Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tutorial: Washing Fleece

A few weeks ago, if you recall, I was up camping in Utah. When I came back, there was a bag full of raw wool waiting for me in my studio. A dear friend had dropped by while I was gone, and played Fleece Fairy for me. Poof! Have a project. Since then, it has been sitting under my spare loom, just kind of looking at me reproachfully as I ignored it to play with the triloom. Today I was at a break point between shawls, so I decided to start processing it. The first step is to wash the fleece out. Here's how I did it:

Here is a shot of the raw fleece. Sheep are very dirty animals. Their fleece is full of a grease called lanolin (you can find it as an ingredient in hand lotion), and they roll around in the pasture. And, well, they poop. The first thing you do with a fleece is discard the pieces that are too filthy and matted to deal with. This fleece had been pretty well picked over before I got it, so there wasn't too much in the way of dung or twigs to pick out. But I took it outside, and as I grabbed handfuls to wash I shook them out to get rid of bits of bedding and dirt.

I took the shaken wool, and loosely stuffed three lingerie bags with it. I have more fleece than will fit in the bags--this is going to take several batches to clean it all. I took the bags inside, and then filled my top loading washing machine with hot water and four capfuls of Synthropol. After the washing machine was full, I turned it off and gently dunked the bags in to the water.

I set a timer for ten minutes, and left the bags to soak. Soak only, mind you. Wool will felt with heat, water, and agitation. I had the heat and the water, so I needed to avoid the agitation. After ten minutes was up, I came back. The water was absolutely filthy. Ewww!

I put the washing machine on spin cycle, and let it spin all the water out. The bags were pushed against the sides of the machine, but they weren't agitated so it was a safe move.

There was a residue of dirt and grease left inside the machine, so I wiped it off with a paper towel before the next step.

The paper towel came back caked with mud. Did I mention that sheep are dirty dirty animals?

I filled the machine with hot water again, but didn't add soap this time. The bags went back in the water to soak for another ten minutes.This is what the water looked like this time around, before I used the spin cycle again.

There wasn't as much dirt on the paper towel this time, but it was still pretty dirty. I decided to do another ten minute rinse soak.

After the second rinse, the water was clear, and the paper towel had almost no residue. I thought about doing a third rinse, but my plan for this fleece is to make felt out of it. That means I'll run the fleece through my drum carder, which will get out a lot of the remaining dirt and vegetable matter. Then, the felting process with its hot water and soap should take care of the rest of the cleaning.

So, I took the wool and laid it out on a rack. This is it still wet, but you can see what a difference there is from where it started! That sheep was white after all. The wool will take a couple of days to thoroughly air dry. I figure I'll clean a batch of wool every couple of days, and the fleece should be ready for carding next week.


  1. Oh wow looks wonderful how you do it!

  2. Wool is really magic stuff. Now, if only I could keep some sheep in the back yard. Somehow, the city frowns on that in my zoning, though. :)

  3. Its amazing to see how clean it became in the end! Looks like entire process takes lot of time and patience..

  4. What a time consuming process. It looks like it end product more than makes up for all the grungy glean up. It's nice to see what the starting stages of a textile project looks like

  5. When I give demos on historical textile making to kids, I start off asking them how many shirts they have in their closet. After they shout out numbers for awhile, I tell them they are *rich*. They give me boggled looks, and then I tell them folks in the Middle Ages were lucky if they got one new outfit a year. Because they had to raise the sheep, shear the sheep, wash the wool, card or comb the wool, spin the wool into yarn, weave the fabric, and then hand sew the outfit. Oh, and before the 1300's, there weren't even spinning wheels. It was all done on the drop spindle. Time consuming indeed! But fun. :)

  6. Great blog thanks for sharing this process. It's good to see how much work it takes.

  7. What would we do without washing machines.

  8. Well, we could go back to the old fashioned method of beating it with sticks in running streams. :) Of course, running streams in the Phoenix area are kind of hard to come by. Aren't rivers supposed to have, oh, WATER??

  9. Wow! My daughter just did a report on how this was done a few hundred years ago. Boy would they have loved a washing machine!

  10. I'm sure it would have made things much easier. I love that spin cycle to get the excess water out!