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Classing 101

by Anne Marie Parcell

Anne Marie looking at a line of white fleece.In October, near the end of the season, one of the wool handlers asked me ”AnneMarino are you really glad to be finished at the end of the classing season?”. The answer was a resounding no! I love classing and it is such a short season -just over three months. It’s 365 days for me to wait to class that wool again. But wool is never far from my grasp as I’m a spinner, weaver, knitter and a hoarder of wool as well as a shepherd, and I have my own flock of coloured sheep.

After finishing school, I worked intermittently as a shedhand for Peter Lyon Shearing which funded a Diploma in Farm Management at Lincoln College. I returned to study for a Certificate in Wool Handling for 12 weeks, never imagining I would become a wool classer. That was 1991 – 32 years ago. Since then, I have spent three to four months a year travelling around Central Otago, visiting the most picturesque stations in the country and handling some of the most stylish wool in the world. I also worked in the US for five seasons, first pressing for one season then classing for the rest.

A caramel coloured fleeceI get to work with some amazingly talented people who make up the fine-tuned engine that gets the sheep in from the high country and through the shearing process. My classing “run” includes The Branches beyond the Skippers (I first went in there as a shedhand in 1992). I also travel to St Bathans, Wedderburn, Omarama and Poolburn.

Not every woolshed is the same. Closed long boards are tricky and timing is everything. You can have from 2-7 plus shearers lined up down a narrow shearing board, with each shearer walking back and forth across the board into a pen. Each fleece being picked up and taken to the table to be processed. Six shearers shearing 50 sheep a run (two hours), that’s 300 fleeces. It is like a very fast dance with shearers and woolhandlers weaving in and out between each other. Open raised boards are a bonus, with less bending and fewer collisions all around.

A dark coloured fleeceMy job is to assess the wool, fleece by fleece, in order to get the farmer the best possible price for their wool. Like with like. Classing wool is a bit like filing. I have to assess each fleece based on its individual characteristics – length, strength, colour, condition, style, micron, webbiness and handle are among many of the characteristics I look for when classing. Each fleece then goes to a particular bin with like fleeces, all of which is then pressed into a bale of approximately 185-190 kg. Each bale from this bin is makes up the line. Once at the wool store this line is sampled, tested and presented for sale at auction or put up for contract. Basically, I walk around in circles really fast, putting each fleece in its correct home.

A fleece showing the lovely crimp and beautifully formed staples It is a great environment to collect/hoard coloured sheep. I love white wool but also all the natural colours. Black, brown, moorit, grey, silver and bluey grey. Its all beautiful! I’m very focused on crimp, length and style. Style is very subjective but it can’t be plain like a piece of chalk. A fleece needs to stand out or up. For me if you push down on it, it should bounce right back. Of course, all breeds don’t do this but I like them for other reasons. The crimp should be quite prominent and draw your eye in, imaging what type of yarn you could spin from it.

A moorit fleeceMy flock consists of Gotlands, Corriedales, Merinos and Polwarths/Quarterbreds and of course crosses of many of these. I love experimenting based on the qualities of the fleece each sheep has. As Tom Hanks said ‘life is like a box of chocolates you never know what you gonna get!! ‘

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