For many of us, a raw fleece is affordable and exciting. There is something very attractive about starting with the dirty and somewhat stinky fleece and turning it into a finished product. With all the fleeces to choose from how do you know which to purchase?
The best way to purchase your first raw fleece is from another trusted handspinner. If you know someone, who perhaps taught you how to spin for example, you can approach them and ask if they have any for sale or where you might get one. In all likelihood you will be in luck and they either have one they will sell (or trade), or they may have friends who sell fleeces. The benefit to this is that hopefully you will get a much higher quality product and at a much more reasonable price. They may know what to look for, and how to choose the best fleece, and being shown is always the best way to learn.
Another consideration for choosing a fleece is the equipment you have to process it. If your hand cards are very fine, you will want a wool to match. So choose a fleece that matches the equipment you have or want to buy. If you buy a courser wool and try to card it with a fine tooth card, the wool can be damaged. You can process a finer wool with courser cards easier, but this too can be challenging.
If you can't find someone to help you, start by checking the sheep registries of the breeds you are interested in purchasing. Call these people in your area and inquire if they have any fleeces for sale. You may have to wait until next shearing, but this is the easiest and best way to get connected to the producer of the type of fleece you want.
Another resource is the local carding mill, if you have one nearby. Give them a call and tell them you would like to purchase a raw fleece and ask if they can either sell you one, or direct you to someone who has high quality raw fleeces available. You may also ask if they have the number to the local sheep shearer, because they will know who has what sheep where. They also will often have some fleeces on hand for sale.
Fiber people are usually very kind and helpful people. The person whom has the fleece you are interested in purchasing will most likely deal with you honestly and fairly to the best of his or her knowledge. The best way to know if you can trust their information is to ask them some questions about their experience and knowledge. There are veterans and newbies out there, and both can be rewarding to work with, but you want to know which you are dealing with, so you can ask the right questions.
The answers to these questions will clue you in to the experience level of the person you are dealing with. If this person is a handspinner and has experience you are in luck. Ask lots of questions, and listen carefully to everything they tell you about how to choose the best fleece. Ask which one is the best and why.
Cleanliness is a big factor in the quality of a raw fleece. The highest quality fleece that is full of leaves, hay, and is matted on the ends is practically useless, where as the slightly courser fleece that has very little vegetable matter, and has been very carefully skirted will be the better choice. Ask them how they skirt the fleeces and ask them to lay the fleece out so you can look at it in a well lit area. This fleece has quite a bit on the hindleg area, but it is all on the surface, and will easily shake out during cleaning. Look for veggie matter in the fleece, but don't worry about surface matierials on the tip side.
Look at the edges of the fleece, and make sure that all the belly wool, britch wool has been pulled off. This is short, often very dirty and course feeling. If it is still on there, just be aware of the fact that you will have to pay for wasted wool. Fleeces are generally sold by the pound, so the best fleeces are well skirted so that they entire fleece is useable.
The fleece should have a staple length of 2 to 4 inches. This length is the easiest to spin and process yourself. If the fibers are longer than 4 inches it will be a bit harder to process (although you can). Less than 2 inches and it is difficult to process and spin. Look for a fleece that is between 2 and four inches to begin with. Once you have learned how to wash and work up a fleece, you can try something more challenging.
Look at the tips of the fleece and check for cotting. Cotting is basically felted parts of the fleece. These areas if they are very mild can be worked up, but the price should be lower. Look for a fleece that has locks that hold together, but not large matted areas. The locks are desirable but any matting will be thrown out in most cases.
Pull a small lock of wool from the middle of the fleece. The lock should be small, about the size of a really bulky yarn. Check the tips for brittleness by rubbing them between your fingers. These ends can break off and be difficult, as they are similar to split ends that people have. Next take your small lock and with one end in each hand, give it a gentle tug. If it breaks, move on to the next fleece, if not give a harder tug. You want a sturdy fleece that doesn't have what's called a break. Illness, poor nutrition and even lambing can cause a break to occur in the wool. A break is just a place where the wool will break very easily. A true break will occur in the same place along the lock every time. Take into account that a finer wool will break easier than a course wool. They should all be able to withstand a fairly strong tug before they break. A fleece with a break can be processed by hand without suffering damage, but it should cost quite a bit less in price. So if you find a fleece you love and it has a minor break you might still want to buy it, but you shouldn't have to pay premium prices for it.
Turn the fleece over and look at the butt (end cut off the sheep) of the locks. There should be very few second cuts. These are pieces of the fleece that got cut again as the shearer made another pass with the cutter. They are pretty easy to spot, ask your seller to point one out. If you run your hand over the butt side of the fleece, the second cuts will come away from the main fleece. A few second cuts is normal, but if there are lots of them, then again you are paying for unusable wool.
One thing to consider is the project you are going to use the fleece for. Raw fleeces will lose quite a bit of their weight when washed. High grease breeds such as Merino will lose the most, while low grease breeds such as Shetland will lose less. You can lose as much as half the weight of the fleece by washing the grease and dirt out, so be sure to purchase enough, especially if you are wanting to use natural colored wools, as it may be impossible to match, even with another fleece from the same animal.
This is the basic way to choose a raw fleece for quality and pricing. If you see a lot of these problems and your seller seems unconcerned or unaware you may want to pass on the fleece and find one that is higher quality elsewhere.