One way to wash fleeces, part 2, the wet work

Part 1 of this set of three posts covered my basic approach to washing, the equipment I use, and figuring out how much wool to include in a batch. Now we'll get the wool wet and start getting it clean.

Basic water-filling or changing technique, demonstrated with the first (plain-water) soak

The procedure here will be followed for all of the changings of the water, although you'll see some variations on the theme as the photos progress (mostly because all the changes after this involve already-wet wool).

For this first run, I'm using warm, plain water. With a filthy fleece, I might start with one soak in COLD water and leave it for as long as overnight. (If the water isn't warm, the redepositing problem mentioned in post 1 doesn't occur.) I might even do two cold-water soaks for something full of mud that I want to salvage. However, for the most part we need the bathtub for family use at night and in the early morning, so if I do a cold-water soak it's most often just from when I get up to after I've had breakfast and am ready to get serious about washing some wool.

I need to get water into the bottom, solid trays without running it onto the wool (which counts as "agitation" and can lead to felting). By placing the wool-filled trays at right angles to each other, I can balance them all on the solid tray farthest from the faucet. I'm using two of the large trays and one small one here. All of this wool is still dry.


I run straight hot water into the tray nearest the faucet.


I put the matching wool-filled (perforated) tray into the water-filled base and just let it begin to sink on its own.


I slide that small tray to the middle position, lifting the available empty bigger tray over it, and fill that one in turn.


After settling the second wool-containing tray into that newly filled receptacle, I lift the remaining empty container tray to the faucet end, putting its still-dry wool tray crosswise on the first tray, which has now moved to the far end of the tub.


I always slide full trays away from the faucet and lift-to-move the empty (or recently dumped) trays.

Now all three trays have water in them, along with wool that has begun to get wet.


If you are nervous, you can leave the wool to sink into the water on its own. It will.

But I like to speed things along a bit and also to get gently involved at this point. So I put on my gloves and softly press the fiber so it's all immersed in the water.


Here are all three trays of quite a clean fleece taking their first soak in warm water.


I walk away and leave them for 20 minutes.


When I come back, I check to see how the dirt is dissolving by gently pressing down again.


Moving trays with wet wool

It's time for the second plain-water soaking. If the wool is quite clean at this point (the sample above is pretty clean), I might move directly to a washing bath, but usually I think that the more dirt I can remove with just water, the better.

So we're ready to prepare for the second soak. The upper trays are quite a bit heavier now, because the wool is wet. As I move things around, I have added the goals of not sloshing (much) water on the floor, and of draining out as much of the dirty water as possible before putting the wool trays into fresh water. The extra trays that came with the cat-box sets are about to come into play to provide more working space.

First I take one of the perforated trays and put it crosswise on its base. This allows a lot of the extra water to drain out. (If I'm using colanders, there's space at the end of the tub farthest from the faucet to just set them there to drain.)


Then I use one of the extra trays, set right next to the tub, to get the somewhat-drained first wool tray out of the way.


This is the point at which water can start making inroads on the bathroom, so I'm careful about the placement of the extra tray and the movements I use in transferring the wet-wool tray.

I continue to use that far-end tray to support the two other wool trays.


I dump out the dirty water by simply tipping each solid tray up on its side. (One thing I'd like to be able to improve about my system is being able to put the waste water on the yard and garden. That's not currently feasible.)

Then I refill the trays, sliding each over away from the tap as it is filled.


And I set the wool back inside as each container tray is ready. (Interesting color shift between drained and soaking wool, isn't there?)


Ending up with the one original tray with dirty water in it, ready to be dumped so it can have its portion of wool (resting in the tray outside the tub) back again. The water ready to be dumped here is from the end of a second rinse, which is why it's not as dark as in the photo farther up in this section.


If you have really dirty wool, the tub after a first, or even second, rinse can look like the bottom of a riverbed. Here's a different fleece, and far from the worst I've ever seen (but take a look at how white that wool is already, from what you can see at the far right edge of the photo; differences like this happen dramatically in the first soak or two).




Adding the cleaning agent: washing

I do the plain-water preliminary soak once, twice, or three times. The condition of the wool, your patience, and sometimes just the available time will determine how many initial soaks to use. I don't expect fully clean water at any stage, and that's not what I'm going for. However, as the soaking and water-changing continues, the water will become clearer.

When it's time to add the cleaning agent, the technique differs very slightly. You could add it to each tray individually and do just as you did before, but I find it's more efficient to "treat" all trays with the scouring agent at the same time.

I set the trays crosswise to drain a bit, and empty the old water.


Because I need access to all three bottom trays at the same time, I stack the wool trays in the extra working space outside the tub. They've already drained partially, so I don't need to arrange them in crosswise fashion. (Yes, I do have to empty extra water out of the holding tray after they're all back in the tub.)


In filling the solid trays, I continue to slide the full ones along the bottom of the tub. They're heavy, and I don't want to slosh and waste water.


When all three have clean water, I add a squirt of cleansing aid to each. It's in a pump dispenser that I balance on the edge of the tub while squirting. (I have the giant size. I use Unicorn Power Scour, which is specially formulated for use on grease wool. A little goes a very long way.) When I used dishwashing detergent, I might need a quarter-cup or so to each of the larger trays. With specialized wool-wash, I use a tablespoon or two (a half-squirt or so).


I gently swirl the water in the tray to distribute the cleanser. It's the same process if you use something like dishwashing detergent, but in that case you keep the swirling especially low-key because you don't want to raise any more suds than you have to (they're hard to rinse out).


A note on cleaning agents: Even though I'm wearing gloves, I won't use anything I don't want to keep my hands in. I look for low personal and environmental impact.

I re-settle the wool trays and press down to be sure the solution reaches all parts of the fiber.


20-minute timer. . . .

When I come back this time I examine the fiber with an aim to loosening up any clumps of dirt that remain. I wait until after the first washing soak so the cleanser has time to do some of its magic. What I want to do at this point is make sure I'm loosening up any clumps so the solution can get inside them.

I do not want to agitate or rub the fiber. I do want to open up stuck spots. I'll give you a series of photos of what that can look like.

I find a spot where, for example, the tips of a lock are holding some dirt. (Note that I'm not doing anything about that bit of grass just above my fingers. Unless it is completely unentangled with the fiber and just lying on top, trying to remove it at this stage will just mess up the locks. Wet wool tends to both stretch and hang onto what it's attached to. Dry wool lets go far more readily.)


Lightly pinching my fingers on the tip of the lock, I slide them past each other. I'm not rubbing. I'm lightly compressing—with the intention of loosening the dirt more than of manipulating the fiber. I do this when the lock is submerged. It works best that way: quickest and most thorough.


Here's what the same tip looks like when I'm done:


You can still see a little darkness from the dirt, but it's much more diffuse. Less is more.

Then I change waters and add roughly half as much cleansing solution to the next bath. (If the fleece is caked in dirt, I'll use a little more cleanser all along and may do three washes.)

Flipping is definitely optional

Occasionally, in order to get at the tips that I've placed in the lower part of the bath water at the start of this all or because I simply want to see the whole range of the fiber, I'll gently place my hands above and below the mass of wool and flip it over like a pancake. Sometimes I drain and flip; sometimes I flip while the wool is in the water. It's always a delicate motion, and I don't by any means always do it. The risk is that I'll lose lock formation. The technique is most useful with Down and meat-breed wools, which are most likely to have badly dirt-caked tips and where maintaining lock formation is least likely to be successful or desirable in any case.

Here's a batch of a type of fleece that this treatment (extra soaks and wash baths, tip manipulation, and flipping) was made for:


Yes, it washed up beautifully! That's just the first soak up there. You'll notice, however, that in this situation I only used two of the big trays. That gave me room to move the trays around without using the extra space outside the tub; I just didn't want that much grubby water having an opportunity to spread. (After any washing session, the tub is exceptionally clean because it gets a full Bon Ami scrubbing.)

Take a look at the way the locks are sitting in this series of photos and you'll see that I've flipped the batches:




I delicately re-distribute the wool in the baths after flipping. That's most obvious on the small tray, where I've also already loosened the dark areas (stuck tips) that were revealed by the flipping.

Soaking rinses with clean water

I do two soaks with clean water at the rinsing end of things. Some people use rinsing solutions as well at this point. I don't, although I have no feelings either way about that. I do two final rinses because I want to make sure all that's left at the end is wool and water. I'm not looking for an excruciatingly uniform result. I'm looking for a point when I'm convinced that any "dirt" that remains is clean "dirt." Sometimes wool will be slightly discolored by minerals in the soil. There are all sorts of reasons it won't look like it's been washed to sparkling and colorless homogeneity. That's all okay. The mud, dust, grease, and suint are gone.

It's ready to get dry.

By the way, if you need to go walk the dog or something while the wool is in its final rinse, you can. There shouldn't be anything left on the wool to cause problems if the water cools off, although I do like to move it along to the drying phase without delay.

Part 3

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.