How white is white wool?

There are many things that go into making a great fleece, and selling raw wool is much like matchmaking. It is primarily about finding the right fleece for the right person, since a “perfect” fleece depends more on the project it will be used for than the fleece itself. For handspinners (our primary market), who understandably don’t want a bunch of chaff, burrs, and other vegetative matter (VM) in their wool, the key is a clean fleece. Any specification regarding crimp, fiber diameter, color, or staple length will depend on what they want to do with their wool. But first and foremost, they want it clean.

Yet some traits definitely help when it comes to selling fleece, and color is one of them — especially when it comes to white wool. Both Romneys and Romeldale/CVMs come in white, and a bright white fleece influences sales. The dingy whites just don’t move as well. This leads me to believe that many buyers may not know that the color of a fleece in the grease is not the color of that the same fleece once it’s washed. A raw fleece contains a lot of suint, the natural grease, sweat, etc., that is found in the wool. Acting a bit like moisturizer, suint protects wool from weathering while it’s on the sheep. Although there are those who spin a fleece in its raw form to incorporate the water-resistant properties of the grease into their garment (think fisherman-knit sweaters), they tend to be few and far between. Most of our customers wash their wool before working with it, so the off-color due to the suint is gone.

Not all discoloration will wash out of raw wool. Sometimes staining (permanent discoloration) can be due to the carotene in the corn we feed or the darker grease that sheep can produce when it is exceptionally hot or they are stressed. A friend is experimenting with the possibility that this same yellowish staining can come from brown color genetics that lay hidden in some white sheep. I’ve chased the cause of yellow staining for years, and it sometimes happens in situations where I have no idea what caused it. In some sheep it pops up one year and then never again; and in others it happens a lot. I’ve been told that it’s genetic — and that may be — but I have one white Romeldale line in which the dam stains quite easily (most years), while her daughters stain very rarely. This is something that we are trying to better understand.

When I’m skirting a white fleece that is quite dark and off-color, I always take samples from the worst areas and wash them. I need to be able to let my customers know whether the fleece is permanently stained or whether the discoloration is merely suint and will wash out. I’ve gotten to the point where I can usually tell just by looking, but I still wash a bit just in case I’m wrong. This habit allowed me to discover something interesting.

Three white Romney ram fleeces (L to R): Martin, O’Connor, and Osiris

We currently have three white Romney rams: Martin, O’Connor, and Osiris. When you look at the raw wool in the bag (photo above), you’ll see three different colors of fleece caused by variations in suint. Martin’s is the whitest, closely followed by O’Connor’s. Osiris’ fleece is clearly a darker, dingy color. Most people wanting a white fleece would buy either Martin’s or O’Connor’s. In fact, seeing the color of Osiris’ wool made me question whether I want to use him in this fall’s breeding. Although beautiful in fiber length, crimp, and luster, its color is a bit ‘disgusting’ when looking for a white fleece. As I marveled at how different they looked, I decided to wash some of the worst locks of both O’Connor’s and Osiris’ fleeces, to see how they would look with suint removed. O’Connor’s fleece came out sparkling white — and so did Osiris’ locks! I was shocked.

O’Connor’s fleece on the left and Osiris’ fleece on the right, displayed with the washed staples of each

 

Even more surprising was the next realization. I put O’Connor’s and Osiris’ washed locks onto a white paper towel and compared the two to each other and to the white of the paper towel. The conclusion: Osiris’ fleece may look dingy and dull in the bag, but his fleece is actually the whiter of the two! Once washed, it was bright white with a gorgeous luster and a lovely soft handle. Of the three white Romney fleeces, I much prefer the wool from Osiris to either of the others, once they’re all washed. So, contrary to my initial impulse when I compared the three bagged fleeces, Osiris will be used in a breeding group this fall!

I know that the color in the bag matters, since that’s what buyers see when they’re deciding on raw wool. But — for both for the fleece buyer and for the breeder — it should be only one factor in the evaluation. In light of Osiris’ many other positive traits, he deserves a shot at showing us what he can produce. As I’ve told many new shepherds, a breeding sheep’s worth is not just in how it looks, but in what traits it might produce in offspring. Let’s hope that when Osiris is paired with some of our ewes, their combined genetics will give us lambs displaying the beauty of his fleece with the ewes’ less-dark suint. Only time will tell!

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