Most yarn companies will first think about their ideal yarn - will it be drapey or lofty? Smooth or woolly? Once they have these qualities in mind, it’s a case of working backwards, finding the perfect fibre blend, spinning process and specifications to achieve this.
We’ve always done things a little backward - we start with the raw fibre, and let that dictate the way it goes. By working closely with our supplier farms up and down the country, we’ve always got a good idea throughout the year of how the fleeces are doing - not just at shearing time. That gives us a great idea of how it will respond to various processes, and lays the foundations of a number of design considerations.
The first time we get our hands on the wool is during grading (also known as /classing/), the process whereby we calculate what the farmer will be paid. In grading, we’ll separate the fibre into similar types - namely breed, colour and fineness. We’re also starting to get an overall feel for the fleece, and how it’ll likely perform when spun, but that level of control really comes into its own during sorting.
The vast majority of global wool that’s been graded will then go straight into production, where enough wool of a similar type is bundled together to create an average that’s suitable for a particular product. Annoyingly for us, we’re control freaks here at Garthenor Organic, so we put each fleece through a secondary process known as sorting.
In sorting, each individual fleece is opened up again, and divided into multiple different types. Across a single fleece, we might find half a dozen or so unique types, from the fine shoulder wool to the coarse britch wool - and that’s before we even break up the individual shades from coloured breeds like Jacob and Shetland! By splitting these types, we’re able to re-blend them during manufacture, but in a known mixture to more accurately predict how the yarn will feel, look and perform.
During this process we’ll be looking for seven primary factors:
Throughout sorting, we’re also on the lookout for any number of faults which can affect how the wool will spin, and what type of yarn it will become:
All the while, grading and sorting is done with a consideration of the breed of sheep. We’re aiming to produce yarns that reflect the sheep themselves, not purely to select the finest, longest and most lustrous fibres those breeds to have to offer. Sorting is the extra step to help us accurately predict and repeat the perfect blends, and is a whole load of extra work before production starts. Grading will usually take a few seconds per fleece, but sorting will take several minutes. It adds time and expense to the process, but most importantly it adds quality, and it adds magic.
All these factors combine to carefully sort the wool - sometimes into dozens of individual types - to be re-blended during scouring, carding or gilling.
It certainly takes an incredible depth of knowledge, skill and care to be able to accurately sort the wool, and it’s the most vital step in designing or repeating any of our yarns. Luckily for us, we have our very own wool whisperer, Sally. When she founded Garthenor Organic back in 1999, Sally was starting from a foundation of a love of all fibre crafts, especially spinning and knitting. Since then, her expertise of the wool we handle has only got more impressive