A Practical Approach to Wool Processing
by Rowan Spiritwalker
A lot of people are apprehensive about washing and processing raw wool/fleece. There really is no reason to be; observe a few simple rules and your results will be good (nearly) every time.
Sheep are browsers and grazers; once they have filled their tummies, they like to lie down somewhere peaceful and digest their food.
They also produce lanolin, which waterproofs their fleece and protects it and their skin from the elements.
The combination of where they happened to lie down plus the lanolin, plus any hay or grain the shepherd/farmer tosses over the fence to them makes for what can appear to be more than some people want to take on.
In our “modern middle ages” its a lot less labor intensive than it used to be. Especially if you have a top loading washer! Even if you don't it is still relatively easy - sometimes time consuming but easy - to wash your own wool and make it ready for spinning.
Not every raw fleece out there is worth the trouble. There are some that are so caked into the fleece with barnyard (I said BARNYARD mud, not “simple” mud...there is a difference) mud and infiltrated with debris such as grain and alfalfa that it is really not worth the time, unless it happens to be something that you REALLY REALLY want to do. I have done many that no one else would touch - some were diamonds in the rough and some were just good for the practice.
The method I teach uses our “modern middle age conveniences” - if our ancestors had the opportunity to do so you better believe they would have. The point is to clean the wool/fleece so you can card/comb it into something you can use.
That being said.....Lets Begin!!!
Lay the fleece cut side down on the floor on a sheet or whatever you have handy.
Pick the straw/woodchips/what have you off of it and discard.
Also skirt (remove) any remaining really dirty stuff, i.e., crotch areas, belly, neck where the hay and grain got into it, etc if the shepherd didn't get it all before you got it and discard.
Don't worry about dust and dirt that are “in” the fleece right now. You can pick it up and give it a few good gentle shakes to get loose stuff out though.
If you know how to turn your hot water heater up, do so. Anything over 140 degrees is good.
Washing Machine Method:
Set the machine on “hot wash”, and “large or extra large load”, add two or three (depending on how much lanolin is in the fleece - more lanolin, a little more soap) scoops/measuring caps of laundry detergent. Let it fill and agitate for a minute or so to dissolve the soap.
Stop the washer. Make sure it can't complete the cycle.
Very gently pull apart the wool in the middle of the fleece to make a good -sized hole.
Place the fleece in the washer, slipping the hole you made over the agitator, and gently push the fleece under the water. Doing it this way keeps the locks from separating overmuch. Close the lid on the washer, making sure you DID stop the cycle, and......
Go away for 45 minutes or so.
(A note about agitation - DON'T let the washer agitate. Moisture plus heat and agitation = felt. So make sure that washer is turned off till you want to spin it out.)
When you come back, set the washer on “spin” and let it spin the dirty soapy water out.
Depending on the amount of lanolin and dirt that was in the fleece, you may have to repeat this step once or twice more. Gently remove the fleece from the washer, wipe out any dirt, and repeat the process. For REALLY gunky gummy fleeces I add a cup of ammonia in the wash water.
(I can hear the gasps of horror but think - back in the day our ancestors used stale urine. Urine breaks down into uric acid and ammonia. Very effective way to clean fleece). When the fleece feels clean, do a rinse soak with hot water and a half cup of vinegar. This removes the rest of the soap (and ammonia if you used it) and restores the pH balance of the wool.
FOR THOSE WHO DON'T HAVE ACCESS TO A WASHER........
You can wash wool in the sink. Basically its a scaled-down process from the washer; hot water, and detergent - half a scoop would be plenty - in your sink, a pound of fleece. Gently push the fleece under the water and let it soak for about 45 minutes. Pull the drain out and gently support the fleece with your hands till all the dirty water has run out. Repeat if necessary, then a final soak-rinse in hot water with a little vinegar.
In the summer months I spread the fleece out on a sheet on my porch or lawn to dry; in the winter months I spread it out on a sheet on my living room floor. Anywhere is good as long as it gets some air. Turn it as necessary to ensure it dries.
Now......for fleeces that have more than their share of vegetable matter in them.....I take the dried fleece down to my dryer, set it to “no heat”, put the fleece in, set it for 60 minutes and go away till its done. Tumbling it in the dryer will remove a GREAT deal of grass, chaff, dust, etc. You can do this a couple of times to aid in getting it out.
At this point, you can card or comb it yourself, or have it sent to a processor such as Wooly Knob or any of the others to be made into roving. (Why wash beforehand? Because the processors charge you for incoming weight. Myself, I don't want to pay to have dirt and vegetable matter carded.)
If you are combing or carding yourself, and have the advantage of owning a wool picker, this would be the time to use it. (Wool pickers “pick” the fleece apart, making it easier to comb or card). If you don't have a wool picker, you can pull the locks apart by hand. This also helps any remaining vegetable matter/dust in the wool fall out.
Comb or card to your personal taste.
Ta-da, you just did it “from scratch”! Now HAVE FUN with it!