I realized when I talked about watching the video on fleece processing yesterday that I never shared my own fleece-washing experience with you! I started this post way back in mid-August but things got busy with my manuscript and here we are. Like many new things, my first fleece-washing experience was mildly terrifying, kind of confusing, and a little bit messy — but overall, it was just fine. There is a plethora of information available on how best to wash a fleece. I suspect that they all work equally well and whichever is best depends on what you are working with (equipment-, fleece-, and patience-wise). Now that I’ve seen Judith’s video, I’d recommend watching that first because I was a bit of a nervous wreck thinking I would ruin the thing at every step and she very calmly talks about the whole business in a way that make it seem much less daunting. For reference, here’s what I did for my first fleece.
Breed: American Southdown. Obtained: Fresh off the sheep at a farmer’s market in June 2013. The shearer picked it up, felt it, and said something like “this is probably about 3 or 4 pounds” then stuck it in a bag and I took it home.
Pre-washing prep: I sorted through the fleece and took out the really nasty bits since it had not been skirted. The short fibers near the legs are usually covered with dung tags and other unpleasantness, so it’s best to get rid of them. I also laid mine out on a garbage bag in the sun for a day or so to let it dry off because it was humid from the animal and the heat. I’ve since read that fibers can be damaged in direct sunlight, so this might not have been the best idea and I believe it allowed a lot of vegetable matter to settle into the wool from nearby trees, so I likely will not be doing this next time. I sorted the fleece into paper grocery bags and stored it in a shed until I had the time and the right weather to wash. I did the paper bag thing on the vague notion that wool likes to breathe but I think it probably runs the risk of attracting critters this way so I wouldn’t recommend it for long-term storage.
Cold soak #1: I live in an apartment building with a bit of grass outside. My Fiasco uses a neat connection hose to fill his fish tank from the kitchen sink so we used the same thing hooked to an outdoor hose to fill two 18 gallon tubs with cold water. I split the fleece roughly in half, pushed the wool under the water gently, and let it soak for a half hour.
Drain: Next, the Fiasco tipped the tubs while I rather inelegantly held the wool back with my arms to drain. This was trickier than it sounds. The water was tipped directly into surrounding flower beds, which is supposed to be great for them. We then used a handy window screen upon which we spread the wool to drain while we refilled the tubs.
Cold soak #2: Repeated the first cold soak, this time breaking the wool up more and swishing it around a bit as I put it back in the tubs. Drained again.
Cold soak #3: Out of paranoia of clogging my washing machine with dirt, I decided to cold soak the fleece once more for another half hour and drained. I then prepared for the hot wash by sorting the fleece into about a dozen small-ish lingerie bags. (I did the bags initially, then realized they did not really help at all. Too much fiber in the bags, too many clumps not getting clean enough. I DON’T recommend using the bags.)
Hot wash #1: According to Spinderella, water needs to be around 150 degrees F to remove lanolin from the wool, and should not drop below 100 deg F. I have no idea what temperature my water was but others have just used the hottest water that came out of their washing machines so that’s what I did, too. I filled the machine with hot water (on soak) and mixed in a bit more than 1/2 cup of Dawn liquid detergent. Then I placed half of the bags of wool in the water and let it soak for 20 minutes. Avoid agitating the wool at this point because it can cause felting. (I suspect I could’ve done the same thing with hot water from the sink in the tubs outside but didn’t feel like sticking my arms in scalding hot water to drain.)
Drain: Your washing machine should have a rinse and spin cycle. Make sure you SKIP the rinse cycle and go straight to the spin. This will drain the water out. You don’t want to rinse as that will agitate the fibers, plus if your machine rinses with cold water it could felt the wool.
Hot wash #2: Removed the wool from the washer, wiped the wash basin clean, and refilled with hot water and this time a bit less than 1/2 cup of soap. Placed the wool back in and soaked for another 20 minutes. Drained as before.
Hot wash #3: At this point, my wool still looked pretty dirty and this is when I realized that the lingerie bag plan was crap. So I refilled with hot water, used about 1/4 c of soap, then removed the wool from the bags and put it in the machine, gently breaking up clumps as I went. I also swished the wool in the water a bit (with gloves on since it was hot!), felting be damned. Drained as before.
Vinegar rinse: Removed the wool from the washer, wiped the wash basin clean, and refilled with hot water and this time 1 cup of white distilled vinegar. Waited 15 more minutes, then drained as before.
Drying: I bought three cheap sweater-drying racks and placed these outside, out of direct sunlight this time. (Also, by this point it was early evening. Ha! Note to self: begin wool washing before noon.) I spread the wool out and fluffed it up a bit to dry and left it outdoors overnight.
After all that work and worry, my fleece is clean and unfelted, so yay! It still has some yellowish coloring to it and there is a heck of a lot of vegetable matter in there but there is not much I can do about that. I’ve learned from the video I watched (see resources below) that I probably could’ve sorted my fleece better beforehand and saved myself some trouble only washing the best bits. But considering I completed the process without 1) felting the wool or 2) breaking my washing machine, I’m calling it a win.
- Judith’s video, Three Bags Full
- Ten Good Sheep’s fleece washing tutorial which convinced me to do the cold soak beforehand
- Spinderella’s post on washing a fleece
- Here’s a really simple description I wish I had seen back in August so I would have known that I was doing it just fine
- Deb Robson’s very detailed description of how she washes fleeces in the tub
- Finally, The Yarn Harlot has a post on washing just a few locks