As I discussed earlier, I am conducting my own little spinner’s study of 16 different sheep breeds and discussing tidbits about what I learn here. First up, Polwarth!
Here’s a Polwarth sheep in all its woolly splendor:
|Image from the New Zealand Sheepbreeder’s Association website|
According to the New Zealond Sheepbreeder’s website and the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook (FFSB) written by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, the Polwarth is a “conservation breed” that was developed over 100 years ago in Australia. It is fairly common in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and the Falkland Islands but it isn’t found in North America at all. It is listed under the “Other Sheep Breeds” section of the FFSB because it is bred not only for good wool but also for meat quality, which combines characteristics from a few different families of sheep breeds.
Now, the bits we really care about: the fiber! Before we dive into it, there are a few things non-spinners might need clarified about wool:
- Staple length is the length of one wool fiber from root to tip.
- Wool is different than hair: wool fibers are the fine, crimped, elastic, and smaller-diameter undercoat fibers in a fleece while hair fibers are straight, usually smoother, and inelastic. Some fleeces contain both type of fibers. Even the coarsest wool fiber is still about half the diameter of a human hair. The heaviest/coarsest hair fibers are called kemp, and you wouldn’t want to wear them next-to-skin. Prickly!
- Not all wool is created equal. Some is super soft, some is not. Some fleeces have long staple lengths, some short. Some have lots of crimp/elasticity, some are smoother and sleeker. These traits all affect how the wool spins up and what the resulting yarn is like.
- There are many methods for measuring wool fineness/coarseness, but you most often see micron count (though the FFSB mentions that it can be misleading). The micron count is the average diameter of the wool fibers in a fleece. A micron count of <15 is 'superfine', around 16-21 is considered 'fine', 22-31 covers a range of 'medium' types, 32-38 is 'coarse', and 38-41+ is considered 'very coarse'. For reference, Merino wool (the stuff of Malabrigo and most luxury blend sock yarns) can have a micron count between 11.5 and 25ish, depending on the type of Merino — so anything with a micron count in the low 20s is likely to be pretty darned soft.
Ok! There’s a quick wool lesson for you. There is much more info in the FFSB, I highly recommend reading it because it really is fascinating stuff. But now for the Polwarth! According to the FFSB, it registers as a fine-medium wool, with micron counts between 22-26, which some say is harder to spin but it also has a longer staple length (4-6 inches) which helps make it easier to draft.
|My attempt at demonstrating staple length.|
As for my own observations, I’m finding Polwarth to be wonderful to spin (which is good, because I have a bunch of it stashed). I’m going to go ahead and very scientifically classify it as “super fluffy”. 🙂 When you hold a bunch of it in your hand, it feels puffy and the fine fibers fuzz up all over the place. During drafting, it has a bit of a crisp feel as the fibers slide past each other. They draft smoothly but also grab onto each other fairly easily when spinning them together.
I seem to be spinning up a fingering-to-sport-weight-ish single. If you look really closely you can see a bit of a halo around the spun yarn, from the fine, fluffy fibers fuzzing out:
To conclude: I really like spinning Polwarth wool. It feels soft and fluffy but also drafts smoothly and crisply. It will be great for next-to-skin wear but possibly not for really rough use since all those little fuzzies are what eventually turn into pills with too much abrasion. Regardless, I’m excited to see how it finishes up.