Friday, March 30, 2012

The very surprising Leicester Longwool

Leicester Longwool is a "luster" longwool with gorgeous long, silky locks and a shine to rival fine mohair. The breed was first developed by Robert Bakewell in the mid 1700's and quickly became popular. These sheep were exported to the United States and even kept by George Washington. Unfortunately their popularity waned as the desire for finer wools came into vogue, and the Leicester began to disappear.

Through the efforts of a number of small breeders and organizations like the ALBC, the Leicester is slowly making a comeback. According to the ALBC however the breed still remains critically rare both in the United States and globally.

I was excited to have the opportunity to work with a portion of a Leicester fleece over the past 2 months. I received the fiber in raw lock form and tried to wash it with care. I had heard it was important to use water at or above 130 degrees F and not to let the wool sit more than 15 minutes before changing the water or I would have a difficult time removing the lanolin.
So I did just that, using mesh lingerie bags to keep the layers of fiber from tangling with each other.

I'm not sure how long the fleece sat before it got to me, but I was unable to get all of the yellowish color from the tips washed out. It is alright though, it will just add a nice creamy character to the finished yarn!

I contemplated combing the washed locks, and I did do a small sample, but ultimately decided to card the wool. First I had to untangle some of the butt/cut ends of the locks that had gotten stuck together during washing. (Why didn't I separate the locks completely before washing?) I the end I used scissors to snip off the last 1/2-3/4" of the worst of the locks. That taken care of, I happily spent an afternoon carding up the rest of my fiber.
The fiber was not difficult to card, though I recommend picking open the locks slightly before you get started. The basket of rolags (see left) was light and airy, and surprisingly SOFT! Everything I had heard about the longwools led me to believe this fiber would be strong, and it was, but also coarse. It wasn't, now it also wasn't like a cloud of angora, but you understand what I'm saying. I expected fiber suitable for carpets and this was a pleasant surprise.

Spinning was next and I decided to put away the spindles and spin this on my Kromski Sonata with a 12.5:1 ratio. It took no time at all to get my hands adjusted to the fiber length although I did have to remind myself to loosen my grip on the cloud like rolags. Spun with a forward draw, I put all of my fiber on one bobbin.  I will caution though that I put less twist in this than I might have used for, say, Romney. I did not want to turn this gorgeous fiber into rope! Less is more in this case. Be sure to sample before you dive in and you'll find the right balance.

I left the fiber to sit overnight and came back to it the next day. I wound the bobbin off into a center pull ball and then spun the fiber back onto itself.

What a fun spin! So much luster and shine, just beautiful, and drapey too thanks to the lower twist. I ended up with 95 yds of roughly DK weight 2-ply, 64 grams total.I still wouldn't make a next to skin sweater with this, but I would put it against my neck.

If you enjoy spinning longer staples, I encourage you to give Leicester Longwool a try. I know I'll be looking for more at Maryland Sheep and Wool this year!

Coming up soon: Tunis, Ryeland, and more!


  1. I have a pound of this fiber that, unfortunately was washed by the seller. I also have that yellow thing going on..some of the tips are yellow and very hard so I am thinking I have a situation where the washing temp was not hot enough. wondering about how to get out the remaining hardened lanolin..All I know to do is to use hot water and re-wash. I also broke the "dawn" rule and tried using an unscented washing detergent with Oxi- in it. Using the vinegar rinse. I think it worked just as well. Still there are some yellow left of the single sample I have washed so far..any advise?

    1. If it is indeed lanolin, be sure that your washing temperature reaches 140-160 degrees and cover it to retain the heat if possible. Do not allow the fiber to sit for more than 15 minutes or you can risk the lanolin redepositing on the fiber as the water cools.

      My favorite fiber wash is Power Scour, but I have heard that water quality can change the effectiveness of some washing solutions.

      Unfortunately it is not always possible to remove all of the yellow from the tips. In my case the tips had become slightly stained. Once the fiber was carded and spun it was not especially noticeable.

  2. Hi thank you for your lovely adventure spinning English Leicester,I breed them in Tasmania. Just a couple of thoughts re getting the yellow out. It may be yolk which will make the fleece yellow and is a bit waxy but different to lanolin. It may also be stain from red soil.I use Power Scour and I also rinse once or twice in very hot water before doing the wash with Power Scour. I should add it dyes wonderfully. Cheers Jen