Washing wool: in this case, Florida Cracker

If you are on my mailing list, you’ve already seen this, because it is, in essence, the newsletter I e-mailed out this morning—but one reader has asked whether there’s a way to post it elsewhere, and this is the best option I can think of it for responding to that request. Another reader asked about the trick Stephenie Gaustad came up with for removing stuck grease on wool, so I’ll describe that: submerge in rubbing alcohol (lid on the jar because the stuff evaporates swiftly), leave to soak for a while (20 minutes?), and rinse.

Carmen made it into the bathtub today

I’m washing wool. That’s not exactly news, but the context differs a bit. From June 26 to July 2, I’ll be teaching at the John C. Campbell Folk School for the first time. Both the schedule and the facilities will accommodate activities and approaches that I can’t implement elsewhere—even at the Explore 4 retreats in Washington state, where I can do more than is possible in almost every other environment.

  • Quick heads-up: Earlier in the season when a friend tried to register for this workshop, it was full. As of the report I received a couple of days ago, there were two open spaces. Interested? Class info is here.

The way in which that unusual flexibility has an impact on my washing is that I’m not washing Carmen’s fleece in its entirety. I am washing about two-thirds of it, so we’ll be certain to have clean, dry wool to experience from the start of the workshop. But I’m saving out sections in order to have the participants go through the washing transformation on site.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that I understand that many people find the idea of washing wool to be intimidating. A second is that unless you’ve got a lot of experience with wool-washing, you might be likely to decline (or throw out!) a potentially lovely fleece that looks incredibly dirty—when it is, in fact, incredibly dirty but can be cleaned up without much effort. Yes, I’ll demonstrate in North Carolina. But my hope and plan is that participants will do some washing and experience the magic for themselves.

Since almost all of us won’t be in North Carolina, I’ll share some of the washing from today, with notes. If you haven’t ventured into these particular waters, perhaps this will provide encouragement.

The basic process involves:

  • 2 plain-water soaks
  • 2 washing baths
  • 2 plain-water rinses

Here we go.

Sheep live outside. They get dirty. The goal of the initial rinses is to soften the dirt and remove some of it. In this case, a lot of dirt got dissolved. I almost always do two initial rinses, just using hot water. Throughout, I use straight hot tap water.

Dirty wool as it came from the sheep, and what the water and the wool look like (DIRTY!) during the two initial soaks.
Wool as it came from the sheep, and how much dirt came out with the first and second soakings.

After those initial rinses, I do two wash baths, using a squirt or so of Beyond Clean or Power Scour in each. Beyond Clean and Power Scour are the same thing but Power Scour has an almost negligible amount of lavender added to it. If the wool is extremely dirty (dirtier than this), I may do an extra rinse at the beginning or an extra wash bath. That doesn’t happen very often.

Showing a batch of wool and the associated water after one of the washing baths and after the final rinses.
Throughout the process, the wool becomes gradually cleaner and the water at the end of the cycle gradually clearer.

After two final rinses in clear water, I put the wool in mesh bags (one per tray, and I washed two trays this time—about 250g or a half-pound per tray) and spin out the excess water. I do have a spin-dryer (see below) but previously used the spin-only cycle of my top-loading washing machine. If I’m on the road and without those resources, I roll the wool in a terrycloth towel and step on the roll to get out as much water as possible. At the end of extraction, by any means, I lay out the wool in thin layers to dry.

Wool in a washing tray at the end of the process, and two trays' worth on a drying rack.
Wool after final rinse, and on the drying rack.

Although overall this is a very relaxed process the way I do it, there is one thing I pay close attention to: I do not let the water cool off in any of the baths while there is wool in it. I set a timer for about 15 minutes for each bath and endeavor to keep the temperature at warm-to-hot from beginning to end.

If you have a filthy fleece and want to give it an overnight cold-water soak at the start, that can be a great idea. But once you start dissolving the grease in warm water, keep it dissolved and moving away from the wool with the progressive baths. If the water cools off, the grease can redeposit and be nearly impossible to remove. Just avoid that. . . .

(Stephenie Gaustad and I recently got to spend a little time visiting and she had an idea for removing stuck grease, and it worked! And it was relatively easy. But it wasn’t something you’d want to do on a large scale.)

Regional sheep

The topic of the workshop is Heritage Sheep Breeds of the Southeastern United States. It’s an area I haven’t focused on specifically before—although I’ve worked with wool from the three featured breeds. Researching the area’s sheep-related history has been one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve undertaken so far. And it’s been fascinating. I did end up with some coherent thoughts, although at times I was doubtful that I’d reach that stage.

Cover of handout on Heritage Sheep of the Southeastern United States
Cover of the primary handout for the upcoming workshop.

Enough time to actually accomplish a few things

Not having taught in this format before, and being completely unfamiliar with the site (although I’ve been sent lists of tools as well as encouraging words from people who’ve taught fiber workshops at the Folk School), I’ll be winging it (what else is new? just the format and location). My plan is to provide material and information in the mornings, and to hold fiber-working sessions in the afternoons. My hope is that we’ll become familiar with the three breeds’ differences, spin yarns using different techniques, and make individual decisions on what approach we like best—with time enough to spin and sample the yarns, by knitting, crocheting, or using whatever low-tech looms we can bring or locate (Weave-Its and the like). With a good library of technique books at hand, including a number of stitch dictionaries, we should be able to talk about how to test and choose patterns to go with whatever yarn we’re coming up with.

I have even more ideas. We could probably fill a number of weeks, but we’ll get as far as we get, and I’m really looking forward to the novelty of the situation.

Which breeds?

Carmen is a Florida Cracker sheep from Rusty Bee Ranch in Alachua, Florida. The fleece we have is her second shearing.

We will also have Gulf Coast Native and American Tunis wool to play with. There will be plenty, because it’s quite a small group.

Travel and teaching with care

Thankfully, the Folk School has been careful about covid-related protocols, and that’s part of why the class size is so limited. Vaccinations are required, masks are still in place, and other practices are being observed to keep us as safe as possible.

I’m old enough that this matters a great deal and I’ve had to decline teaching opportunities where more exposure to virus strains is likely. This particular workshop was originally scheduled for 2020, so it’s already been affected by covid. I’m grateful for continued protective measures.

Water management

I’ve recently run into some new issues with managing water while washing in the bathtub. I don’t have a utility sink; it would be a very useful thing if I did. There are lots of better ways to set up for wool-washing, and every individual’s wool-washing method will be tailored to what’s available; we use what we have access to.

Recently in our household we had to replace the faucet in our tub because the leaks could no longer be controlled by replacing the cartridges. As it turned out, (1) the new faucet does not extend far enough into the tub to fill a washing tray without having at least half the water go down the drain instead of into the tray. So I ended up getting an automotive funnel to extend the reach of the faucet and direct the water into the trays. However, (2) there is no reasonable way to secure the funnel to either the faucet or the control lever. I tried cord, silicone bands, a bungee cord, and combinations thereof. Whatever it is slides off wherever I’ve tried to fasten it.

This morning I ended up in the garage, cobbling together a piece of wood into which I could pound a nail that would secure the funnel. A cup hook will work better when I get one. Keeping the wooden brace from tipping over took some work with additional scraps. The arrangement is not ideal yet, but it does work enough to get today’s job done.

Automotive funnel and lath bracing to get the water from the new faucet to actually flow into the washing tray.
A spur-of-the-moment fix for the problem posed by the new faucet.

Then there’s the astonishing amount of water that the spin dryer gets out of the washed wool, even after I’ve squeezed out the excess! I take this water back into the bathroom to be used with the next soaking cycle. (I’m not sure what I ever did without the spin dryer. I got mine from Dharma Trading. They usually have one or another model in stock, or will have something on this order back in stock shortly.) I use it for wool washing, but I use it for all sorts of other water-extraction tasks—it’s so effective I even use it when I just have a swatch or two to process.

Two examples of how much water can be spun out of about a pound of wool. I'm guessing it's a bit under a gallon.
That’s a lot of water! It’s enough to top off what was left in the washing tray and start the soaking cycle for the next batch (as long as I don’t let it cool off).

Finishing up. . . .

And now, thanks to Bon Ami and a scrub brush, we are about to have the cleanest bathtub in town.

Happy spring. Happy fleeces. Happy doing something with wool that you haven’t done exactly that way before. . . .


2 thoughts on “Washing wool: in this case, Florida Cracker”

  1. Thank you for writing this up Deb. I appreciate the photos especially. I also have a spin dryer and would never go back. I have been using lingerie bags exclusively. Are those kitty litter trays that you are using? With a liner?

    • I use lingerie bags for transporting to and from the spin dryer–aren’t those dryers wonderful?!

      And yes, those are kitty litter trays I’m using. They tend to come in sets that fit together–one perforated tray and two solid lower trays, which you use one at a time. I only really need the one lower tray, but find uses for the extra.

      I’ve had mine for a very long time and for a while it seemed as though they weren’t made any more. I just found a couple at Chewy! I’ve found some at Harbor Freight years ago for cheap. These aren’t as cheap, but they get used to much and so successfully that I’d pay to replace if I needed to. “Sifting” seems to be the magic search term.



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