Fleece has two main markets – handspinners and the specialty carding mills that cater to them, and the traditional commercial yarn mills. Whereas commercial mills want white fleece of moderate length, handspinners like colored and white fleece of varying lengths. Most handspinners prize fineness, luster and the cleanliness of the fleece; some prefer the wool of rare breeds.
The characteristics of fleece vary among breeds, including the following qualities.
Staple length. The average length of wool from the skin to tip of the fiber is defined as its staple. A four-inch staple is the easiest to spin by hand. If the wool has a very long staple (e.g., longer than 10 inches), it may need to be combed, rather than carded. Long wool is often strong and somewhat coarse, and it can be used for rug weaving.
Luster. A high luster (gloss) is desired by handspinners and found in breeds such as Romney and Corriedale.
Softness. The softness, or fineness, of a fleece is described by either the micron count, or Bradford spinning count (also called wool quality number). The micron count refers to the size of the fibers; higher numbers indicate coarser fleece. The Bradford count describes how many hanks of wool can be spun from a pound of fleece; fine fleece has high numbers. For example, a soft fleece like the Merino has a micron count of less than 20 and a Bradford count above 80, whereas coarse rug wool has both a micron and Bradford count of about 35.