Ok, troops, let’s talk about scurf. That’s a nasty word in the fiber world, but there’s a lot of confusion about it and I’ll be honest and say that some of that confusion is making me a little nuts.
Scurf is a type of dandruff condition in a fleece—except that it is not just dandruff. It displays as flat, irregular flakes, is typically larger than any dandruff I’ve ever seen, and is usually present in the lower half of the lock. This is not a brilliant photo, but you can see it pretty clearly in this dark mohair:
You can see it even more clearly in this close-up:
It is a condition you’ll find in goats and sheep, and should not be confused with scabies, something that was largely eradicated in the US around the 1970s. It is caused by a mite. The mite has a limited life span in that it doesn’t survive once the fleece has been sheared; it is host specific and feeds on the hosting animal. The animal has to be treated to kill off the mite, so if you ever do get a fleece which truly does have scurf, it’s a kindness to let the shepherd know. It is more common in goats than in sheep, but if you ever get it once, you’ll know it because this is truly hateful stuff!
One of the problems is that you most often cannot see it until you wash the fleece. That’s when it comes out of its hiding place in the rest of the dirt and suint. Once you see it, however, then you’re stuck trying to get rid of it and it just does not relinquish its hold easily. Unlike dandruff, it won’t shake or comb out once the fleece has been washed and the lanolin removed. It tends to have a rather gummy texture when it’s immersed in the wash, and when dry, behaves like cement. Carding will simply break it up and spread it throughout the lock if it is not already there. Combing has a similar effect, although you can usually get rid of some of it if you happen to be using very fine combs.
Literally, the stuff sticks there and in most cases, getting rid of it is more trouble than the fleece is worth. It does not card out, does not comb out, and does not wash out. In order to get rid of it, you have to attack it with extreme prejudice and be very very ruthless.
In my own experience, the easiest way to get rid of scurf—and do note that I said “easiest” and not “easy”; there is no such thing as “easy” with this stuff—is with a cat flea comb. The spacing on those tines is so tight that most of the flakes aren’t allowed to pass through them, so it’s possible to comb one half of the lock, then turn the lock and comb the other half, and ultimately get rid of it. But, if you’re dealing with a large fleece, the question is whether you really want to go through all that work.
One possible alternative is to use a glug of ammonia in the wash. Typically, ammonia is not something you’d want to put on your fleece, but for a short period of time, it can be useful. It tends to help dissolve the scurf and while it may not eliminate all of it, reports are that it does eliminate at least some of it.
Some folks don’t mind processing and spinning the fiber with the scurf present, and then using the resulting yarn—and that’s something which is up to each spinner to determine. Where is your particular “gross factor” line? I’ll be honest and say clearly and unequivocally that I’m jolly well not one of those folks. I don’t want to handle it more than I have to, I don’t want it in my yarn, and I most certainly don’t want it in anything I will be wearing. A rug on a floor or a felted pet bed? Ok—as long as you do the spinning, thank you. It’s not contagious or infectious, but well, it’s gross. I know, I know; that’s a stereotypical girly response, but there ’tis.
Part of the problem with this particular issue is that many folks, and particularly those who have never experienced it, confuse it with a simple or even a more complex dandruff. But it is not dandruff. Dandruff comes out, usually fairly easily. Scurf does not.
Similarly, folks seem to be a bit confused about what causes it. It is not caused by nutrition issues, stress, or weather. It is caused by a mite which is happily munching away on that goat or sheep.
However, perhaps the biggest reason why there is so much confusion about this problem is that there is so little documentation, and the jargon is hugely inconsistent. As spinners, we don’t, for instance, know precisely which mite causes the problem. We lack the veterinarian’s or zoologist’s notes about it. We know that treating the animal kills it off, but we don’t have that little beast’s name.
Similarly, the word “scurf” is used by the animal industry in very general terms to include nearly all things dandruffy and skin flakes in general. In the spinning community, however, we distinguish between dandruff and scurf largely because we can do something about the first, and have a hellish time doing something about the latter. If we say that we have a fleece with scurf, then the rest of the spinning world should have a good idea of our frustration and sadness at losing what might otherwise be a perfectly good fleece. It is exponentially different than having a fleece with dandruff. Dandruff is annoying, but can be eliminated with just a little extra effort.
The spinning community is, unfortunately, guilty of furthering the verbal confusion, and particularly among the newer spinners. We have a tendency to say that the fleece is “scurfy” as a way of saying that it has flakes—without necessarily being scurf. In the strictest sense of the word and ignoring the animal industry’s use of the word, scurf as a “disease” is caused by the mite. If there is no mite, there is no scurf. There may be other flakes, but if there is no mite, there is no scurf.
All that said, a scurfy fleece can be dealt with if you’re willing to put in the extra time and effort to work with it. But before you do that, seriously consider whether or not it’s worth it. Your time is valuable, and the sheep and goats are constantly growing more lovely fiber. Unless that fleece is simply exceptional, then it really should be something you weigh carefully. Scurf is a reason to turn down or even toss out a fleece. Really.
PS: Deb Robson has an old blog post which might be helpful: http://independentstitch.typepad.com/the_independent_stitch/2008/06/a-problem-for-s.html