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Staple length generally determines the end use of wool, that is, whether it will be used in weaving or knitting.
Longer wools are processed in the worsted system (weaving). These combing types are generally around 50 millimetres (mm) and longer. The worsted system produces fine, even, smooth yarns mostly for apparel, but also for upholstery fabrics requiring a smooth finish.
The worsted system consists of two main processes, topmaking and spinning. Topmaking leaves the fibres lying in parallel after carding, gilling and combing. Wool tops are then spun into yarn.
In contrast, the woollen system converts scoured wool into yarn in two steps - woollen carding and woollen spinning.
Wool types used in the woollen system are called carding types, and usually have a much shorter fibre length (below 40 mm) than combing wools. These include types such as locks, crutchings, bellies and lambs wool. Woollen spun fabrics are used for jackets, coats, skirts, upholstery fabrics, rugs and blankets.
The charts below show the length where fine and medium micron groups can achieve their maximum price. For Merino wool, the ideal length is generally in the 85mm to 90mm range. As with other wool attributes the finer the wool the more sensitive is its price to any fault, including too short or overly long wool.
Graph of price discounts and premiums for length - fine wool.
Graph of price discounts and premiums for length - medium wool.
The following charts show the trends for length discounts in the fine and medium micron ranges.
Graph of trends in price discounts for length - fine wool.
Graph of trends in price discounts and premiums for length - medium wool.
Recently, discounts for shorter types grew, with the 60mm discount approaching 180 cents in the finer microns. Buyers are more selective about their purchases.
Environmental factors contributed to the price differentials with drought conditions affecting staple growth as well as shearing intervals.
Woolgrowers can manage frequency of shearing, breeding and nutrition to control staple length. Staple length is unlikely to be altered in isolation of fleece weight, unless targeting a market with a specific length requirement that differs from average.
On exception is lamb shearing. Avoid discounts for short wool by leaving lambs unshorn. Wait until the second main shearing after lambing, or if this is more 14-15 months later, have an intermediate hogget shearing before bringing them into line with the main shearing.
An issue for certain sections of the industry has been over length fine wools. Buyers of fine wools generally prefer a relatively short staple. As breeders increase fleece weights of finer micron sheep, staple length increases, introducing the possibility of discounting.
Some research indicates that processors may achieve greater efficiencies using longer wools than they presently buy, and recent market trends indicate that the discount for longer wools is narrowing. If the trade maintains its preference for shorter staple fine wools, breeding programs may have to address ways of increasing follicle density independent of length to achieve fleece weight gains.
The Economic Value of Fleece Wool Attributes (PDF 2.74Mb) - an analysis of the fleece wool market factors contributing to premiums or discounts from 2004 to 2011.