Producing Yarn

Deciding to get your yarn processed commercially is without doubt a big step. It is expensive and as a consequence, not something to be entered into lightly, but if you do choose to have your wool processed into yarn, it can be a fascinating world linking age old traditional processes with the creation of a vibrant, modern, sustainable product that can have real commercial value

The key attributes of the Wensleydale fleece are the lustre, long staple length, strength and excellent handling. It is also completely free of kemp. You are most likely to consider getting your Wensleydale fleece commercially processed either as fine knitting yarn, or as rovings or batts for the handspinning and weaving market. If you really aren’t sure what you want to specialise in, it’s a good idea to research what others have done with their Wensleydale fleece. Looking online and going to yarn festivals to find out what others are doing can be helpful, as there are a myriad of options available. There are also considerations to make such as whether you want your wool dyeing, as well as the weight and ply that you would want to achieve with your yarn. It can be helpful to purchase fleeces and yarn from other breeders – evaluating other flocks fleeces for length, lustre and handle can help you to better understand the quality of your own wool

There are a number of small mills in the UK which will handle small-scale quantities of fleece, so the first step in dealing with your fleece is to consider which mill you might like to use. We have compiled a list of UK mills which may be helpful to refer to in your search; researching mills that have processed Wensleydale wool is a good start. The majority of mills will be keen to work with you, but it is important to be clear in your mind what you envisage the final product being. Some mills will handle as little as one fleece, while others have minimum weights of 10 or 20kg. Most mills have a waiting list for processing, often up to a year, so once you are clear about what you want to produce, it is prudent to book a slot well in advance

The majority of mills have a price list detailing their services, including whether they process woollen or worsted yarn. It is advisable to go for a mill that has demonstrable expertise in processing longwool and lustre breeds. It can be helpful to send the mill samples of your fleeces so that they can see, hold and feel the quality of your wool. As you narrow down your mill selection, one idea can be to send fleeces to several different mills and ask them to process the wool exactly the same way, allowing you to compare the product from each mill. It is wise to consider that any yarn you produce must not only look nice, but also be pleasant to work with and to wear!

The distinguishing feature of worsted yarn is the alignment of long fibres and the elimination of short fibres. The fibres in woollen yarn are not parallel, and so lie in different directions and are short and fluffy, whereas worsted yarns are strong and lean. Traditionally the worsted method has been used for longer staple wools including Wensleydale, which obviously lend themselves to being combed in the same direction. This layout of fibres enables light to be reflected, accentuating the lustre inherent in longwools. Woollen spinning of longwool may detract from the lustre but produce more voluminous yarn. Semi-worsted yarn had the aligned fibres but without combing, and thus contains shorter locks, is less lean, and has less lustre

Some mills will even be happy to dye your yarn, adding a diverse range of possibilities for your final product. Options include natural and chemical dye, in variants of tweeds and solid colours; but whatever you choose, it is a good idea to create a cohesive collection of yarn – one where the colours work well together as well as independently

Most mills have some restrictions on which chemicals can be applied to your sheep, which you’ll need to be aware of in the run-up to shearing. Commonly your sheep must not have been treated with some pour-ons, such as Clik and Crovect, within three months of shearing

To be sure of a return on your investment, it is really important that you have researched your market. Know that this is likely to be a multi-year process, and that understanding your customer base and the best marketing strategies for that customer base will take time. It is best not to rush into commercial wool processing, and to instead work through all of the steps before you reach a conclusion on what to do with your wool and where to have it processed

Once you’ve chosen a mill, you’ll need to get your sheep sheared and the fleece ready to send off. Mills need clean, uniform fleece free of vegetable matter or other stray material such as baler twine, so your shearing set-up needs to minimise contamination, with no straw or hay near the cut fleeces. Please see our guide on shearing and storing for advice on best practices

No matter what type of fleece you have chosen to process, whether it be lambs wool, shearling, or from older sheep such as wethers or ewes, once you have chosen your fleece check it for lock strength using the “snap test”: Grab a lock from the fleece by the tip end and pull it out. Hold an end of the lock in each hand, bring your hands slightly together, then snap them sharply apart. If the fleece is “tender” it will show signs of breaking or may rip in half completely. Tender fleeces are not suitable for spinning as they will tear during processing. This leads to a large amount of wastage and may not be spinnable, depending on the length of the fibres once they are broken. Sample from various parts of the fleece to ensure that the wool you send will have minimal wastage. Heavily felted fleeces are also not suitable for mill processing, a nice open fleece where the locks can be combed easily will yield the best results

Processing time varies, particularly if the mill is dyeing your batches too, but is most likely to take a minimum of 6-8 weeks and often longer. However the wait is definitely worth it, there is a certain thrill in seeing your flock’s fleece coming back to you as voluminous bags of tops or rovings or as neat, perfect skeins of knitting and weaving yarn all banded ready for sale

List of UK Mills

The following is a list of ‘small to medium’ commercial mills who currently process fleece in the UK. This list isn’t exhaustive, but should be a good springboard to deciding where to have your wool processed into yarn

The Border Mill
Station Road Duns, TD11 3HS
01361 883692

Specialise in alpaca and rare breed sheep including Longwools. Specific expertise in spinning long staple wool and fibre. Can process from a single fleece upwards. Blending natural colours alongside a comprehensive dyeing service using natural and chemical dyes. (minimum batch size 500g)

Diamond Fibres
Horam East Sussex, TN21 0HF
01435 812414 

Specialising in worsted and semi worsted. Focus on natural colours. Specific expertise in spinning long staple wool and fibre. Minimum weight 10kg

Felsted Fleece
Brick House Farm Felsted Essex, CM6 3JE

New mill in 2023. Specialising in small volume processing

Halifax Spinning Mill
Carnaby Industrial Estate Bridlington, YO15 3QY

Woollen processing. Small quantities, eg 1 kg processed as pencil rovings for home spinning. 10kg for slivers and pencil roving as above. 30kg fine yarns in varying plys and blends

The Natural Fibre Company
Unit B Pipers Court Cornwall, PL15 7PJ
  01566 777635 

Offer both woollen and worsted spinning. Minimum batch weights – 25kg for woollen and 35kg for worsted spinning

Rampisham Hill Mill
Rampisham Hill Farm Beaminster Dorset, DT83PE

Semi-worsted spinning mill. Minimum batch weight 2kg for spinning

Shire Mill
Home Farm Loughborough, LE11 3YG

Minimum batch weight 1 Kg Maximum 15Kg for a single batch. Finishing generally: 100g skeins of yarn. Other sizes available and can be tied for dyeing on request

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