Fall shearing time is almost here and that means another batch of fleeces on the market. A lot of farmers shear the sheep they're going to sell because there is no reason to send wool to the butcher. Others shear their rams in the late summer or early fall, just before breeding begins. If you're buying a fleece online, especially from someone new, be sure to ask if the fleece comes from a ewe, a lamb, or a ram, and ask when it was sheared.
Why does it matter? Here are some of the reasons.
You always want to know WHEN the fleece was sheared from the sheep because wool grease gets harder and yellower with age. An older fleece can definitely be cleaned but it might be more work. Also, fleeces that have been stored may have dried out a bit, or may have been infested with moth eggs/larvae.
A lamb's fleece (first shearing) will have sticky tips that are a bit of trouble to deal with. Again, it's not an impossible task, but it's something to be aware of. Lamb's fleece is typcially softer and finer than adult fleece, and often has finer, more frequent crimp. BUT, you'll have to scour and then comb or flick the tips. I send lamb fleeces to a mill.
A ram's fleece may be wonderful, or it could turn out to be the foulest, stinkiest thing you ever brought into your home. A lot depends on 1) how the ram has been cared for, 2)breed, 3) WHEN he was sheared. Some breeds are smellier than others. If you get a fragrant ram's fleece you may or MAY NOT be able to get the smell out. Vinegar helps but isn't a cure-all. I have only bought ram's fleeces from farmers I know who will give me a refund if I find it too stinky.
One of the reasons that farmers shear their rams in late summer/early fall is that during the breeding season rams are especially smelly! In their urinary tract they have a special structure that forces small amounts of urine to spray, rather than to pour straght out onto the ground. It isn't clearly visible - not like a dog lifting his leg - but the ram gets a lot of urine on his woolly belly, and ooooooh, the ewes love it! But we do not. Shearing the ram BEFORE breeding season allows him to spray his (basically) bare belly before the coat has grown back. And then, over the course of the year, the rain and sun take care of the rest of the smell. Hopefully. Maybe.
Be a savvy spinner, ask a lot of questions before you buy a fleece.