You’ve Got Wool Mail: Buying Sheep’s Fleece Online

A prolific spinner, teacher, and former spinning store owner, Beth Smith has bought more fleece than a small yarn company. Knocking on doors at likely looking farms, finding wool through word of mouth, or cyber stalking rare breeds, Beth has tried it all. In her Spin Off Winter 2017 article “Fleece Sleuthing” she shares some lessons she’s learned.

Sometimes it’s just not practical to drive to the farm, or maybe you want a specific rare fleece but the shepherd doesn’t have a website. In these cases, you can just take a chance and be ready to compost what comes in the mail. When you are buying this way, the price of the fleece is often pretty low, so just go for it.

Fleece that has felted on the sheep is known as “cotted.” It may be more easily detected by hand than by eye. Photo by George Boe

Fleece that has felted on the sheep is known as “cotted.” It may be more easily detected by hand than by eye. Photo by George Boe

Many years ago, at the very beginning of my fleece-buying journey, I needed some Lincoln wool for my shop and was having trouble finding any nearby. One of the local shepherds sheared twice per year, so he didn’t have the longer lengths I wanted. Another local shepherd scoured all of her fleeces before she would sell them, and I was looking for fleece in the grease. I started to move farther away from home in my search, and I came upon a shepherd on the Lincoln Sheep Breeders website. It looked as though she had a large flock, but there was no website, so I called her on the phone. She mentioned that she had a pretty large amount of Lincoln lamb fleeces—about 60 pounds—all in one bag, and did I want to buy them? The price was good, and I reasoned that lamb fleeces would sell well. There was no photo, and in my eagerness, I neglected to ask some very important questions. First and foremost, I never asked about lock length. The wool arrived, and I hung my head in shame. The locks were less than 3 inches in length; Lincoln should be at least 8 inches for one year’s growth, so I expected these to be around 6 inches. When I contacted the shepherd, she said she had wondered if that would be an issue. I wish she had asked me, but I felt that the mistake was mine for not checking. I learned a big lesson there, and that wool went the way of the compost.

You probably need to get your hands on a fleece to determine whether it has a break. Snapping a lock close to your ear is the best test; if it has a “ping” tone, it’s sound; if it is fresh (shorn less than 6 months ago) and makes a crackling sound, it’s tender. If it comes apart in your hands, it has a break, a weakness along the shaft. Photo by George Boe

You probably need to get your hands on a fleece to determine whether it has a break. Snapping a lock close to your ear is the best test; if it has a “ping” tone, it’s sound; if it is fresh (shorn less than 6 months ago) and makes a crackling sound, it’s tender. If it comes apart in your hands, it has a break, a weakness along the shaft. Photo by George Boe

Your local shepherds need you. Start there. If there is a certain breed you want, then begin to search farther away. As you search for the fleece that you want, make sure to ask good questions, and be prepared for a fleece that is surprising in a good or bad way.

Fleece Checklist

Fleece Checklist

If it’s not what you expected, just move on, chalk it up to learning, and know that the sheep are growing more wool as we speak.

—Beth Smith

Featured Image: When buying a fleece sight unseen, ask the shepherd to send you a photo of a lock measured against a ruler. Photo by George Boe


Beth Smith is a passionate aficionado of wool, a frequent contributor to Spin Off, and the author of The Spinner’s Book of Fleece. Her videos Spin Thin and Spinning to Get Even are available from Interweave. She lives with her family in Michigan.


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