MSBA debuts new Down-type wool
WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. — This year, the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival added a new class of Down-type medium wool fleeces to its Fleece Show and Sale.
Primarily associated with six core sheep breeds raised for meat, the festival committee members hoped the new class would both “encourage those producers to bring in their fleeces and make it easier for fiber artists to find them,” said Lee Langstaff, co-chairman of the fleece sale and president of the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association.
“Our challenge is that a lot of producers who raise sheep for meat haven’t realized that they can sell those fleeces and that there’s a growing market for wool,” Langstaff continued.
Adding the new class calls attention to this unique class of fleece that has a natural resistance to felting.
For fiber artists, “it means you can make a prized project that you can wash and dry. It doesn’t shrink and it doesn’t felt,” said Langstaff, who is a fiber artist as well as a shepherd and breeder of long wool sheep.
Langstaff also hopes the new class will educate producers about not only the increasing demand it represents among hand spinners, but also the potential benefits of this market for them.
“Producers who learn how to manage their fleeces to meet the needs of this market will find ready buyers for their product willing to pay significantly more than the traditional commercial market,” Langstaff said.
David L. Greene, a breeder and retired University of Maryland Extension sheep specialist, agreed that managing meat sheep for their fleece “is a lot of work and doesn’t happen overnight.”
Those management requirements, said Langstaff, “means getting a minimum fiber length of 2-1/2 to 3 inches, picking out, or ‘skirting’, the short and dirty bits, and minimizing vegetable matter in the wool such as hay, straw, seed heads, burrs,” and other similar bits and pieces that can get caught up in a fleece.
Greene, who raises Southdown sheep, one of the breeds represented in this new class, saw considerable merit to making the extra effort and bringing those fleeces to the festival’s annual fleece sale, beginning with the premium price that hand spinners are willing to pay for high quality fleeces.
“At this year’s Fleece Show and Sale, the prices for these types of wool ranged from $3 to $9 per pound,” said Langstaff,
Indeed, this year’s preliminary numbers from the fleece stand in mute testament to the growing strength of the hand spinner fleece market.
According to Langstaff, the fleece sale brought in 904 fleeces and sold 714 over the two days of the festival.
The festival’s new Down-type class also provided another opportunity for The Livestock Conservancy to showcase its new Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em Initiative launched in early February.
The Initiative, known more popularly as “SE2SE”, encourages fiber artists to work with wool from rare sheep breeds listed on their Conservation Priority List.
That list includes three breeds from the six core breeds of Down sheep — Oxford, Shropshire and Southdown — along with a few other breeds characterized as Down-like by Deborah Robson in hers and Carol Ekarius’ seminal book for hand spinning fiber artists, The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook.
The latter breeds include American Tunis, Clun Forest, California Reds, and Dorset Horn.
In addition to introducing fiber artists to these rarer sheep breeds, the Conservancy’s SE2SE Initiative works with shepherds through an online breeders directory to “help shepherds market their fleeces so they are rewarded for the work they put into their flocks,” said Karena Elliot, the Conservancy’s Development Director.
At the Fleece Sale, that marketing included highlighting fleeces that were part of the SE2SE Initiative with bright yellow flyers in their bags.
The Conservancy is also planning shepherd’s workshops for the early fall to help breeders learn how to market and prepare their fleeces for sale.
Those educational opportunities are also part of the festival’s and the MSBA’s efforts to promote the new Down-type wool class.
“By establishing this class for Down-type wool that comes from breeds commonly thought of as ‘just meat breeds,’” said Langstaff, “we hope to showcase the potential benefits for both producers and fiber artists, and to help both to realize those benefits. We — the MSBA — also look forward to providing educational opportunities specifically for the producers of these breeds who are interested.”
For more information on The Livestock Conservancy’s Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em Initiative as well as to sign up as a participating Fiber Provider and become part of the online breeder directory, shepherds who raise sheep on the Conservation Priority List, should visit www.RareWool.org.
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