One way to wash fleeces, part 1, getting ready

posted in: Spinning, Wool | 6

It's been quiet around here because life events have needed all my attention. Fortunately, I've had some time over the past ten days to let some of recent turbulence settle and to begin re-establishing an equilibrium that isn't braced to handle a tidal wave that can be seen approaching. That doesn't mean the storms are over; they aren't. But I'm in a bit of a breathing space, with about a dozen blog posts in the background waiting to be finished (or started).

Today I'll warm up with a topic that came up recently on Twitter: how to wash a fleece of a type that is known to be prone to felting. This is the inquiring fleece-washer's first fleece. (By the way, it will be just fine. The fleece involved, a Hebridean, won't likely be stubborn about holding onto either its grease or its dirt.)

Part 1 of 3

My general washing practices take the potential for felting into account, and I use them with all types of wool. In these posts (I see there will need to be three, as the words and the photos have added up), I have done my best to use a sequence of pictures from the same washing session, although I needed to insert a few non-sequential photos to fill in particular points. I'm also going to show and talk about at least one thing I used to do that I don't do any more, and why: your washing situation may require it, as it may require other adjustments along the way.

I'll also go into a whole lot of detail, because it can be unnerving to wash one's first fleece, and I think more detail may be reassuring as long as the novice fleece-washer keeps in mind that there are only two esssential things to remember:

  • Don't agitate the wool.
  • Don't let the water cool off so that the dissolved stuff recongeals on the fiber.

My goal is to remove the lanolin and as much dirt as possible without drying out (or felting) the fiber. I don't pay much attention to vegetable matter during washing, except to note how much there is and of what type(s), for future reference. With few exceptions, it's easiest to remove vegetable matter when the wool is clean.

I make many choices that are very personal. I hand-wash in batches that let me see the wool as I'm working. I want to start getting to know the fiber at this stage, and I want to be able to ease out some of the dirt that might not be released if I were cleaning larger quantities or containing the fiber in bags (although I use bags in part of the drying stage).

There are myriad ways to clean wool. Some people prepare net-wrapped rolls of individual locks. Some wash in big bags. Some use the container of a washing machine as a basin. Some use methods similar to mine but with fewer rinses and washes (maybe they generally have cleaner fleeces to work with!—with some of the breeds I enjoy spinning, I don't have the option of a super-clean starting point). All of these are appropriate choices for certain situations.

There is also the so-called suint method, which some people like a lot but I don't intend to try, again for personal reasons. I'm allergic to mold and mildew. I dislike strong, bad smells (barnyards are fine; feedlots and other odor-sources of similar intensity are not). And while I'm willing to accept the risk of fleeting exposure to small amounts of agricultural chemicals (like sheep dip) when well diluted by water that is continually freshened, I'd rather not spend time in the vicinity of a solution that contains (with the recommended repeated use) increasing concentrations of those unknowns.

So: I like to wash wool in the way I'm about to describe. It takes some time, but not an inordinate amount. It gives me access to quite a bit of knowledge of the individual fleece while I'm working. There's a rhythm to it. It suits the layout of my house reasonably well. And I find it rewarding to fully experience the transformation from raw substance to clean working material. Every time.

I'm going to overuse some words. One of them will be "gently." There's a reason I'm not editing out the repetitions. There's much less direct work in washing wool than you might imagine. Moving the water around is the big piece of it.


The entire normal sequence during which I need to pay attention takes on average 2 hours, give or take a little. It involves three stages:

  1. Soaking in clear water. (Usually 1 or 2 cycles.)
  2. Soaking in cleansing solution. (Possibly 1 cycle, usually 2 cycles, sometimes 3.)
  3. Soaking in rinse water. (Maybe 1 cycle, usually 2 cycles.)

Each cycle is about 20 minutes long.

When I begin with a comparatively clean fleece, I can complete washing in about 1 hour (one cycle of each type) and be completely done (on the racks and drying) in 1.5 hours—1.25 if I don't get distracted by anything else while I'm washing (that's rare; I almost always get a little distracted). Because I do other work while the wool soaks (things that can be accomplished in short chunks of time) and am not maximally efficient, I plan on having at least 2.5 hours available before I need to be somewhere else. An especially dirty fleece will require extra initial soaks or washes (stages 1 and 2). And I always end by giving the bathtub a thorough scrubbing when I'm done for the day.

While my goal for each cycle is 20 minutes, sometimes after the timer has rung I finish the other task I'm doing and don't change the water for 25, or maybe even 30, minutes. If I'm in a hurry and have a comparatively easy fleece to wash, the cycles can be 15 minutes long. Whatever the length of the cycles, however, the goal is not to let the temperature in the baths drop significantly throughout the entire wet-wool time.


IMPORTANT NOTE 1: If the natural protective substances you are dissolving off the wool with the warm water and cleansing solution get redeposited on the wool, as will happen if the water cools off enough, the resulting—now chemically altered—substance can be difficult or impossible to remove. This is especially true for fine wools, but I don't risk it with any wool.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Felting occurs when you produce some combination of WOOL, WARMTH, WATER, AGITATION, and SOAP.* If you're cleaning a fleece, you can't avoid the wool and the water, and you probably want to use a cleansing agent (whether it's soap or not), so what you have most control over is the temperature andmost importantagitation. Guard against agitation. A lot.

* Why might wool felt while it's still on a sheep? Let's see, I haven't had time yet to research this fully, but it might be because there's WOOL, body and environmental WARMTH, atmospheric MOISTURE, RUBBING or FRICTION from movement, and a natural SOAP-like substance produced when the lanolin and sweat salts that protect the fibers dissolve in the aforementioned moisture.

Aside: If you have especially hard water, you will get better results if you add a water-softening agent.


The basic plan

So here again is the outline of the washing process:

  1. Soaking in clear water. (1 or 2 cycles.)
  2. Soaking in cleansing solution. (Between 1 and 3 cycles.)
  3. Soaking in rinse water. (1 or 2 cycles.)
Here's a newly acquired fleece with moderate dirt levels:

Fleece_0228 - Version 2

Here's a portion of that fleece after washing:


Pretty, isn't it? It will be scrumptious to spin, too.

Although I don't take meticulous care to preserve locks while washing, I don't jumble the wool around, so it ends up still pretty much in lock formation. I can then comb, card, spin from the locks, or do whatever else I would like. Admittedly, the fleece above is a Border Leicester, so the locks are easy to both see in a photograph and keep in shape during washing, but the general principle applies to any wool.


First comes something I don't do any more:


When I was using dishwashing detergent for my washing, I heated water on the stove to raise the temperature in the baths, and carried lots of boiling water from the kitchen to the bathroom. I'd worry about spilling (or dumping) the water every time I had to step over a sleeping dog to get through the hall. Plus it was a lot of work: filling and refilling the kettles, rotating which one I was using, hauling.

This was a major reason that I changed to using a cleansing aid that works at lower temperatures, like what normally comes out of the hot-water tap (about 125–135°F [52–57°C]). It made a huge difference in the time and effort required, and the wool is cleaner.


Second there is the matter of containers for washing, and this may be the part of washing-prep that involves the most creative advance thinking, but once you've solved it, you've solved it.

When I washed my first fleeces about 40 years ago (!), I would run water into a bathtub, put in a whole fleece, and then start wrestling. I'd push the fleece all the way to one end of the tub and hold it there while I drained the water out of the tub or (slowly) let it refill from the faucet. It took longer. It's riskier than the process I use now—more chance of running water onto the wool, which encourages felting; more opportunity to mess up the lock structure; more pressure on, and potential agitation of, the wool while it's wet. I never got into trouble using that method, even when I washed star-felters like Karakuls, but also don't want to work that hard any more. (Washing a lot of fleeces is still hard work. It just doesn't need to be made harder. Washing a little bit of fleece is no big deal at all.)

For small batches of wool, I have collected size-matched pairs of colanders and bowls from second-hand and outlet stores:


The pieces came from as many different sources. I learned not to count on memory to identify potential "matching" sets. I carried measurements with me from store to store as I collected. I still use these for small amounts of fiber, or small batches of varied fibers for sampling. The quantities they hold vary pretty dramatically, which is handy.

But for larger amounts of wool, I use sifting boxes intended for use with cat litter. The pairs consist of a lower, solid tray and an upper tray with a perforated bottom. The pieces are shown here after a washing session, with the solid bits turned over so they'll dry quickly. You'll see these in action throughout the images to come.


I have two different sizes. I found all of these at close-out stores. They actually come in sets consisting of two solid trays and one perforated one. As you'll see, I use the extra solid trays for temporary working space, although they're not essential. I haven't been able to find more of these sets recently, so if you can't locate such things you may need to consider what types of containers you can find or make that will do the same job. Just keep in mind that the part with the holes is the most important component. Water needs to be able to drain out fairly quickly without disturbing the wool.

Cast a creative eye around. I didn't know when I began my search that I was going to end up on a colander hunt, or going to every BigLots! store within fifty miles, whenever I had a reason to be in the area, to buy up its stock of cat-litter pans. I found the smaller size more recently at a Harbor Freight store. If desperate, I would start looking for two solid items that would fit together and would drill holes in the bottom of one of them. Be careful that what you choose is lightweight. It will be heavier with wet wool in it.

I also use, as you'll see when we get to the drying stage, lingerie bags (which I've gotten at dollar stores) and stacking sweater dryers.

Oh, and I do use rubber gloves. The sturdiest kind. I've worn out a bunch of the lighter-weight ones. Gloves aren't essential. I don't use any substances in this process that I'm not comfortable putting my bare hands into (although I always wash my hands after handling grease wool). I'm just more comfortable putting on a pair for most of the operations, because the water's a little hotter than I like to keep my hands in for long and as you'll see I manipulate (but do not agitate) the wool. The gloves also keep my hands from drying out excessively when I'm doing a lot of washing. Which I usually am.

For a cleansing agent, you can use any number of things, from hand-dishwashing detergent to shampoo to substances specially formulated for fiber. I would warn you away from laundry detergents. Most of them have a lot of additives and are harsher than is necessary. Hand-dishwashing detergents and shampoos raise a lot of suds that are hard to rinse out. Specially formulated fiber-cleaners have worked by far the best for me, and I like Unicorn Power Scour, which has been made not just for fiber but for raw fiber. It's low-sudsing, highly concentrated (not much is required), gentle on the fibers and my hands, and works well in water of moderate temperatures. There are other options that I hear good things about that have been formulated to work with fiber straight off (or on) the animal, notably Orvus Paste and Kookaburra Scour.


Deciding on how much wool to include in a batch

This is one of the ways I roughly gauge how much wool can go into a batch. The three pairs of trays that I'll be using (that's what fits in the tub) are under that bunch of fiber, but there's no water in them yet. I've just flung a layer of fleece across the dry trays. The goal is "full but not too full." I don't want to waste time, but trying to cram too much in makes it harder to get the fiber clean. Most fleeces can be done in one, two, or three batches (small, medium, and large fleeces). Only an enormous fleece will take more than that. The photo shows half a fleece.


The idea is that any extremely dirty (especially dung-caked) and matted fiber has been skirted off, by the seller or by me, before I start. Still, fleeces can be quite dirty—and this one was. Sheep live outside. Some of them live in climates that are wet and muddy (this one did). Some have fleeces that are full of windblown dust. While coated fleeces can be lovely, it can also be a source of great joy to release wool from its burden of dirt and grease and see it shine more brightly at each stage of the washing and drying sequence.

I can already see as I lay out the fiber which portions are going to need more attention. I'm sure you can, too!

Another way to determine how much wool to wash at a time is to pull off clumps and start laying them into the trays. The tray below can accommodate a couple more clumps (it is, perhaps obviously, a different fleece than the one in the first photo).


If it's a type of fleece that's especially dirty at the tips, I may try to arrange the locks so the tips begin facing down (near the bottom of what will be the liquid).

Here's that second fleece, with full containers but not yet any water.


The amount ends up fluffy up to, or maybe slightly beyond, the edges of the trays.


Here's some Jacob, at the maximum amount I ever consider.


Less is more, although once the wool is wet the amount shown above can be easily immersed in the quantity of water the trays will hold.

Dirty wool: Less fiber in relation to the liquid.

Relatively clean wool: You can push the wool-to-water ratios higher.

Part 2

In part 2, I'll cover the wet parts of the washing. In part 3, I'll run through a quick series of photos that shows the progression of cleanliness through the series of soaks, and I'll show you how I dry the wool.

If you're thinking about washing a fleece, start pondering ideas for washing containers. It's okay to start small: with a couple of handfuls of fleece in a couple of colander/bowl pairs.


6 Responses

  1. Great opener to a fascinating process. I use the bowl and colander method but will be hunting down some sifting cat boxes to use in future! Terrific idea. Thanks! (Really looking forward to the next parts. 🙂 )

  2. I was recently given a portion of a Columbia fleece. I was told it was washed but it still smells and seems to be greasy. It also is full of vegetable matter. This comes at a perfect time for me as this will be my first fleece to clean and spin.

  3. Virginia, after I got Power Scour I ended up re-washing some fibers I'd previously processed with hand-dishwashing detergent (my former go-to method) because I liked the results enough better. This was when I was in the middle of work for The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook and didn't have extra time to spend: but I thought it would be worth doing, and it was. I didn't re-wash everything; just the fibers where I thought my enjoyment and spinning would be improved enough to warrant the time and effort. Because the wools had not originally been entirely cleaned (i.e., the grease had not been taken off–it wasn't redeposited), the results were rewarding.

    The dissolve/redeposit issue is mostly a potentially serious problem with very fine wools.

    Columbia is likely to be full of vegetable matter! It's a range breed, grown for a combination of wool that is generally processed industrially (where treatments with acid and heat and rollers break down the plant material into tiny bits that then fall out) and for meat. And it's a lovely wool to handspin. Picking (after the wool is clean) will help with some of the vegetable matter. Sometimes if a fleece is really full of it, I'll comb it–even when I plan to card later and spin woolen-style. Vegetable matter tends to be eliminated by combing more than by carding.

    One step at a time, and evaluate at each stage. Also . . . try things! Sampling can be really instructive.

  4. Deb, thanks so much for the additional information about Columbia fleece. I just recently purchased your Fleece and Fiber book, which is fabulous; full of information. I've also recently acquired a set on small combs, prior I was trying to use dog combs. I just ordered a 4oz bottle of Power Scour from Unicorn Fiber this evening. So I should be ready to process my first fleece, something new to learn.

    Thanks again for your advice.

  5. You're all ready, Virginia! Four ounces of Power Scour will clean a lot of fiber. Dog combs are a great way to find out whether you like the basic idea of combing, and the "real thing" is faster and easier to use. Thanks for your good words about Fleece & Fiber. It was the book I wanted to have on the shelf, and I sure waited a long time for somebody else to do it, and they didn't, quite, so. . . . Well, I'm glad to have it to use, and it makes me happy to hear that you like it.

  6. this is a great help, I’ve got 2 fleeces waiting to be washed, must read the next 2 installments.

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