From Sheep to Loom

November 3, 2015 By navajolifeway Off
Horse cinches woven by children at the 2005 Kady Youth Sheep Camp.

Horse cinches woven by children at the 2005 Kady Youth Sheep Camp.

Healthy Sheep:

To create a high quality fleece, the animal must have consistently good nutrition and be free from stress and disease. Clean environments also contribute to good quality of fleece. Good breeding practices must be followed to ensure that the proper genetics for high quality Navajo-Churro Wool are passed on to offspring.  Sheep health care, wool grading and judging, and sheep shows at Sheep Is Life help producers learn what it take to produce quality fleeces.


First, wool must be shorn from sheep.  Blade shearing done by hand can be very time consuming.  A good blade shearer can beat the machine, but few have this skill today.  Machine shearing requires a power source.  If the machine isn’t portable, herders must transport their sheep, a difficult, stressful undertaking. Blade shearing is the most traditional and practical solution when dealing with the average-sized Navajo flock (25-50 sheep).  Proficiency in both mechanical and blade shearing should be improved.

Skirting and Sorting.

Shearing Tools

Shearing Tools

Next, shorn fleece must be skirted: the manure, suit, sticks, and other trash sticking to the edges of the fleece have to be cut off and the fleece picked over to remove vegetal matter.  The fleeces are then sorted by grade and color, marked by producer, and packaged for handling and storage. Cleaning or Opening.  While a good Churro fleece can actually be spun right off the skirting table, most fleeces have to be cleaned and washed.  Prior to washing, the fleece must be opened to release dust and open locks of wool for penetration of the scouring agents. This can be done by hand, with several kinds of tools, or mechanically.


Churro wool can be cleaned with white clay, but the washing method applicable to most wool produced on the Navajo Nation requires hot water and scouring agents to remove the lanolin and dirt.  The clean, opened fleece needs to be moved through a series of four hot water baths, of which two contain detergent.  The wool must be handled gently and not allowed to cool between baths. This is to prevent felting.  It must be “squeegeed” (the water pressed out rather than wrung out) between bath one and two so that most of the dirt and lanolin are left behind. Scouring agents maybe used to remove grease, which inhibits mechanical processing of the wool. Navajo-Churro wool tends to have less grease than commercial breeds making washing much less intensive. A few hand spinners may prefer to leave grease in.  If there is a sufficient amount, the lanolin removed from scouring may be recovered as a by-product. Finally, the fleece must be dried carefully so as to prevent felting.

Carding into Roving.

Most spinners prefer working with roving. This is created by card (similar to combing) the wool so the fibers all go the same direction. Carding can be done with hand carders (small boards with teeth attached like a metal hair brush), hand-cranked drum carders (drums covered with the same type of toothed material), or motorized drum carders.  Motorized drum carders come in a range of sizes from small carders for home use to larger ones for cottage industry.  The larger carders can also produce bats, which are useful for quilting and for felting. Bats are sheet like where as roving is rope-like.  The length, width and thickness of roving or batting depends on the methods used to create it.


Wool can be dyed at any stage after washing, depending on the needs of the final product, the desires of the spinner/weaver, and the processes to be used.  Dyeing requires hot water, and sometimes the wool must sit in the hot water for a day or longer.  The wool must then be rinsed. The wastewater requires careful disposal according to manufacturer’s recommendations and the condition of the local wastewater system.  Dyeing process using natural materials are not benign because they usually depend on mordents.

Spinning.  The last stage of processing is spinning the wool into yarn.  Spinning can be done with the thigh spindle (traditional Navajo), drop spindle or a spinning wheel.