Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Washing Old, Dirty Fleece by Hand

When did someone paint me washing wool?
Washing fleece, or "scouring" as it's also known as, is truly one of the most satisfying steps in processing raw Fleece. Its amazing how something so filthy can become so clean and lovely. Particularly when you're washing two-year-old fleece, where the lanoline oil has had a chance to harden, and the sheep are raised for lambing and are covered vegetable matter (vm). The hardened lanoline makes it very difficult to shake out or remove the vm before cleaning.

Many experienced wool processors or spinners will tell you that in such a case as this, it is a total waste of time to even go near the fleece. But I have the benefit of inexperience and curiosity on my side, and 24 free Shetland sheep fleece to play with. Using two-year-old fleece full of vegetable matter to learn from, reminds me of when I was 11 years old, taking drum lessons. My teacher started me on jazz music, because "if you can play Jazz you can play anything". If I can make yarn out of this fleece, I can make yarn out of anything.

 I have no lofty goals of using these particular fleece to spin extremely fine yarns to knit expensive designer knits with - I am simply trying to gain experience, improve my wool processing skills, and have something to practice spinning with.

A note about skirting 
Before you can wash a fleece, it has to be "skirted" - unless the person who sheered the sheep has done this for you. Skirting takes off the worst of the fleece that is stained and matted. I will go over skirting in another post, which I realize is out of order, but I'd hate for my blog to seem contrived. I've had this fleece stinking up my bathroom for almost a week, so its time to deal with it.

A note about felting
Felting is wonderful, except for when you don't want to do it. If you have a filthy fleece, you are probably not trying to felt it at this stage, and if you plan to card it for spinning then you definitely don't want to felt it. Felting is achieved through heat and agitation, and is helped along by temperature change and detergents. You will probably not accidentally felt your whole fleece while washing it (unless you decided to wash it in a machine or use a wash board), but you may accidentally felt parts of it if you are not careful.

Machine alternative 
Many people use their top load washing machines to wash fleece. I have a front load, so its not an option for me, but I am also paranoid about letting my wet wool out of my site, so I would do it by hand anyway. Here is a good tutorial on using a machine from Spinderellas.com

The required materials:
  • Something to wash it in - a basin, kitchen sink, bath tub
  • Dish detergent
  • Vinegar
  • Drying rack (salad spinner also helps)
Here in the full fleece that I am going to wash. I zeroed the scale with my pickling pot on it before filling it up. I know I can only wash about 2 lbs at a time in the galvanized basin I use. 

About 4.25 lbs - looks like I'll be doing two loads.

*Note* You have to get the water ready before putting the fleece in!

Put about 1/3 of a cup of detergent in the basin for every pound of fleece. A pound of fleece is quite  a bit, so you might have to do it in batches depending on the size of basin. Ensure that there will be a decent water to fleece ratio (more water than fleece) to avoid having to do extra soaks.

Fill up the the basin with the hottest water you have, leaving enough room for the fleece.

Set the fleece on the water and hopefully it will start to sink on its own, if not gently press it down. The water is probably too hot to use your bare hands, so use dish gloves or some kind of prodding device. The key is to not agitate the fleece.

Once covered by water, let the fleece soak for about 25 minutes. Don't go longer than this, or the water will cool, risking felting, or the lanolin re-hardening.

Gently remove the fleece from the water and set aside.

Dump the water - as you can see in this picture, it's disgusting.

Depending on how dirty the fleece is, you may have to repeat the above instructions, with half the soap and a little less time. Last week I washed a filthy one-year-old fleece with two washings, and one rinse, but it may have been a little over-scoured. This is a two-year-old fleece, so there isn't much hope for less than two washes.

Second wash
If you have done a second soak, remove the fleece and dump that water. My water is still mucky after the second wash, but I don't want to do a third for fear of over-scouring. The wool will clean up a bit more in the carding process, and the yarn can always get washed once it is spun.

Still mucky, oh well.
The fleece is rinsed by filling the basin up with hot water again, without soap, and about 1/4 cup of white vinegar per pound of fleece, to balance the ph. Soak it for about 10 minutes.

Mine was floating. As a child, we had a in-ground swimming pool. My father was relentless that I not go anywhere near the pool if it had the plastic cover on it (glorified bubble wrap), because if I fell in, the suction from the cover would prevent me from coming up and I would drown. I applied this crude science to my floating fleece issue.

To be entirely honest with you, I forgot about the fleece and I went grocery shopping. It ended up being in there for about 45 minutes. I will make an update on here if I notice any terrible result from this.

Remove the fleece and squeeze out the water. The rinse water is pretty clear. That is a good sign.

If you have a washing machine with a spin cycle that doesn't add water at the start, you can use that to spin out the wool and then hang on a drying rack. I don't have this kind of spin cycle, so I just squeeze it and drape it over my drying rack. You can also spin handfuls in a salad spinner before hanging.

Unwashed fleece is in the basin beside the drying rack - what a colour difference!
Once dry, your wool is ready for felting or carding, or whatever else you like to do with clean fleece -comment below with other ideas!


    1. Lovely description and photos. I also enjoy washing raw fleece. Thanks for a nice post.

    2. Hello,
      I found your photos and procedure informative. I myself have just finished washing 2/3 of a raw fleece that has sat in my living room for almost a year. I'm also an ultra- novice spinner. I'm writing for advice....I left most of the clumps of what might be soil or poo on the fleece tips. Quite a bit remained on the fleece even after rinsing up to 3 times. Have you experienced this? Will they come off during the combing/carding process? Should they be trimmed off before the combing/carding process? I would appreciate any advice you can offer.

      Thank you,


    3. lovely post as I have just been gifted two raw fleeces


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