textiles · exploration · misadventure


Lambtown Revisited, or, Dawn’s Gonna Be Pissed

Mark Eidman instructs several students on wool judging at Lambtown, 2015.

Still enjoying the after-effects of Lambtown .

Mark assesses weight with an experienced heft. Mid-shot of large bag filled with fine, white fleece.

Mark assesses weight with an experienced heft.

Mid-shot of several large bags filled with fine, white fleece for judging.

White fleeces piled for judging by class.

Colored fleeces piled for judging by class.

Colored fleeces piled for judging by class.

I’ve been putting things away, sorting through pictures, and testing out new skills.

My first class was Wool Judging with Mark Eidman, son of Glen, who painstakingly, over many years, developed a breed of sheep called California Variegated Mutant, or CVM. Mark grew up on his father’s farm. Mark knows his sheep.

Mark talked to us about the criteria used to evaluate fleece, and how these criteria interweave with one another to inform a judge’s assessment. Breed standard (a range, not an absolute), fiber grade, consistency, lock strength, and lock structure all contribute to a judge’s assessment.

Fleeces submitted for judging are called raw: sheared from the sheep, hay and poop cleaned from around the edges (called skirting—I’ve done this; very satisfying), rolled up in a specific manner, and bagged. That’s it. No washing, one fleece to a bag.

Weight and grade (diameter of the fiber; fineness; softness) should be within the appropriate range for the breed. For example, Merino is fine, known for softness. The fibers should be of a certain size, which a human can judge mostly by eye and feel, with experience. To help us begin to judge grade, Mark gave us a packet of graded fibers to compare to the fleeces we’d see during judging.

Mid-shot of a man holding a lock of fleece between his hands.

Testing a lock for strength and length.

To assess consistency, the judge plucks three or four locks from various areas of the sheep and compares their length and crimp. The more consistent these locks are with one another, and the closer they are to the breed standard, the higher the placement.

Locks are assessed for strength by tugging the lock next to one’s ear. Strong locks are resilient and musical, they reverbrate like a plucked guitar string. Weak locks crackle or break.

Finally, a fleece should have good lock structure, which means that the fibers clump together, the way individual curls in our hair tend to do.

Fleece with strong, visible lock structure.

Fleece with strong, visible lock structure.

Midshot of fleece with strong, visible lock structure.

Lock structure from a further distance.

Midshot of milk chocolate fleece with strong, visible lock structure.

The lock structure on this Romney fleece differs from that of the Merinos above.

Taking a hands-on class with an expert, in person, was what I needed in order to understand how to begin to develop my skills. Mark was kind, knowledgeable, and generous. I do hope this becomes a regular class, although a smaller class size would be a good idea. It was a bit of a frenzy sometimes, and difficult for the audience—there is always an audience—to see past the students.

Why did I take this class?

Seven pound Merino fleece I won at Lambtown, 2014.

This is why I took this class.
A sea of fleece: a seven pound Merino fleece I won at Lambtown, 2014.

This is a 7.3lb sea of Merino fleece gracing my living room floor. (Hi, baby. Kiss kiss.) My spinning guild’s Sheep to Shawl team received it as a prize at last year’s Lambtown. My friend Dawn originally took it, but later gave it to me, her teammate, as its former owner apparently liked to play in the mud. And that’s ALL I know about it. Spectacular under its coating of slime? Troubled yet worthy? Compost? Who knew?

Ten locks pulled from my Merino fleece—all remarkably consistent in length and crimp.After Mark’s class, I knew the weight and grade were on target for Merino. I pulled not three, but ten locks, from various parts of the fleece. There was very little hay or other vegetable material. And hey, what do you know, look at that.

Ten locks, remarkably consistent compared to what I saw at the show, where lock length sometimes varied by two inches. These are all within 3.5”-4”, a good length, and the crimp—the visible waves in each lock—is also remarkably consistent—at least it seems so, to this beginner’s eye. The holdout is top, left, where the crimp is not nearly so bold.

Strength? A high, sweet reverberation.

Lock structure? Seriously, I have thirty pictures of it. I’m only showing you two so I don’t faint with lust or drown in my own drool:
Midshot of beautiful lock structure on Merino fleece.
Closeup of sunshine streaming through beautiful lock structure on white Merino fleece.

Beginner’s assessment? A strong, resilient, remarkably consistent fleece within the parameters of its breed. Fantastic length for combing, preferred here as Merino is a fragile fiber and should be prepped and spun worsted, the more durable option.

After looking at those pictures of lock structure, I can hear the angels singing. Thanks, Mark, and sorry, Dawn. She’s mine, now.