One way to wash fleeces, part 3, quick overview and then drying

The previous two posts covered, in some detail, my preferred fleece-washing process, with part 1 covering preparations and part 2 the soaking cycles. In this post I'll summarize the accomplishments of that sequence of soaking baths in one instance of a filthy fleece, and then I'll talk about getting the wool dry.

Remember this fleece?

This is the fleece I showed in the first wooly image of part 1, about how to figure out how much fiber will fit in a batch. Dirty, wasn't it?


The other half of that fleece was even grubbier.


Here's how that second half progressed through the baths.

I didn't record precisely where I was in the process when I snapped the photos, so my dividing points between plain-water and cleansing baths may not be exact, but I'm guessing that because of the extreme grunge I gave it three initial soaks.




Then I added the Power Scour for three washing soaks, including a flip. This was, indeed, dirty wool.


This has been flipped from the first wash.



And two final rinsing soaks, but just one photo.


At this point, I assigned responsibility for the remaining discoloration to mineral staining from the dirt. That sort of thing isn't likely to be gotten rid of without serious chemical intervention, which I'm not willing to do, and I know that the finished yarn will look fine (believe it or not—sample pictures to follow later in this post).


We'll return now to the fleece used for most of the washing photos. It's been through its final rinse and is ready to start the drying portion of the activity.

This next part goes fast.

It's time for the lingerie bags. I put each wool tray crosswise on its container tray to start draining. Then I tip one wool tray so a corner is inside a lingerie bag and let the wool slide from the rigid tool to the flexible one, offering encouragement (often just by shaking the washing tray) as needed. I zip the bag shut.


If I'm going to do another washing sequence immediately, I'll save the final rinse water and use it for the first soak of the next batch. That bag up there is probably sitting directly in the water of the container tray. It will drain out when I lift the bag. I don't squeeze the bags or do anything else to them.

I'll often use the smallest solid tray to collect the wool-filled lingerie bags, and then to carry them downstairs to the washing machine, which I use as a centrifuge to get out a good portion of the water.


I have a top-loading washing machine with a spin-only cycle. I sure don't want to have water running directly onto my wool at this point!

I put the bags in and distribute their weight relatively evenly around the tub, make triply certain that I'm selecting "spin-only" from the dial, and then let the machine do its work.


(If you have very sharp eyes, you may be wondering if this has suddenly turned into a Jacob fleece. It has.)

In medieval times, when there were no washing machines, there were spin-only cycles. They were found out of doors next to a wall or a fence with a shallow hole at about waist height. A bag or basket of wool would be tied to the middle of a long stick. One end of the stick would be stuck into the hole, and the power source (a human) would hold the other end of the stick and move it quickly in a big circle, causing the bag to swing around the stick and the water to fly outward. This was called wuzzing. (I wonder if, when this was done in the summer, kids ran through the "sprinkler"? Or if teenagers were sent outside to expend some of their excess energy by providing the wuzzing power? I wonder if there were ever wuzzing contests?)

If you don't have an appropriate washing machine and don't feel like putting together a wuzzing arrangement, you could seek out a big salad spinner at the thrift shops while you're looking for your washing containers, or you could roll your wool in an old terrycloth towel like a jellyroll and then squeeze some of the water out into the towel. If you truly have no resources for getting water out, you can just lay out the wet wool and it will dry, although it will take longer.

In any case, the next thing you want to find is a place where air can circulate around the wool. Ideally it will be out of direct sunlight and not near a fire. The free air circulation is the most important part of drying; heat and sun exposure can damage the wool (especially now that you have removed its protective coatings). The damage might be slow, but why risk it?

One bag- or tray-full covers about half of one of my stackable sweater dryers, so here are the first two batches in one layer:


(Note the card identifying which fleece this is. I always think I'll remember, but I nearly always remember that's a mistaken idea.) Here's the third of the three bags' worth on a second dryer, stacked over the first:


The wool in the big mesh bag to the left is clean—probably the earlier batch from the same fleece, waiting for the rest of it to come along. At the bottom right, in plastic, is a raw fleece needing to be taken upstairs and doused in water.

At a moderately busy time, there are four drying racks stacked on the guest bed (potential visitor be warned), one propped on a towel over on the left, and several fleeces in large mesh bags almost ready for labeled-clean storage and several more in plastic, as I received them, needing the whole treatment. Yes, that's a fan on the bed. It's mostly for household air circulation in the summer, but it can also speed wool-drying when necessary. I currently have eight stackable drying racks of the same type, and sometimes I use them all. Lack of drying racks can be the bottleneck in wool washing. (Spreading the wool out on towels works, but with less air circulation it again takes longer to dry.)


During the drying time, I sometimes flip over the batches of wool. It's not necessary, but can speed the process just a bit. I think mostly I do it because I like to say hello to the wool again and admire it from another angle.

This is what happens when I have to leave to teach and some of the wool isn't quite dry.


Air circulation. The fact that the hotel's air-conditioning unit was near the window was completely irrelevant. I turned the fan on low/no-cooling and the wool, which I rotated when I thought to do so, was fine by morning.

Sorting the wool

Some of you will have noticed that I don't sort the wool for quality before I wash it. If I were dealing with one or two fleeces at a time for my own use, most likely I would, putting the coarser or dirtier bits in one pile and the finer or cleaner in another. However, most of the wool that I wash will be distributed to participants in my workshops—and I have, at any given time, a dozen or two fleeces that need to be washed and stored and then packaged and then. . . .

The storage and fussy labeling issues alone would be insurmountable if I sorted before I washed, and when I do make up packets for classes I try to grab different types of fleece for each bag, so the people in the workshops get a sense of the range of possibilities from a breed. I could do that more methodically if I sorted, but I'd also go nuts.

If I do decide to use a portion of a fleece for myself, I find it simple enough to spread the clean wool on a sheet and, by touch, pull out sections that feel compatible with each other.

Your needs and procedures will need to be tailored to fit each other, as mine are.

The big points: (1) Don't worry. (2) Don't agitate. (3) Don't let the water cool off too much between baths.

So you find it hard to believe me when I say some really dirty wool can clean up quite nicely?

Note the different textures of the wools in the next four photos. They are all white (to make it easy to see their basic form) and they are of several different types. None of these was an especially clean fleece. Certainly none was coated (I get some coated fleeces, but mostly not). The Down wool (the second photo) has rather a lot of vegetable matter in it (typical!), which will mostly drop out as it's picked in preparation for spinning.





Will those formerly very dirty wools truly make nice yarns?

In my opinion, yes.

This is Rouge de l'Ouest, a meat breed, which arrived with characteristically dirt-tinged tips, and a fair amount of grunge farther down the staples. It washed up pretty well, leaving slight discoloration at the tips. The yarn looks just fine.

24-Rouge_3789.JPG - Version 2

I mentioned that the washing technique I use works for all types of wools, including those inclined to felt or to end up sticky (because they carry a lot of lanolin) or to otherwise be difficult. Here's some Romeldale:


Every one of the fibers I've shown here—and all the fibers I cleaned for The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, which was everything that came to me in raw form—was washed with this method.

As I said, the results are delicious to work with.

In sum

Spinning from wool you have carefully washed and prepared by hand is like eating fresh-picked, tree-ripened apricots, still warm from the sun.

Haven't tried it yet? Do. You don't have to wash all the wool you spin. I don't. And sometimes in the winter I buy hydroponic tomatoes, too.


4 thoughts on “One way to wash fleeces, part 3, quick overview and then drying”

  1. I have followed this series of three posts avidly. Thank you for the very clear descriptions and the helpful photos! I can see i will be fine tuning my washing process a little. Beautiful wool photos, by the way. Drooling!

  2. I just want to have you be able to touch the washed wool! That's why I put in so many pictures. Thanks for asking about the pinning, and yes, you may.

  3. Many thanks for an excellent series on your process. It’s great to see the tools and methods a role model uses (and comforting to see that the tools are all easily accessible, and in some cases, already in my possession).

    Also great to see the picture of the Jacob fleece. I have a gorgeous deep rich brown one, that is quite filthy (and appears to have belonged to a sheep who enjoyed bedding in burrs. Sigh.) I’ve been soaking it in small batches, but find “seeing” the grime remaining challenging, given the dark, rich tones. It’s only after its dried that I can feel the grease left behind.

    Would this be a good “cold soak overnight” situation?

    Thanks again for the really useful posts!

  4. I was given some raw merino fleece. The finest fleeces I have processed so far are cormos and corriedales with varying degrees of success. So I was excited to see your wonderfully documented process. I tried it yesterday with a colander full of merino using Orvus. Perfect! Can’t wait to do the rest.

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