I hang out (on the internet, and occasionally in real life) with people a lot more technically specific in their spinning than I, and I fully admit that somewhere along the way I lost track of where the entrance to this rabbit hole actually is. So, since I have no intention of ceasing the spinning talk, I thought I might take some time and space to clarify the basics, using my recent spinning projects as specific reference points... meaning I get to talk more about this guy (who might actually be a gal):
The Jacob sheep is classified as an "unimproved" breed, which means a number of interesting genetic things, but only two are super important to me, the novice handspinner. One, there's a lot of variation within and between individual fleeces, and two, there are often two layers to a Jacob fleece-- a downy undercoat, and a hairy outer layer.
Since I don't prepare my own fleece, when I get it my Jacob already looks like this:
Raw fleece-- meaning just sheared off the sheep-- is not only dirty, it's also in lock formation (lock like locks of hair). While it's possible to spin directly from the lock, it's more common to process them. There are, generally speaking, two ways to process fleece: the first is to comb the locks, which makes each fiber lie parallel to the other fibers-- like combing your hair. The second way is to card the locks, which randomizes the direction the fibers lie-- like ratting or teasing your hair back in the eighties.
There are reasons to do both, or either, and subtleties within each kind of fiber preparation, but generally, processed fleece fits into one of those two categories: combed (also called top), or carded (also called roving. Sometimes the word roving is used to mean any processed fiber, but it's not supposed to be).
Once I have my prepped fiber in hand, I have to decide how I want to add twist to it, to keep it together as yarn. That's all spinning is, really, adding twist to fiber. Once again, there are two broad categories of how I go about adding twist, whether I'm using a spindle or a wheel, and those categories are worsted spinning or woolen spinning... And the choice between the two (or any of the combinations of the two) comes down to what breed my fiber is, how it was prepared, and what I want the finished yarn to be like.
We've already covered fiber prep, so the next consideration is staple length, which brings us back to the breed of sheep and their individual lock structures. Staple length is quite simply the length of a sheep's shorn locks, and each breed has an expected range of staple length, which means that breeds and their wool are often categorized as short (like Merino), or long (like Blue Faced Leicester, or BFL). In spinning, staple length is important because it determines how far away each fiber can get from the next fiber as twist is introduced. (As an aside, long-wool and short-wool are not the same as fine or coarse wool. The designations of fine, medium, and coarse have to do with the diameter (measured in microns) of the individual fibers, and as a result, how soft they feel. They've naught to do with the staple length.)
Woolen spinning, on the other hand, produces lofty, fluffy, and very warm yarn by adding twist to unorganized fibers-- such as those in carded roving. Traditional woolen spinning is done primarily with one hand, pulling the roving away from the source of the twist; the twist itself catches more fibers and pulls them out of the roving. The other hand might occasionally guide the resulting yarn, but in general, it stays out of the way. One very famous spinning teacher suggests spinning woolen with your beverage of choice in the other hand, to prevent you from smoothing out your yarn.
Worsted spun yarns tend to have better stitch definition because they tend to be smoother, making them a favorite of lace knitters and cable lovers, while woolen spun yarns are both warmer and lighter than their worsted counterparts (due to air being trapped and held within the disorganized fibers), making them excellent candidates for winter sweaters and hats; woolen spun yarns can also be more delicate, meaning not so good for socks. Again, each kind of yarn can be used in any way that pleases the knitter, but there are certain affinities and traditional uses.
OK, I've taken my fiber, and added twist in whatever way I've seen fit... Now what?
You can stop here, if you'd like, but generally, I ply. Plying, coming from the French plier meaning to fold or bend (and no, I didn't even have to pull out a dictionary for that one... sometimes a traditional liberal arts education has its uses), adds strength and dimension to yarn, as well as balancing out many inconsistencies in the original spinning-- and, trust me, I have a lot of those.
Yarn that is not plied is a singles yarn-- not a "single ply" because that term is nonsensical. Singles are taken and twisted together to form plied yarns in a myriad of different combinations; plying structures are generally identified by the number of plies in them (2-ply, 3-ply, 5-ply. etc.) and/or by the method of combining the plies (navajo, or n-plying, for instance, loops a singles yarn over on itself to create a three ply yarn; cable plying takes already plied yarn and plies against other plied yarn-- so two 2-ply yarns become a 4-ply chained yarn). Each plying structure had its pro and cons, its fanatical supporters and its detractors... including people who don't ply at all, and produce singles after singles happily.
Sheep locks, just like people hair, has texture. It's called crimp. And the crimp of a particular wool can be left in during fiber preparation, or taken out (like flat ironing your hair instead of leaving it curly, if your hair is curly in the first place). Even if the crimp is left in, the process of spinning the wool can pull it straighter than it might be normally, and, as another very famous spinning teacher likes to say, fiber, like everything else in the world, is governed by first principles. This means that once the yarn gets wet, the fibers that make it up will attempt to bounce back to their original state. Some wools (like Merino) have a lot of crimp, and bounce back so much the skein will actually lose length in its first washing; others started out relatively straight and so won't change as much when they hit the water. Almost all wools, and skeins, will gain some body-- plump up, if you will-- after being washed.
Jacob doesn't have an extraordinary amount of crimp, but it does have that outer layer of coarser hairs. And, depending on the fleece in question, its original quality and how carefully it was prepped, those hairs can make the final skein a little rougher than you'd initially expect, because those coarse hairs will also plump and curl as they hit the water.
I've been teaching myself to spin this past year with the help of the internet, and a number of really excellent books and videos-- if there's interest, I'll work on creating a list of useful references. Most of the pictures I've used are my own, and the ones that aren't should be linked appropriately. I am, as always, incredibly grateful for all the time and effort other people have put into sharing their spinning knowledge, and I hope this little lesson encourages someone else to join us down the rabbit hole!