By Kathy Roulston
Robson, D. & Ekarius, C. (2011). The fleece & fiber sourcebook: More than 200 fibers from animal to spun yarn. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing. Pp. 438. $35.00. ISBN 978-1-60342-711-1
There is a memorial to Jackie Howe (1861-1920), the legendary Australian sheep shearer, who sheared 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes using hand shears (a record only beaten with the advent of electric shears) in Warwick, Queensland, which is near Howe’s birthplace. I’ve seen this memorial numerous times, since I was born in Warwick, where many of my family members live. Growing up in rural Queensland in the 1960s and 70s meant that sheep were never too far away, and recognition of the value of sheep and wool for the Australian economy was part of a child’s education at that time. I still remember my 4th grade project on the history of the wool industry in Australia! I learned to spin as a teenager using the most commonly available fiber – merino – which I procured from family friends. I was able to branch out from spinning merino to other fibers when I undertook a distance education course on spinning taught by Janet de Boer in the 1980s, offered through the Australian Flying Arts School. Unfortunately, with work commitments, my interests in spinning were laid aside for several decades, and it was only when I became familiar with Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius’s book, The fleece and fiber sourcebook several year ago that I began spinning again. This book also encouraged me to branch out to explore other fibers, and I’ve been able to explore many other breeds, many of which I’ve learned are designated as in need of conservation. Even if one does not spin… any fiber enthusiast will find this book a mine of information about animal fibers. It may also prompt weavers to think about the particular characteristics and attributes of the animal fibers used, as well as what breed of sheep underlies the label “wool.”
After a short introduction, the book is organized in two parts, beginning with discussions of sheep breeds by family: Blackfaced Mountain, Cheviot, Dorset, Down, English Longwool, Feral, Merino, Northern European Short-tailed, Welsh Hill and Mountain, and then other sheep breeds. Part 2 includes information on goats, camelids, and “other critters” (including bison, dog, wolf, cat, rabbit, and yak, among others). For each family, the authors provide a history of the breed, details about fiber characteristics, recommended uses, and beautiful photos of raw and scoured fibers, and samples of handspun yarn and woven and knitted samples. The book includes numerous color photos of particular sheep and animal breeds, along with samples of spun yarn and interesting facts. The usefulness of this book lies in its specific detail concerning fiber preparation and use. For example, I have just finished spinning two pounds of Gulf Coast Native from a local wool grower, Joanne Maki in Oglethorpe County, Georgia (her company is Georgia Rustic Wool). The authors state that this is a good fiber for felting. That will be something to consider before I decide what to do with this yarn in a future project. I recently scoured two pounds of Teeswater fleece – another fiber that is new to me. Again, Robson and Ekarius provide specific helpful recommendations for how to prepare the locks for spinning. When I first started spinning samples from some of the different breeds discussed in the book, I knitted swatches similar to those shown in the book, and was surprised to see the differences in how the yarns behave. This of course reinforces the advice to sample!
This book is a wonderful compendium of historical information, useful advice, and beautiful photos that work to educate the reader about the importance of preserving heritage breeds. Although the labelling of yarn that we use frequently specifies “wool,” this book goes a long way to showing that the numerous fibers labelled as “wool” exhibit very different characteristics and attributes that need to be accounted for in the use to which they are put. I would recommend the book to any yarn lover who uses animal fibers. For readers interested in the preservation of rare breed, the book is an outstanding contribution. Deborah Robson continues her advocacy for teaching about animal fibers at her blog: Independent Stitch: http://independentstitch.com/ There, you will find a link to her guidebook series, where she discusses specific breeds in further detail.