How to Wash Fleece by Hand

Use these tips to wash freshly shorn fleece and remove lanolin and debris with just a few household items. It's cheaper than you thought.

| December 2014

  • Bags of wool
    Knowing how to wash fleece gives you control over every step of processing your wool passes through.
    Photo by Fotolia/chiarafornasari
  • The Spinner's Book of Fleece
    "The Spinner's Book of Fleece" by Beth Smith is a sheep-by-sheep guide to the characteristics of 19 breeds, from fine wools and Down breeds to longwools and multi-coat breeds. You'll explore how different fleece qualities affect the yarn you spin, as well as processing and cleaning techniques for different types of fleece.
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

  • Bags of wool
  • The Spinner's Book of Fleece

An essential companion for spinners of all levels, The Spinner’s Book of Fleece (Storey Publishing, 2014) by Beth Smith provides fleece profiles of 19 breeds and describes the different spinning methods that produce yarns suitable for a wide range of projects. You’ll explore crimp structure, lock shape and relative fineness or coarseness of fleece, how they affect the quality of the yarn you spin and how to wash fleece and process it before spinning. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “The Value of Raw Fleece.”

There are many different ways to wash fleeces (usually referred to as scouring fleece), but what I describe here is what works best for me and my purposes and also avoids tragic felting mistakes. I give detailed washing information for each breed category, though the washing methods are similar from one category to another.

My methods are specifically for small-scale scouring. I wash fleeces in small batches of about 8 to 24 ounces at a time, depending on the size container I’m using. When choosing a container, it’s important that there be plenty of water around the fibers so that the dirt and grease has plenty of room to move away from the wool. For years, I washed fleece in ordinary kitchen dishpans that hold about 2-1/2 gallons of water comfortably (before fleece is added). These pans accommodate about 8 ounces of a high-volume fleece, such as a Down type. I now use larger containers that hold about 4-1/2 gallons of water before I add the fleece, so that I can wash 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of fleece in them.

I prefer somewhat shallow, flexible containers, sometimes called trugs, which are available at feed, hardware, and garden stores. Their flexibility and convenient handles make it easy to empty the water without removing the fleece and still control the fleece from escaping into the sink. These containers are also easy to move from one spot to another, since I generally work with multiple containers at the same time. I have three containers and a counter next to my sink, so I can wash up to 4-1/2 pounds of fleece in about 2 hours. For many breeds of sheep that means a whole skirted fleece can be done without too much hard work and without water up to my elbows.

You’ll need to experiment with washing techniques, especially to ascertain what works in your water. City water differs from well water, and well water is different from place to place, depending on whether it’s hard or soft. The water itself doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome, but your detergent and the way it reacts with the minerals in your water can have a big effect on how clean a fleece gets.

Choosing a Wool Scour

I always use a wool scour that was formulated specifically for removing lanolin from wool. Though such a scour may seem more expensive than detergents and soaps you can get at the local grocery store, the amount required to scour the wool is much less than the amount of household cleaner needed. I’ve tried almost all of the scouring agents on the market, and my preferred wool scour is Unicorn Power Scour, made by Unicorn Fibre. Other experienced fiber people recommend other detergents, but Power Scour is the one I find consistently gives me great results, regardless of the fleece’s grease content. It can be used at lower temperatures than the other scours (which means no boiling water is necessary), and I use a fraction of the amount required by other detergents I’ve tried.



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