Spinning History-



From Fleece to Fabric — An American Tunis Breed Study

Just as there are many dog breeds that come in different sizes, colors, and coat types — there is a wide variety of sheep breeds. Each sheep breed has been bred throughout history to produce wools with different characteristics.

A close-up of an American Tunis sheep standing in a green field
Sheep come in a wide variety of breeds. This is an American Tunis sheep.

In my last post about Spinning for Beginners, I mentioned that there are many types of fibers to choose from. For example, sheep’s wool that is good for making carpets will be different from wool that is good for making luxurious, comfortable clothing.

So how do you choose the right breed for your project? Breed studies can be immensely helpful for understanding this.

I generously received a gifted sample of some American Tunis wool. So, I am going to walk through a miniature breed study, from raw wool to finished yarn, with American Tunis.

Watch the full video about this breed study on YouTube or keep reading below!

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What is a breed study?

A breed study is when you take raw wool (straight from the sheep, before it’s been washed or anything) and go through the entire process of cleaning it, scouring it, preparing it for spinning (combing or carding), spinning it, and then evaluating the final yarn (usually as a sample swatch).

Images of a tuft of wool and a sheep labeled "sheep's wool" with an arrow pointing at a woman's hands holding yarn labeled "yarn"
Breed studies examine the characteristics of a specific breed of wool from when it’s sheared from the sheep until it becomes yarn or fabric.

The idea of a breed study is to get a good look at the final fabric, understand the characteristics of specific breeds of wool, and see what purpose would be best suited for that wool.

Many spinners will frequently conduct breed studies and then catalog their results for future reference.

The wool for this project: American Tunis

A very generous Fiber Friend, Karen, sent me a sample of her sheep’s wool for this breed study. She raises American Tunis sheep, which is what I’ll be using for this breed study.

This particular sample is from a two-year-old ram.

Breed Study

Breed studies can give you a lot of information about a sheep breed. I think they are so much fun! Here is how I typically conduct a breed study.

Step 1: Initial impressions

I like to start my breed studies by getting an initial feel for the wool.

A close-up of hands pulling apart a tuft of raw wool
I like to gently but thoroughly handle the wool to get to know its characteristics.

I like to touch it, pull on it, and hold it up to the light while asking myself the following questions:

  • How springy does it feel?
  • Is there a luster? How shiny is it?
  • How soft does it feel?
  • What does the structure of the wool look like?
    • Is it crimpy? Curly? Coarse?
  • How consistent is the structure?

Step 2: Hit the books

Next, I like to turn to my favorite resource ever: The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook.

In this book, you can look up any breed of sheep and it will give you a whole bunch of information about where the sheep comes from, why it was developed as a breed, and any historical tidbits and facts. It also gives a good look at how the how the wool washes up and how it looks in finished projects.

You can read more about why I love The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook here.

When I looked up the American Tunis in this book, I learned the following facts about the breed:

  • American Tunis is a conservation breed, meaning the numbers are pretty low and there are efforts to keep this breed going
  • It was developed from Tunisian Barbary sheep
  • It’s an ancient breed that dates back to biblical times
  • The original Tunisian Barbary sheep came to North America from North Africa in 1799
  • George Washington is said to have used a Tunis ram to rebuild his mount Vernon flock after he retired from the presidency

So, there’s definitely some history with this sheep.

I also learned the following about the wool:

  • The wool is an off-white to creamy tan color
  • Lambs are born with all red wool and the color fades out as they age

Step 3: Scouring

Now that we know a bit more about the wool, it is time to start preparing it.

The first step is scouring. Scouring is the process of removing the lanolin from the wool and generally cleaning off any biological residue and sheepy stuff that collects when the sheep go about their lives.

Here is my scouring process:

  1. Get a container of hot water (around 120 degrees is best, keep it under boiling)
  2. Add in a scour solution that is specially formulated to remove lanolin. There are a variety of products out there, but my favorite is called Unicorn Power Scour.
  3. Dunk the wool and let it soak until the lanolin grease, sweat, and icky bits come out of the wool
  4. Give the wool a good, gentle rinse
  5. Spin the wool in a salad spinner wool to quickly remove a lot of the excess water (be careful not to agitate or scrub the wool too much or else you risk felting and disturbing the structure)
  6. To get it completely dry, set the wool outside on a nice sunny day. Be sure to gently secure it to keep it from blowing away or getting stolen by any critters in the backyard.

Step 4: Prepare for spinning

After scouring, it is time to clean up the wool a bit more and get it ready for spinning.

My favorite way to do this is with my Valkyrie fine mini hand combs.

A woman seated holding a clump of white wool and a wool hand comber
The hand combs look a little scary, but they are fantastic at removing any vegetable matter that is left behind after scouring.

Once you’ve combed the yarn and are ready to remove it from the combs, I like to gently pull on the yarn, which helps get it ready for drafting. It also leaves any vegetable matter and unwanted snarls behind on the comb.

Some loose wool, balls of combed wool, and wool hand combs resting on a wooden table
The hand combs do a great job at getting the wool mostly clean and ready for spinning.

In the end, you should have a clean, lovely, bouncy little floof of yarn ready for spinning.

Step 5: Spinning and plying

Finally, it is time to spin!

A close up of a hand holding white yarn on a wooden spinning wheel
Time to get spinning this little American Tunis sample!

I used my Ashford Elizabeth in double drive to create a lovely, worsted spin. (If you need a spinning wheel, you can check out the offerings available in my shop and let me know if you have any questions!)

Then, I used a bracelet plying method to create a nice, even two-ply. Finally, I put the yarn onto my Ashford Niddy Noddy Sampler.

A close up of a twist of white woolen yarn on a wooden table
The yarn bubbled up a little, which I think means I got the right amount of twist on it. So lively and lovely!

American Tunis: Breed Study Results

I really enjoyed spinning this wool because it has a lovely bounciness and it drafted very easily. It didn’t seem to stick to itself in any way. It was not ropey or too loose, and it had good spring and bounce. It would be wonderful to work with in either a woven or knitted project.

I measured my yarn using my handy yarn spinning control cards. This American Tunis yarn came out at around 11 or 12 wraps per inch.

A close up of a hand holding a string of yarn onto a wooden yarn spinning control card at dk 11.
The yarn was 11 or 12 wraps per inch, making it a DK or Sport yarn.

I had just enough wool for a small, knitted swatch. I put about 12 stitches on my size US 8 needles.

Wooden knitting needles with a small swatch of white yarn resting on a wooden table
The swatch is very small, but it gives me a reference that I can put into my reference library.

Along with the swatch, I also save some yarn, a small piece of the raw wool, and a small piece of the washed wool. It will all give me a lot of information when I am choosing wool for a future project.

Now, I can take a look at the reference entry and get a good idea of what the bounce and the drape of this yarn feels like and how the fabric will turn out. I can better gauge if the yarn will be soft or durable enough for the larger project that I am working on.

Small samples of raw wool, washed wool, yarn, and a knitted swatch of American Tunis wool all resting on a wooden table
These American Tunis samples will all give me a lot of information when I am choosing wool for a future project.

This was a wonderful little breed study — I enjoyed it so much! So, if you have the chance to work with some American Tunis sheep, I highly recommend it!

Subscribe and Learn More!

If you’re interested in doing a large project that starts from a raw fleece and goes all the way through to a finished product like a cardigan or sweater, I recommend my Fleece to Sweater Workshop on my Patreon.

To learn more spinning tips and tricks, you can also, watch the full video on this topic and subscribe to my YouTube channel. I have a lot of blog posts and YouTube playlists with more information, product reviews, and spinning tutorials.

If you are interested in private virtual spinning lessons, you can send me an e-mail at [email protected].

Happy spinning!