Here at Clemes & Clemes, we see thousands of fleeces every year at fiber festivals, on ranch visits, and when they are shipped to us. While we buy fewer than one in ten that we look at, that still adds up to several hundred fleece per year. They each get skirted, washed, re-skirted, and then bagged for use in workshops or for sale in Good Clean Fiber.
What Makes a Fleece Breed a Clemes & Clemes Favorite?
With all that fleece literally going through our hands over the years, it is hard not to want to set aside one or two (or three or four) for our personal stashes. Time and again, we find ourselves gravitating towards three breeds in both purebred form and as crossbreeds.
Unsurprisingly, these three breeds share some commonalities: they are easy to prepare for spinning or felting, have a relatively soft hand, are versatile, and typically produce fleece that a hand spinner would enjoy working with.
California Variegated Mutant (CVM)
The California Variegated Mutant, or CVM, is a distinct-looking breed that originated in our home state in the 1960s. Sheep from the Romeldale breed – a white fine wool – were selectively bred for a naturally occurring genetic mutation that produces a fleece of variegated colors.
From tan to gray to brown to black, several colors can often be found in the same fleece and occasionally even in the same lock of wool. A typical one-year growth is three to four inches, making this breed ideally suited for woolen spinning projects. Likewise, the relative fineness and soft hand usually found in CVM lends it to being used next to skin. The crimp style and lock structure vary from being distinct locks with a merino-like crimp to open, undefined locks. While often compared to Merino, CVM tends to be a couple microns larger in diameter, producing a more durable and easier to process fleece, albeit with a slightly less soft feel. When crossbred with long wools, CVM tends to impart its variegated coloration and add fineness to the resulting fleece – often creating an ideal fiber for worsted spinning projects.
While once considered two distinct breeds, CVM and Romeldale have both seen their global populations shrink in recent years and are now considered a single breed. They are often referred to as the Romeldale/CVM breed, though many people refer to the white fleece from the breed as Romeldale and naturally colored fleece as CVM. They are in the Threatened category of the Conservation Priority List from the National Livestock Conservancy, meaning there are fewer than 1,000 registered Romeldale/CVM sheep in the US.
Bond is another relative newcomer as far as sheep breeds go!
It was developed in the early 20th century in Australia by crossing Merino ewes with Lincoln rams and, although Thomas Bond was aiming to create a superior breed for wool production, these sheep are long-legged, lean, and grow quickly, and turned out to be a great dual-purpose sheep.
Their fleece is often compared to Corriedale, but we prefer the Bond as it has a softer hand and more sheen than Corriedale. Bond is a medium wool, typically in the 22 to 28 micron range, with a 3.5” to 5.5” staple length. They grow in a variety of colors from white to black, but shades of brown and tan seem to be the most common. We like to think of Bond as the hand spinner’s version of Corriedale; PLY Magazine calls them sister fibers and devoted an entire issue to the two breeds.
Like the CVM, Bond is a rare breed. In fact, its numbers have dropped below the threshold to be listed as an endangered breed, with just over a dozen left in the US registry. We are actively searching for producers to help save this breed from extinction.
Unlike CVM and Bond, Wensleydale is a relatively old breed of sheep, developed almost 200 years ago. They are known for their distinctive appearance, characterized by long, curly wool that hangs in lustrous ringlets.
These ringlets often hang down over the sheep’s face, resulting in a uniquely angst-filled emo look, despite their calm nature. Wensleydale is the only breed that can be traced back to a single ram, whose name was Blue Cap. “Blue” in sheep breeds refers to a grayish or black coloring; Wensleydale are known for having a black face, ears, and legs. This is also where the “Blue” in Blue Faced Leicester, or BFL, comes from.
Wensleydale fleece is unique in that it typically feels rather soft for a long wool. While the sheep may grow as much as 12” of fleece in a year, we often find that producers shear twice a year depending on their breeding and shearing programs. This means that we can often find Wensleydale in four, six, and eight inch lengths. Their curly wool locks are easy to open for processing and spinning, and can be found in white, brown, a variety of grays, and black.