Working with imperfect fleece: part 1, initial evaluation and washing

We spinners in particular parts of the globe at the beginning of the twenty-first century have been pretty spoiled by the availability of clean, combed or carded, organized, sweet-smelling fiber. Lots of that fiber has been dyed luscious colors. We see, we want, we buy, we take home, we spin (and we blog).

There are compelling reasons to track fiber back to its source and learn to begin with the raw material. That’s a topic for another time (or several other times), except for a brief discussion now about dealing with less-than-perfect fleece. Because sometimes there are compelling reasons to hand-process less-than-perfect fleece.

Why?

In this case, I’m spinning wools from rare breeds. One of the ways we can ensure the survival of the genetic resources embodied in rare breeds is to create markets for their wool. In order to do that, we need to know something about the wool. In order to become knowledgeable, we need to spin it.

I’m not going to name the breed I’m spinning right now because that’s not important to this discussion. It’s a severely endangered breed that is superbly adapted to a particular environment. Beyond the other genetic traits that argue in favor of our facilitating its survival, it grows wool that, years ago, was spun into one of the most tactilely appealing yarns I’ve ever encountered—it had an almost magical hand ("hand" being the textile person’s word for the way a fiber or fabric feels). In the nineteenth century, many more years ago, a major newspaper referred to it as some of the best wool on the planet (I’m paraphrasing; the praise was high).

Few of these sheep survive. Getting fiber took some doing. Someone generously sent me a sample. Having it here is a minor miracle.

Evaluation

Time for initial an initial assessment of what’s in front of me:

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This is what any handspinner would call an imperfect fleece. It contains vegetable matter (shorthand VM; bits of stick and grass and the like) and dirt (various types). There are some second cuts (places where the shearer took two passes with the shears and left tiny bits of wool at the butt, or cut, end of the locks). Sometimes second cuts are easy to pull, or occasionally just brush, off the inside of the fleece. Because of the fineness of this fiber, that wasn’t the case here. Second cuts will be something I’ll deal with from start to finish on this fiber. I’ll pay some attention to them, but I won’t let myself get obsessed; I’ll have to go with the flow of this particular fleece and see what happens. The locks are really short: 1.5 to 1.75 inches  (37.5 to 45 mm), unstretched.

Here’s a closer view:

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The green color on that piece of VM is one piece of good news. Another is the softness of the mass of wool. This has been freshly shorn. The grease hasn’t hardened on the fiber. The VM will be mostly supple instead of prickery. The tips, although clumped together by dirt (and a bit of dung here and there), aren’t felted or fragile, and the muck hasn’t turned into near-crockery. The portions of the locks toward the inside of the fleece (the cut ends, the most recent growth, the parts protected by the tips, which gathered the muck and didn’t let it go deep into the wool) are white and soft. And yet more good news: the wool feels bouncy, with some crimp and loft to it . . . those would have been the qualities that would have contributed to the magical hand of that long-ago yarn.

I already know that with this particular fleece I won’t be able to spin a yarn like the one that I remember. This wool is too short and too dirty (it’s the type of dirt that matters, not the quantity), and has too many second cuts and other neppy clumps.

But because of its rarity, because of my overall project, and because it looks workable, I proceed with washing.

Washing

The wool is in a colander about 8.5 inches (22 cm) across inside a slightly larger bowl in my kitchen sink, which has two basins. I’m working with about a third of the mass seen in the first photo. The picture below shows the third wash; the water is still dirty, but it’s nowhere near as grubby as the water from the first two washes (I only thought to start taking photos of washing when I got to number three).

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Here’s the process:

  1. Put the dry wool in the colander, which is sitting in the righthand sink. The blue bowl goes in the lefthand sink.
  2. Fill the blue bowl two-thirds with the hottest water from the tap. Turn off the water and generously squirt in washing aid (I usually use the blue variety of Dawn dishwashing detergent); the goal is to make the water feel slippery but not to raise bubbles. Gently stir the water to distribute the detergent. Fill the bowl the rest of the way with near-boiling water from the teakettle. I like the water not so hot that I can’t put my hand in, but hot enough that I don’t want to keep it there. Thus the rubber glove.
  3. Set the colander on top of the bowl. The wool will float on the surface and then begin to sink. Let it. (Sometimes I press it very gently just to submerge it, but that’s just because I’m impatient.)
  4. Remember that wool + hot water + soap agent + agitation = felt.
  5. Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and go do something else. The goal is to move to the next step before the water has cooled down appreciably.
  6. When the timer goes off, come back and lift the colander out of the bowl and set it in the righthand sink to drain. (Shake the colander up and down to push some of the excess water out.)
  7. Empty the washing bowl, checking to see how clear the water is (or isn’t). If there’s sand or mud in the bottom of the bowl, rinse it out.
  8. Repeat steps 2 through 7 as many times as needed, until the water in the washing bowl is clear, or nearly so.

There’s actually a terrific wool-washing tutorial at what turns out to be a site embodying some of the wisdom of Straw Into Gold. Considering that Straw was one of my most important suppliers in the dark ages (even though I didn’t live nearby and depended on UPS to make the connection), perhaps it’s appropriate that I’ve been washing my wool for decades using the methods described here. There’s a lot more detail. It’s good detail.

Because this wool was so grubby, I did several things that aren’t part of my wool-washing routine and that I don’t recommend except when absolutely necessary.

After the first couple of washes, when it became apparent that more active work was required or I’d be dipping and draining for weeks, I gently rubbed the tips of the wool between my (glove-clad) fingers to release it from the still-caked dirt. I also lifted the mass of wool and set it in the colander with the bottom side up, again to help release more dirt into the water below the colander. I did handle this fleece a lot more than usual, and used motions that I’d normally use to make felt . . . on quite a fine wool that would be expected to felt easily, even without prime conditions. I just didn’t use those motions very long in any single location.

Two washes is the normal amount. (Sometimes I do an initial cold-water soak in plain water; the amount of time the wool spends in this soak isn’t critical; it can be a few hours or overnight. There’s no temperature issue involved.)

After five washes, I decided enough was enough, even though the wash water still wasn’t as clear as it usually gets.

Here’s rinse bath number one—same temperature, but no detergent. The wool is not perfectly clean, but it’s significantly whiter. I’ve generally ignored the VM, except to pull out the obvious stuff.

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This is obviously not a perfect washing job. Any attempt to reach that level would be counterproductive—it would at least waste time, and maybe turn the wool into felt.

Three rinses. Also more than usual.

I’m still ignoring the VM. It will likely fall out in the next stages of processing. I’ve also got some remaining dirt, but I’ve been here approximately 5 x 20 plus 3 x
20 minutes, and even though I’ve been working while the wool soaked
I’ve got other things to do that require fewer interruptions.

I roll the wool in a terrycloth towel and squeeze it gently to remove some of the water. The towel is what is handy; a salad spinner would also work, but I don’t have one right now that’s reserved for fiber use. (I also scrubbed out both sinks with cleanser.)

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So now the wool gets to dry. This is one of the few times that it’s advantageous to live in a semi-arid climate. The Manx Loaghtan wool (the brown) is 99% dry after just an overnight rest on the drying rack (the tips are sun-lightened, a characteristic of the breed, but not a problem). My new wool joins it, and because there’s less of it than the Manx and it’s not as dense in the locks it will dry even more rapidly.

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I won’t really know what I have to work with until the wool is fully dry and I start the next steps.

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Copyright 2008 Deborah Robson

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5 Responses

  1. Thank goodness people like you love this realm so much. I can’t even be in the room with an unwashed fleece. Apparently I’m allergic to sheep but not wool. (In any case I’m allergic to the VM… could not be a farm girl if I wanted to.)

    Then again, I’m not into dirt (or by association, gardening) much either. I do garden, did it yesterday, but less is more in the dirt department (I love my gloves).

    I like flowers enough to do dirt a few times a year, then all I need to do is water and appreciate. Love watching things grow!

    On the other hand, I love wool and fleece, and spinning is a joy to me. Fortunately there are folks like you willing to do the work of getting clean wool to market, ready to spin. I make sure to thank them with my greenbacks when possible.

    Now, if I could only find time to spin more. I do it when my business is caught up enough to allow an hour of total for-me time. Lately it seems there’s always a list of deadlines coming with no wiggle space.

    I can go pet my “bumps” of prepared wool, anyway, and knit for my work.

  2. Oddly, I’m allergic to wool. But my allergy is mild, and as long as I’m not triggered by *other* allergens, I can play with wool all I want. Sheep, too. I do need to watch out for some of the weeds.

    What I love is taking a fleece that looks unpromising and making it beautiful. Washing is such a transformation!

    Well, part 2 is nearly written (carding) and I’m working on the photos for part 3. So I’d better get back to it or this series will be another of my unfinished ideas. . . .

  3. Oh, my BIG problem is mothballs. *Cannot* be around wool that has been in stored with them. Even airing out for weeks isn’t adequate.

  4. OMG!!

    You must have been reading my mind about wanting posts like these.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing all this detail! I’m keen to try this myself. I’m going to go read the next steps…

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