Buying a Fleece on eBay

How to Buy a Sheep in a Poke

I've lately been buying some fleece from eBay, the online auction site. It's an interesting process, trying to determine what is it, exactly, that you might end up with with only the seller's glowing description and a few blurry pictures. A lot of faults that are obvious in person can't be determined from a static photo no matter how good it is. There are some things you can do to have a better idea, and some that you will just have to wait and see.

First, decide if you trust the reputation of the seller. Ask around and see what other people have to say, who they buy fiber from. There's a lot of people selling fiber regularly and using eBay as a storefront. Look at feedback and see if shoppers are coming back for more. Repeat business is even more important than positive feedback numbers, because most people are unwilling to leave negative or even neutral feedback unless the transaction just went completely wrong.

Almost as important is to ask questions. If you have any doubt about the condition of the fleece, ask. The seller should be not just friendly and hopefully prompt, but clear in responding to your inquiry. If I'm not sure about something I might buy it anyway without investigating too much, but also I'm prepared to throw away some or all of it if the price is right and I'm up for an adventure. If that's not you, then ask the seller a question.

Some sellers are clear they've got a fixer-upper, and will say that it needs work or isn't the best quality. Grab-bag lots can be fun to work with if you are willing to toss some percentage of it because it's either poor quality or not what you are looking for. And an otherwise nice fleece that's full of hay can be a bargain if you don't mind dealing with it. But be careful you don't get caught up in paying first quality prices for less than perfect fiber just because it's an auction. I've let several things go because I wasn't willing to pay that much for less than perfect fiber but somebody else was.

Many sellers know their products and present an honest representation. These are people who are either professionals running a business or experienced fiber people who know how to write a good ad. They tell you not only the breed of sheep and the length of the fiber but possibly many other useful bits of information such as shearing date, ewe or ram, age and can often describe projects they have done with this or similar fiber.

A few just aren't clear on the concept. Some are professional Estate Sale hunters trying to turn over the lot they bought last month. Others are well-meaning pet-owning hobby farmers who think it would be nice to get a few bucks to cover feed costs. Here is where you are likely to find vague descriptions like "Raw Wool" or blurry photos of lumps of fleece of uncertain origin. Sometimes it's nice stuff, but you won't be able to tell until you buy it and get it home.

The most important thing is to know what you are shopping for. If you aren't familiar with the breed, go look it up and see if the seller's description generally matches the common characteristics of the animal. If you are looking for fine wool but the animal's strong points all concern meat or dairy aspects, then the fiber is not as likely to be what you are after. Look up the average fiber diameter and compare it to a breed you know to see if it's something you'd like to work with. A good place to start is the Oklahoma State University Breeds of Livestock sheep page.

Here are some specific things to look for:

Most unspun wool feels soft, if it doesn't then it's very coarse indeed. It's hair, your hair feels soft when you stroke it, but if you spun it then all those little sharp stiff ends would poke out and be scratchy. If the description says soft but the breed says "Lincoln", be wary.

Staple length
The most important determination concerning staple length is does it match the breed characteristics. If it's much shorter, it might not be a full year's fleece or it could have been poorly shorn. If it's much longer, the animal may not have been sheared in a while, which is a sign of poor husbandry. Note, however, that some breeds vary widely, particularly Shetland, and lamb fleeces are often shorter than adult.

"Extra Long"
I've seen this in a few listings, both for sheep's wool and llama fiber. It's tempting to want a two year fleece because of the long length, but that also means it's been on the animal and out in the weather twice as long. And fleece quality is directly related to the animal's health: an escaped ewe that hasn't been shorn probably hasn't gotten regular care and feeding either. And it's important to know if the breed tends to have seasonal breaks because the old shedding trait hasn't been completely bred out. That will produce serious weak spots in the fiber. But in general I'd pass, no matter how good it sounds.

"Gold Tips"
If a dark fleece doesn't just have golden highlights but outright bleached tips, it will cause you trouble. It's "gold" because it's bleached from being out in the weather, and they are likely to be brittle. If you are going to card the fiber, you may have to remove the tip of each lock by hand to keep it from breaking off in the process. This can happen with any fleece, but it's most obvious with a dark one and a few sellers seem to think this is a feature.

Be sure you and the seller agree on what the word "raw" means. I've seen all kinds of things described as raw wool that were washed, dyed, or sometimes even carded. If you are looking for raw, then make sure it's really raw. I don't generally buy washed fleece, so I sometimes get excited about a listing from the title only to discover that it's not raw at all.

"The VM just comes right out!"
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. Maybe it does with her processing method but not with yours. Try to find out what's in there before you believe that it will magically vanish. Hay, twigs and burrs have to be picked out by hand most of the time. Tiny bits of dry leaves do tend to fall out, but larger ones do not. And consider if it's going to fall out all over your lap while you are spinning. If that bothers you, you might want to look elsewhere.

Old fleeces
If the seller lists a shearing date and it's not from the most recent season, you might want to ask questions. Some age better than others. A fine wool fleece with a lot of grease like a Merino should feel slighly damp when fresh but will eventually get sticky or downright hard. A year-old fleece may be starting to dry on the outside but one that's two or three years old is much more likely to be dry and harder to work with. If it's something that a spinner bought years ago and is now getting rid of, also ask how and where it was stored to see that it was protected from heat and moths and was not left damp inside a sealed plastic bag.

Canary Stain
This one is very hard to tell from a photo, it's sometimes easy to miss in person because the usual dirt and grease are almost the same color. Canary Stain is a bacterial infection of the fleece that creates a permanent bright yellow stain in parts of the wool, usually a line about halfway down the staple. If it's bad enough it will actually damage the fiber, but a mild case is enough to turn a white fleece into a vaguely blotchy yellow one. Some people like the effect, some don't. If a raw white fleece seems unnaturally bright yellow in spots along the fiber, you'll want to skip it if the color is important to you, and take it into consideration when deciding how much you are willing to pay.

A good fleece for handspinning should be well-skirted. What that means is that the nasty parts have been removed. There are two general kinds of skirting: the shearer's skirting, which removes the worst of the worst, and the sorter's skirting for handspinners, which removes lower quality wool that would be acceptable for industrial processing but not for the premium prices paid by spinners. If the fleece has been "lightly skirted", you shouldn't be buying lumps of manure but you might get some stuff you have to throw away. As far as I'm concerned, anyone claiming to be doing me a favor by "leaving final skirting to the discretion of the spinner" is no friend of mine. That means part of the fleece is less than handspinning quality wool, and if that's the case I'd rather they just come out and say so.

Partial fleeces
Know what purpose you have in mind when you are buying partial fleeces. I comb, so I want the lock structure of the fleece to remain intact as much as possible. A partial fleece has been divided into sections and it might not be as neat as you like. Also, sometimes you get several smaller sections, which compounds the problem. If the seller sections off lots for each listing, then that fleece probably has been opened up and repacked several times. If this is an issue for you, buy whole fleeces if you can and avoid small lots unless the seller is very clear that it has been sorted into staples.