So, we talked about the king of wool, Merino in our last Breed Spotlight post. You might be wondering: If Merino is so great, why do I keep seeing yarns and fibers made of other wools? Turns out, there are probably just as many breeds of sheep as there are dogs, and each one has its own unique wool characteristics that make it great!
The second most common wool you’ll see in yarns and spinning fibers is probably Bluefaced Leicester (pronounced Lester), frequently truncated as BFL. Their “blue” face comes from the peach fuzz of white hair on black skin of their face. BFL is a new breed, originating in the north of England. They were originally bred as mule stock – sheep that were purposefully bred to be paired with other breeds to strengthen the other flock. Just as in dogs, “mutts” are often healthier and hardier than purebred animals. In the early 1900’s, shepherds realized that their BFL flocks could stand on their own merits and began promoting pure BFL.
BFL wool is a part of the “English Longwool” family, which gets its name from the length of its wool (surprise!). The staple length, or length of any individual lock of hair, is typically close to 5-6 inches for Bluefaced Leicesters. Merino has a staple length of 3.5 inches, on average. The wool has a beautiful luster and when it is dyed, colors look bright and shiny. The biggest benefit of BFL is how durable it is – it is known for being hard-wearing and pill resistant. It’s also great for blending into other fibers to balance them out. For example, you might blend BFL with silk to create a lovely drapey, lustery yarn that still has quite a bit of elasticity.
The longer staple length of BFL wool means that it can more easily be “worsted spun.” Confusingly, worsted spun yarn has nothing to do with worsted weight yarn. Worsted spun yarns have had fiber prepared so that all of the individual hairs are pointing in the same direction. This produces a yarn that does not have a lot of loft, or air trapped in the yarn, but is quite drapey and smooth.
It’s also BFL’s long staple length that makes the wool so durable. When a garment made from Bluefaced Leicester wool gets a lot of friction (such as under the sleeves of a sweater, or palms of mittens), there is less of a chance that any one fiber gets pulled loose from the fabric. The wear and stress is more evenly distributed, which prevents it from pilling.
After singing its praises, you might be wondering what the downsides of BFL are. The main one is that it’s definitely not as soft as Merino. If softness is the most important thing about your next project, you’re likely going to want to stick to superwash Merino. For many, BFL rides the line of being acceptable for next-to-skin wear. If you have sensitive skin but still want the perks of BFL, look for a superwashed BFL yarn for your next sweater or socks. The superwashing process softens the wool quite a bit, without sacrificing on durability, drape, or color.