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.

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