Thursday, February 27, 2014

How to wash wool

This winter has been cold! I’ve worn my wool a lot – wool socks, t-shirts, pants, sweaters, mittens, hats and scarves. And the wool keeps me warm. But with such continuous wear, it gets dirty.

The washing instructions for most commercially produced wool items say “dry clean only.” I wash all my wool clothing by hand in my sink. It’s not hard at all; you just have to be careful. Wool fibers have scales like human hair. When the fibers get hot and wet, the scales open away from the fiber and if you rub or agitate the garment (like you would in your washing machine), the scales on one fiber get tangled with the scales on another fiber and the fibers can no longer slide along each other. This is felting.

Some wool manufacturers deal with the problem of felting by superwashing the wool. Superwash is a technique that dissolves the scales on the wool fibers before they are spun into yarn, so that they can’t felt, no matter what you do.

Hand spinners never use superwash wool, and a lot of commercial yarns for hand knitters and weavers are not superwash wool. You can successfully wash wool garments in your kitchen sink by remembering three basic rules:
1)Don’t change the water temperature. Use a cold wash and cold rinse, or warm wash and warm rinse or hot wash and hot rinse. Just don’t change the temperature.
2)Don’t agitate or stir the garment once it is wet. Smush it into soapy water (I usually use a short squirt of dish soap,) When you drain the water, just press the garment against the bottom of the sink. Repeat with clean water to rinse. If you still have soap bubbles, rerinse.
3)Don’t twist the garment. When you’ve pressed all the rinse water out, lay the garment on a dry towel and roll up the towel. Press the rest of the water out. Then unroll and lay garment out on a dry towel to dry.

If my garment seems a little misshapen at this point, I reblock it. I pin the edges of the garment every few inches into a mattress and allow it to dry. If your garment originally had creases, like on a pair of trousers, you can press those creases back in using a damp dishtowel between the wool and your steam iron on the wool setting.

Don’t be afraid to wash your wool; it’s better for you and for the garment than dry cleaning.

Monday, February 17, 2014


Our three year old grandsons, Kieran and Jasper, came for the weekend and helped us feed the sheep. First, we located their sheep. The boys trailed behind us when we poured dried corn into the feeders, the golden yellow kernels clattered as they hit the blue feeders. Then we boosted the boys into the hay mow to look for BC the barn cat while Dave and I threw bales out into the hay feeder.

We loaded our big sled with six bales and with an adult pulling and Kieran or Jasper pushing, we moved the hay down the hill. As the sled gained speed, the boys ran to keep up and then finally, slid on their bellies, still clutching the back of the sled. They were laughing, cheeks rosy, eyes sparkling as we spread the hay on the fresh snow and climbed the hill to feed the rams.

It’s funny how my attitude changes when we share the sheep.

Friday, February 14, 2014

How to wash a fleece

Photo by Meg Hanson

We sheared on the first of February. All things considered, it was a balmy day - 6° Fahrenheit outside with a fierce wind, but warm enough in the closed barn with forty sheep and thirteen humans to work without mittens. Tom, the shearer showed up at 8:30 and cut the last piece of wool off the last ewe’s back about 12:30. We had three guys catching sheep and trimming hooves, a couple of people bagging fleeces and half a dozen volunteers of all ages skirting fleeces. The skirters discarded locks of wool contaminated with manure or alfalfa bits, ran their hands through the still warm wool, and chose fleeces to take home. Most of our flock had worn coats for the last three months, since we began feeding hay. Their fleeces were beautiful – chocolate brown, deep black with rusty tips, glistening white, and two fleeces that were white with black spots from our Jacob ewes Mouse and Ervatunjum.

Once the fleeces are skirted, they’re ready to be used. Some spinners enjoy spinning “in the grease”. In fact, sailors wives on the northwest coast of the British Isles often knit “in the grease” also, hoping that the lanolin in the yarn would protect their husbands and sons from the cold, drenching seas. I like to spin clean wool. For twenty years I’ve used my washing machine and lots of clear dish detergent to clean them – one half cup detergent per load, at least two washes of three pounds of wool per wash. But I’ve noticed that when I send my “clean” fleeces off to the mill to be carded or spun that I get an extra washing charge for at least some of my fleeces. They are too tacky to run through a carding mill.

When I started taking my fleeces to Dakota Fiber Mill last fall, Chris introduced me to Ecoscour WA-305 detergent. It only takes two tablespoons of Ecoscour for three pounds of wool and the fiber dries silky and not at all tacky. This detergent is a wonderful invention. It saves time, energy and water. I buy mine from Chris at Dakota Fiber Mill. My new directions for washing a fleece are as follows:

1) Fill your washing machine with hot water.
2) Add the detergent.
3) TURN OFF THE MACHINE! Do not miss this step, you will felt you fleece if you forget.
4) Smush fleece down and soak for thirty minutes.
5) Turn machine to spin, turn the machine on and spin the fleece.
6) Remove fleece from machine. (If you get lazy and decide to leave the fleece in the machine while the machine refills with water, get a book to read while you lean on the machine and wait for the water to fill. If you wander away you will eventually felt a fleece (I’ve felted several).
7) Fill the machine with hot water. TURN THE MACHINE OFF!
8) Return fleece to machine. Soak thirty minutes. If the rinse water is clear, Repeat the spin step. If the rinse water is still cloudy, repeat the wash step.
9) Spread wool out on a sheet in a warm place to dry. Mine goes in front of the wood stove in winter and in front of a sunny window in spring, summer and fall. If you pick apart the clumps of wool, it will dry faster.

Some spinners wash their fleeces lock by lock. This keeps the fibers aligned and they can be spun as the fiber grew on the sheep, creating a very even, organized yarn. Next week I’ll post directions for washing wool clothing, it’s a very different procedure than for washing fleeces, rather closer to washing fleeces lock by lock.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Grafting a lamb

Grafting lambs is an iffy occupation. The need usually arises when a new mom dies or is too sick to nurse her baby. Then we try to persuade another mom to adopt that baby. The other reason to try a graft is when a mom loses her babies and has all that good milk going to waste, not to mention the anguish the mom feels for her lost baby. Sometimes, mom’s call for several days, trying to find dead lambs.

Dave went out to the barn to turn off a light on Tuesday night and found two moms and two new lambs! One of the moms was 56y. Neither of the lambs was hers; hers had both died a day ago. She was very interested, nose down, snuffling, calling to the new lamb.

Dave and I conferred about pros and cons. If we could get 56 to accept a new lamb, both lambs would have more milk to drink and would gain weight faster. If the graft didn’t work, if 56 didn’t accept the new lamb, his actual mom might not accept him back. That would leave us with one lamb getting a lot of milk from his mother and a bottle lamb, gaining weight not so well on lamb milk replacer.

Grafting usually doesn’t work. We have tied an older lamb’s legs together to fool a new mom into thinking it was her newborn. Didn’t fool her. We have put a ewe into a stanchion, trying to keep the ewe from sniffing a grafted lamb and therefore not realizing it wasn’t hers. Didn’t fool her. We have rubbed a newborn onto an older lamb hoping that the amniotic fluid would disguise the scent of the older lamb and the mom would accept the graft. She didn’t accept it. Our friend Glen has even skinned a dead lamb and tied its skin to an older lamb to make the new mom believe it was her lamb. That did work, but we weren’t in a position to skin anybody.

We followed our hearts and decided to graft one of the new lambs onto 56. Dave picked up the lamb and carried him slowly to a pen. He laid him in the glow of a heat lamp and stepped back. 56 came in, chuckling and baaing. She sniffed the lamb and immediately started licking him. Dave shut the pen door and watched. Soon the lamb was on his feet, searching for a nipple. When he found it, 56 stood quite still, allowing him to butt her udder and finally to nurse. Meanwhile ewe number 7g hadn’t realized that we’d stolen one of her babies. She chuckled contentedly and encouraged her remaining lamb to nurse.

It was a successful graft. The old mom really wanted a baby, and had milk. The newer ewe had had mastitis in the past and only produced milk on one side, so would have had a hard time feeding two babies. Two babies nursing on moms and no bottle babies. Perfect.