I realize that when I talk about wool a lot of the terms I am using make no sense to the average person. So I thought I would do a couple posts talking specifically about wool and some of the most common terms and their meanings. One of the most important for making yarn is staple length so we'll start there.
Staple length refers to the measured length of the wool coming off of any fiber animal. Depending on the animal, they get shorn every 3 - 12 months on average. Once the fleece is off the animal it is time to measure. Generally measuring starts at the shorn end - the part closest to the animal - following the fiber to the tip as shown in the picture. As you can see above the darkest wool on the left side of the ruler measures in at about 7 inches. Staple lengths vary not only from species, but between breeds, animals within the same breed and even the fiber on an individual animal can vary greatly. The picture labelled "same breed, different sheep" shows two locks of fiber from two different Ewethful Shetland sheep! They are the same breed, but one is almost 7" and the other is only just over 3". Generally specific species and breeds have a common reference point for staple lengths.
Alpaca tends to have an average staple length of 2-4inches if they are shorn once per year.
Mohair is the fiber off of Angora goats. It has an average length of 4-6 inches when shorn twice per year.
Angora is the fiber off of angora rabbits. It tends to have a staple length of 2-5 inches when shorn every 3 months.
Sheep are all over the board because there are so many different breeds of sheep. 2-8 inches is a good range of where sheep's wool staple lengths tend to fall when shorn once per year to twice per year depending on the breed.
So why is staple length important to know? Well for the average person, let's face it, it's not! But if you are a handspinner, it can make the difference between an easy and a challenging spin. There are two main reasons it helps spinners to know the staple length.
1. The shorter the fiber the more twist it will require to stay together when making yarn. Remember putting twist into a fiber is basically all it takes to make yarn (pictured below)! as you are drafting the ends of the fibers need to overlap each other while the twist is going in for the yarn to stay together. So shorter fibers need more twist per inch simply because otherwise the twist between those fibers may not be strong enough to keep those ends together. So while a 3" staple length fiber may need 6 twists per inch, a longer 7" fiber may only need 3 twists per inch as those fibers will overlap each other at a further difference as the twist goes in. This is a simplified way to try to explain this and only one way twist impacts your yarn. The thickness of your yarn also plays into twist, but we'll leave that for another day.
2. The shorter the staple length, the closer together you may need your hands to be when spinning. A longer staple length requires you to have your hands farther apart. This is pretty simple! If you're hands are only 2" apart but the fiber is 7" long, you run the risk of pinching your fiber so hard between your working fingers that the wheel can not take the fiber from you. Remember that in spinning the goal is the let the wheel take the fiber from you, not for you to be feeding it to the wheel. I think this happens a lot with beginning spinners because our grip on the fiber is a lot tighter as we are terrified the wheel is going to rip all the fiber out of our hands. Knowing staple length will help you better figure out how far apart or how close to have those two working hands.
There are other reasons knowing staple length is important such as how are you going to process the wool? Handcard, comb or maybe a mill? And which mills process the staple length you have? At Ewethful for example I ask for a staple length between 2 - 6 inches, but other mills can process much longer or shorter fibers. The long and short of it (hahaha) is that the more you know about your wool the better your end yarn game is going to be!
Ok you all. I hope that helped some of you spinners and non-spinners alike? Please please please feel free to ask questions. If I don't know the answer I know a lot of smart spinners out there that can help us out.
As always thank you for reading! Stay healthy, wear your masks, be kind to all your neighbors and craft on!!!
I am Kim Biegler, the owner and operator of Ewethful Fiber Farm & Mill. I create hand spinning fibers from locally sourced wool and teach others online how to hand spin their own yarn.