Next up in our processing wool series is washing the wool. We have already discussed raising sheep properly for healthy wool, shearing, and skirting in our blog post “How to Process Wool: Sheep to Spinning Wheel.”
Once the raw fleece is off the sheep and skirted, it is time to wash it. The fleece is full of dirt, lanolin, and vegetable matter (VM) that needs to be removed.
We start by filling our bathtub about half full of the hottest water from the tap, plus a couple of big pots of boiling water to get it to about 140F degrees. Then we add 1/3 cup of dishsoap and gently swirl it around, trying not to create a bunch of suds.
Now it is time to add the fleece! We pick up the fleece in handfuls (two hands together) and pull it apart a bit to help the soap and water get to all of it. We place the loosened handfuls of fleece on top of the water and gently push them down into the water, being sure they are getting completely covered and soaked. It is really important to not agitate the fleece at all because it will cause felting.
Here is a fleece in the tub, this is more suds than we usually have:
We let the fleece soak for about 20 minutes. Then we lift it out by the handfuls and gently squeeze it to remove some of the water before we set it in a big plastic bin. Here is what the water looks like after the first wash…pretty yucky:
We drain the tub and rinse it with hot water to get the dirt all out. Then we refill the tub again with the same amount of 140F degree water, but this time with no soap. We take the fleece out of the bin we set it in and submerge it in the rinse water. Then let it soak another 20 minutes. Again remove it from the water, squeezing gently and placing in the bin (wipe the bin between the wash and rinse if it has soapy water left in it).
At this point you decide if the fleece is clean enough or not. Most of the time, it wont be. However, our jacketed Lincoln Longwool, Stella’s fleece usually only needs 1 wash and 2 rinses. All of our other sheep need more washing at this point. So we continue with one wash, followed by one rinse until the fleece is clean. For our jacketed Merino/CVM Fiona’s fleece that means 4 washes/4 rinses because the fiber is so fine it holds the dirt and lanolin tighter.
After repeating the 1 wash/1 rinse process until it is clean, we follow with one last rinse. So for our easiest fleece that means wash/rinse/rinse. For our hardest that means wash/rinse/wash/rinse/wash/rinse/wash/rinse/rinse. I am guessing it could be even more with non-jacketed sheep fleece.
After we have completed the washing and rinsing process we lay the fleece out all opened up, on towels, on the floor, under the ceiling fan to dry. However, we live in a very dry climate. I don’t think people in humid places can get away with that. I know many people build a screen drying rack for their fleece. We will likely do that someday, but for now we get by just on the floor.
Now the fleece is clean and dry! In our next post we will talk about picking and carding the fleece.