter, or anything like it, before I bought my spinning wheel, I probably would not have purchased my wheel when I did.  There’s so much information in this chapter that I would have found it a bit overwhelming.  But now that I’ve done a little bit of spinning and understand more about how my wheel works and the very basics of drafting, the information here is exactly the kind of thing that I do want to know.  How much twist do I put in a yarn? How do I know when I need a different whorl?  What are my options for plying?  I have seen many other resources that explain the what and how of spinning, but not the why.  The answers are here, in minute detail, with excellent photography to show the detail as it is described.  Now that I want to think about carefully controlling my spinning to get a specific result, this is the resource that I needed.  The careful explanations of the why will help me weigh my options when I am considering a project that is not explicitly covered in the rest of the book.

Chapters 4 – 8: Fine Wools, Longwools, Downs and Down-Type Breeds, Multicoated Breeds, and Other Breeds

The remaining chapters of the book consider individual breeds of sheep, how to best prepare the fleece for spinning, and the effects achieved through different spinning methods.  As the chapter titles indicate, they are organized based on fleece characteristics.  Each chapter begins by describing the fleece characteristics for sheep breeds in that category.  Next is the two page spread listing some breeds in this category.  Under each breed is a brief description of that breed, including origin, fleece weight, staple length, fiber diameter in microns, lock characteristics, and color.  This is followed by several pages describing the best technique for processing the fleeces in that category, including washing the fleece and deciding whether to flick, comb, or card.  Smith explains that while most fleeces can be processed by any of the three options, she has a preferred method for each wool type.  By the time you read all the chapters, you have gotten detailed instructions on all the methods. The chapter then concludes with a detailed discussion of 3 – 4 breeds in that category.

Each detailed breed discussion runs for several pages.  We get a little historical information on the breed and its development, description of specific challenges of processing or spinning that breed and approaches for overcoming those challenges, any knitting or spinning trivia that is particularly relevant to that breed, and sampling.  The sampling is amazing.  Each breed has at least 5 samples.  Each sample consists of a yarn spun using slightly different preparation and spinning techniques.  The text describes the techniques used, any challenges encountered, the characteristics of the resulting yarn, and an opinion on the best use of that yarn.  In addition to the text, each sample includes a picture with a card wrapped with the yarn and at least one swatch.  Most samples include a knitted swatch; some include a woven swatch in addition to the knitted swatch.  A few include only a woven swatch.

I really loved these chapters, especially the samples.  I love how Beth Smith’s mind works, her experimental and experiential approach to spinning yarn and crafting with handspun, her attention to details, the sheer joy of creating that comes through in her writing.

A Suggestion On Using this Book

If you do not already own The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More Than 200 Fibers, from Animal to Spun Yarn I highly recommend getting that book to use in conjunction with The Spinner’s Book of Fleece.  The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook is the kind of encyclopedia of breeds that I expected The Spinner’s Book of Fleece to be.   However, it does not have the detailed descriptions of processes and methods that The Spinner’s Book of Fleece has.  The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook includes samples of yarns spun from the fibers, but usually only one or two samples and while they may give a couple notes on the yarn, those notes are brief and do not usually include a description of the way the fiber was prepared for spinning.  In other words, while there is a little overlap in the general information between the two books, each has its own strengths and those strengths complement each other.  The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook can guide you to different breeds while the detailed process and technique descriptions in The Spinner’s Book of Wool and the attention to why can guide you as you create with those breeds.  I think the combination of the two books will be a powerful resource for me.

In Conclusion

This book is both authoritative and personal.  When I finished it, I felt like I had just gone to an excellent workshop or spent some time learning from a friend.  It is an excellent book and highly recommended.  It will also be a helpful guide to me as I embark on my own breed-specific spinning project.  When I went to Maryland Sheep and Wool, I bought several breed-specific fibers.  My friend Stacy also bought several breed-specific fibers, and we are planning to do a breed-specific spinning project where we each spin the same fibers and compare notes.  We both have The Spinner’s Book of Fleece and The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook and will be using these sources to guide our spinning.  We are still working out the details of this project, but you will be hearing about it here on my blog, so stay tuned for more!

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