Our first attempt at combed top just arrived from Zeilinger's Wool Company in Frankenmuth, MI and it is totally wonderful!
After they are washed, fleeces are generally either carded or combed to get them ready to spin. Combing is perfect if you want to spin in a worsted style and carding is perfect if you want to spin in a woolen style. Woolen and worsted are the end members in spinning technique and most of us spinners rest naturally somewhere in the middle. Semi-worsted or semi-woolen are terms commonly used to describe one's spinning.
In addition to the style of spinning you intend, combing is the perfect preparation for fiber that is too long to easily be carded. Carding machines pretty much all require the fiber staple length to be 7" or less and fibers longer than that end up getting shredded. I can tell you from personal experience that sending a very expensive and extremely soft fleece with a staple length of 8" to a mill run my someone who isn't paying enough attention to catch your error and ship it back to you will result in a very expensive pile of garbage that is so torn up and shredded and full of noils that it's only possible use is felting. Any hope of spinning it is now gone. In this instance I bare much of the responsibility since I was stupid enough to send that fleece off to be processed without checking the staple length first. Can you tell the whole episode still rankles me?
So back to our wonderful combed top... We bought several wonderful fleeces from our friend Dawn DeFreece in Casper, WY. We love Dawn and her husband Mike and their wonderful sheep. They raise CVM - Wensleydale crossbreds and we will buy from them till they stop raising sheep. We have never gotten a bad fleece from them. When the fleeces arrived here at the studio I realized they were really of two types. Several of the fleeces were just like the CVM x Wensleydale we had bought from them before. They sort of leaned towards the CVM end of the cross being very soft and a bit longer but still easily under 7". Then there were two fleeces that were totally different. They leaned towards the lustrous long wool of the Wensleydale side of the cross with a staple length of 8" to 8.5".
What were we going to do with these longer fleeces? Given my previous experience with carding a long fleece I needed to find someone with a carding machine that would take an 8" staple length or I needed to find a place to have them combed or I needed to process the fleeces myself. I had heard rumors that there are carding machines out there that can handle longer fibers but I couldn't find one. And process these fleeces myself? By hand? Nope. That just wasn't happening. So I scouted around for a place that would make combed top. There were several but I settled on Zeilinger's.
Zeilinger's Wool Company has been in business since 1910 and is still owned by the same family. That's four generations of mill operators. I asked around and found only good stories about their processing. We hadn't used them before so I called up there to talk to them. They couldn't have been nicer and explained the system. I sent them a check with the wool, based on weight and they called me when the job was done so I could pay for shipping the now clean and sweet smelling fiber back to me. Very cool and oh, so easy.
We will probably continue to have most of our fleeces carded although I'll be sending some of those fleeces to Zeilinger's to see how they do with that. There is a new mill that opened up this past summer just an hour or so north of here so we will give them a try too. Now that the temperature has dropped and it's not so difficult to sit out in the shed and pick the fleeces, I have lots of work to do! And our next combed top adventure will include some of the fleeces from my llamas, alpacas and/or my goats.
I'll be bagging and tagging our newest fiber and you can expect to see it up on the website soon!