Friday, December 26, 2008

How to Wash a Sheep's Wool Fleece

I learned how to make yarn on a spinning wheel and I've got a new obsession--spinning. After taking some lessons I started saving. I even took on extra work supply teaching to raise funds to buy my own wheel. Months went by but finally in the fall I got my Louet spinning wheel. I don't know much about it from a technical standpoint other than that it's well made, I love it and it has two foot pedals. My teacher recommended it, having said she's tried them all, I took her word for it and ordered the Louet.

I had been working with roving, fleece which has already been cleaned and combed but recently I bought my first full fleece, smelling like a barn of sheep and I happily brought it home. It was a golden apricot colour which I loved. I was hoping that it would stay that colour but unfortunately it came out white after washing. It was the oil--lanolin that gave it the peachy colour.

I've subscribed to a spinners' magazine called Spin Off where they had a great article on the "best" way to wash a fleece (the article was by the well renowned author and spinner Judith MacKenzie McCuin). I followed the directions and the results were very pleasing. Here's the gist of it:

  1. Soak your fleece in a pail or bucket of room temperature water for 5 to 7 days. It's best if you can keep this water warm. The reason for the soaking is to loosen off the poohy particles but more importantly, to let the suint - the water based cleanser that is on all wool -- work to cleanse most of the fleece for you. Suint is naturally secreted by the sheep and it has soap-like dirt shedding qualities when it's wet.
  2. After the week, remove the fleece to a strainer but be sure to keep all that poopy water. That water will be full of suint and it can be used over and over to cleanse future fleeces. So put a lid on that bucket and keep it. (Confession - it's a cold and snowy winter in Canada and my poopy suint water is in a large garbage can in the kitchen. I can't put it outside because the water will freeze. At least the lid snaps down and latches really well. But on the other hand, I always loved the barn so a little sheep smell isn't that bad). Once this poopy water is too gross to continue with you can pour it out on your garden for your flowers.
  3. Fill your washing machine with hot water - enough water to cover the fleece. (Don't put the fleece in and run water on it or it will felt). The heat will help to clean the fleece and also remove the lanolin.
  4. Put your fleece into your washing machine, letting it sink down and be covered in water. You can gently push it under the water but don't agitate it (I know, it's hard to resist!). Let it soak for 30 minutes. The washer is being used as a tub for hot water and for it's spin cycle, but don't use any agitation. (Now what I do which I haven't heard of others doing is I cover the washer with a couple comforters. This helps to keep the heat in so that the water doesn't cool down very much. Some people cook their fleece as a way to keep the temp up, but I prefer this method).
  5. After 30 minutes, check the temperature of the water with your hand. Then turn your washer to the spin cycle (spin only, no rinsing) and spin out the water. It'll be dirty.
  6. Remove the fleece and refill the tub with hot water - make sure the temperature is the same as your temperature check so the fleece isn't shocked or felted with a sudden temperature change. This time add dish washing liquid until the water is slippery with soap. There's no need to make the soap bubbly but don't worry to much if it is.
  7. Add the fleece to the washer and let soak again for 30 minutes with the comforters keeping things hot.
  8. Once again turn the washer to spin and remove the water. It'll be not so brown this time but still dirty.
  9. Remove the fleece and again refill the washer with the same temperature water and soak again for 30 minutes and spin out the water.
  10. The water should start to be clear and clean looking which means the fleece is getting clean. Repeat the process if necessary until the water is clear.
  11. After your final spin, lay the fleece on a towel and/or drying rack and let it air dry.

  12. This section of fleece from "Francis" was very dirty with fecal matter and straw.
  13. The wet fleece will air dry in about 24 hours which is about as much time as you might need to decide what you're going to make with all this wool. Then, get out the carders and get ready to have some fun!!!
Here's a photo of Tigger laying next to my wool carders. As you can see, cats know the benefits of wool to keep them warm on a cold winter night. When Tigger left, my other cat Tom came and took up the same spot. They also love to curl up on my wool sweaters for a little nap.

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