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Fleece is a type of hair found on sheep, yaks, alpacas, some goats, rabbits, and several other types of animals. Most commonly, this unique hair is associated with sheep and yaks. This hair has a number of properties which make it very distinctive, and extremely useful. People have been collecting fleece and weaving it into various textiles for centuries, and some of the oldest known textiles in the world are made from fleeces.
Also known as wool, fleece consists of hairs of varying lengths which have a great deal of loft and insulating properties. On the animal, the hair grows together in a mat, with the scales on the individual hairs interlocking. The hair keeps the animal warm and dry, allowing it to live in cold, harsh climates. Because the hairs interlock, it is also possible to remove fleece whole, using a pair of shears or an electronic clipper to quickly snip the mat away from the animal's skin.
The process of taking fleece from an animal is known as “shearing.” Shearing classically takes place in the spring, when the animals have especially long coats, and the risk of extremely cold weather which could hurt the shorn animals is over. Once the hair has been sheared, it can be graded for quality, with people assessing the length of the hair, the amount of crimping it has, the width, and other factors. After grading, fleece is processed so that it can be spun into thread for knitting, weaving, and other crafts.
The texture of the raw hair is quite distinctive. It is, quite literally, woolly. The mat of interlocking fibers which forms naturally on some animals is also imitated artificially by humans to make various “fleece” products such as jackets and blankets. This imitation is made from specially treated plastic fibers, and it lacks the deep insulation and loft of true fleeces, although it can be quite warm and comfortable in wet weather, since the plastics resist moisture very effectively.
When animals with fleeces are butchered, it is not uncommon to leave the fleece attached to the leather, treating them together to create a special textile. This combination of leather and fleece, known as shearling, can be used to make waterproof insulating garments like shoes and coats. Shearling takes advantage of the durability of fleece and leather, along with their water resistance and workability. It is also viewed as fashionable in some areas of the world.