Washing wool (still, or again?)

We'll pick up the other threads I've been talking about again soon, but I've had some deadlines. Some of them involve editorial and layout work and some involve washing wool for next year's workshops. The wool-washing is an ongoing task with intense periods of activity: in order to do it, I have to be home, I have to have at least a good chunk of a day free, and I can't wash more fleece than I have drying space for. That means I wash for a while, then take a break. Now I'm washing again. Still. Whatever.

I've posted to Twitter and Facebook over the weekend about some of the washing, and a couple of questions have come up: several people requested fleece photos! and a couple of others asked how I manage to clean up after a washing session in the bathtub.

First, though, I need to note that I now have almost enough racks that I don't have to stop because I've run out of drying space. I have been collecting a particular type of sweater dryer for a while, as it comes on sale. I have one more to add to the stack, for a new total of 12. (Used to be 8.)


When I'm washing, I make sure to wash fleeces that can be easily distinguished from each other. That means that I can, if necessary, put two dissimilar half-batches on the same rack (fourth from the top). I stopped washing yesterday soon enough that I have one small batch by itself (second from the top). That likely won't happen often!

The rack contains, bottom to top, Corriedale, Shetland, and three Karakul fleeces (they're all from Letty Klein's flock in Michigan; the white is Sera, the two-tone gray is Rhena; the silver-gray is Arial).

Here are what two of them looked like in the tub. First Rhena, with her distinctive light tips:


Then Arial, still variegated but much more subtly so:


By the way, that is a whole 4-pound (1.8 kg) fleece in those trays. Karakul is quite low in grease and I can get more in a batch than I can with higher-grease wools. I can also use smaller amounts of Power Scour. I do tend to stick with my regular routine of two short soaks, two washes, and two rinses, regardless of breed, partly because then I can wash on semi-autopilot and partly because even when there isn't much grease there does tend to be dirt, due to the sheepy preference for living outdoors. The dirt succumbs to the rinses. And two washes are my baseline, with three for fleeces that need additional attention.

Karakul fleeces are interesting in part because they are so low in grease that the locks separate very easily, almost falling away from each other as I pull out handfuls to put in the trays. And in this case, I found a few locks in the bottom of the bag as I was starting the second wash, and I was comfortable just throwing them into a tray and letting them make do with that single wash and the following two rinses. They'll be fine. There was enough dirt that I wouldn't have wanted the whole fleece-washing process abbreviated in that way, but for a small piece? No problem. (Michigan dirt washes out far more readily than some Oregon mud. These fleeces were both easy and satisfying to clean up.)

And now for a few close-ups of the drying wool. Rhena (Karakul):


Arial (Karakul):


Sera (Karakul):


Note that I keep tags with the wool at all times. Some are the label sheets that I'll use to track and identify the fiber throughout its time in my keeping. Some are shepherds' tags, like Letty's note above. In the first photo, you can see a sheet of labels sitting next to the Corriedale on the bottom racks; just above those, there's a handwritten note on the corner of the first Shetland level.

Speaking of which, here is the Shetland, a moorit (brown) grown in Maryland:


And on the bottom is the balance of RUP 1022, from Rupperts in Pennsylvania. I'd washed most of this fleece in August, before I needed to ship a portion of it to Maryland for the Explore 4 workshop that took place there at the end of my travels in Scotland. I needed to get the rest of it clean. Keeping all the processes in order is key to success at wool management.


Now about cleaning up.

When I'm washing wool in the tub, we have one of the cleanest bathtubs on the planet. At the end of a day's washing session, these are my tools:


Bon Ami, which is the mildest and most effective cleanser I've found; a scrubber rotated out of service in the kitchen (wear 'em out there, then move 'em over here; next stop really grubby assignments); and a cup that's great for rinsing quickly once I've scrubbed. The surface of that scrubber works well in the kitchen, and is arguably the ideal tool (even in its worn state) for the tub as well.

I don't know where we got that cup, but it's perfect. It does have a few tooth marks in it. Our Border collie Ariel liked the feel of chewing plastic. She was quite trustworthy about not damaging other things (once she got past puppyhood). However, she was a smart dog and did figure out how to open the bathroom door by turning the knob. The evidence endures.


Ah, if she'd only had opposable thumbs, imagine where she could have gone! (I'd have had to hide the car keys.)

Another question posed over the weekend relates to how I keep the grease from clogging the drains. It hasn't been a problem, and I'm guessing that's because of the way that I wash. The grease is dissolved and the washing fluids are all flushed through the waste system in warm water every 20 minutes. There are fairly small amounts of grease at any single time, and I suspect that the Unicorn Power Scour I use is helpful in keeping that grease in solution and moving along (surfactants actually bond with grease molecules, with the result that the combination can be rinsed away). The final flushing of the plumbing system happens when I'm cleaning the tub. I use modest amounts of water, but I keep them moving and monitor the temperatures.

We occasionally have clogged drains. But we've never had one when I've been washing a lot of wool. (Do not grind up potato peelings in an in-sink garbage disposal unit. Compost them, or put them in the trash. Repeat: do not. . . .)

And now there are more fleeces awaiting my attention. . . . (And more blog posts to write! Some of them about dogs.)

Ariel (1994 – 2009):