Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Golden Fleece with Judith MacKenzie McCuin

On Saturday at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, we went to hear a talk by spinning rock star Judith MacKenzie McCuin called "The Golden Fleece." The catalog description reads:

Sheep and humans have traveled together, side by side, for many thousands of years. Sheep provided us with all the essentials of life - food, fleece for tents and clothing, fiber for ropes and rugs, parchment for our stories, bone for tools. As we chnaged our skills as weavers and spinners, sheep changed their wool to meet our ever changing needs. In this talk, we'll look at how sheep spread around the world, and how sheep fleece has changed over the thousands of years that we have used it.

Sounds great, right? And it was.

Judith spread 5 fleeces out on the table in front of her. They represented how fleece has changed from prehistoric times to the present. In the photo above, the fleeces (right to left, ancient times to modern) are: Awassi, Icelandic, some generic northern European shorttail breed (I didn't catch the name), something I didn't write down, and Cormo. Or maybe that last one was Wensleydale. She talked about the differences in the fleeces and how humans bred sheep to have different characteristics as we developed new tools and technologies.

The Icelandic sheep fleece really captured my imagination. Of it, she said "this is a sheep for all reasons - you can make anything from underwear to sails." She showed 5 separate coats on this fleece, each with a different staple length and micron count (how fine and, therefore, soft it feels). I knew that many fiber animals had both an overcoat and an undercoat ... but five coats? It is also easy to milk and its meat is good enough to eat. Fascinating!

How humans interacted with sheep changed a lot after the Bronze Age, when we developed metal tools for shearing and dyepots. Before the Bronze Age, we didn't really shear sheep. We bred them to shed their coats at the same time, and rounded them up at that time of year. We bred for different fleece colors, too. After the Bronze Age, we could shear at any time and dye wool in different colors (which made white fleece the most valuable color).

Modern industrial mills spin fiber best when the staples are a consistent length and have the same micron width from end to end, so now we breed for that (among other things). A "good" fleece today is quite different from a "good" fleece 200 or 500 or 1000 years ago. If a fiber presents even a 3% difference in width, it feels coarse against human skin. Consistency is just as important as micron count in perceived softness.

I am only capturing a couple of examples from Judith's talk, which was extremely interesting. It is such a pleasure to hear from a person who is at the top of her game, speaking without notes and with evident pleasure in her work. She recommended a couple of books which I intend to check out, too:

My library already owns the first title, so I'll be rushing to check it out asap!


  1. You are right on, it was a pleasure to hear her speak.

  2. Maybe we need to go on an Icelandic wool tour? Wouldn't that be fun? I wonder if Bjartur of Summerhouses would have enjoyed this talk? Probably not ;-)