How to Wash Fleece by Hand

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Knowing how to wash fleece gives you control over every step of processing your wool passes through.
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"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.

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.

In a pinch, household dish soap also works and may seem like a less expensive way to go. In order to remove the grease, however, it’s important to use enough soap so that the water feels slippery, and it may not be as inexpensive as you think. In addition, soap creates quite a lot of suds, which means you’ll need many rinses to remove the soap. In contrast, Unicorn Power Scour cuts down on the amount of rinse water required by at least a third.

The final word is experiment! Try every recommended method that you come across and discover what works best for you. I’ve made many mistakes and lost some fleece to tragic errors, but I rarely experiment with more than a pound at a time, so my losses are minimal. Once, I put a whole fleece in the washing machine, and another time a whole fleece in the bathtub. While neither experience felted those fleeces, they made me realize that I wasn’t comfortable working with more than 1 to 2 pounds at a time. Experimenting with various washing and prep methods resulted in the approach I use now, and I’m very comfortable with the whole process.

How Clean Is Clean?

Although the tips of your fleece may not look completely clean after scouring, they will open up during the fiber prep step, and anything that looks like dirt will be gone with whichever processing method you choose. Be aware that certain breeds produce bright white fleeces, whereas the “white” fleeces of other breeds may appear more off-white or even yellow. If your problem is stains, however, you’ll find that these aren’t necessarily easy to get rid of. Yellow in color, a canary stain, for instance, will not wash out, although it does not affect the strength of the fiber. If staining is your problem, sometimes overdyeing is the only solution.

Keep in mind that the final rinse may not run completely clear. Your main goal at this point is to remove the lanolin so that the fibers move freely past each other during spinning. You don’t have to get out every bit of dirt during this initial scouring, because you’ll wash the skeins after spinning, as well as after finishing whatever you make with your yarn. By then, all of the dirt will be gone.

Don’t Overestimate VM

The sad fact is that no amount of washing will get out all of the vegetable matter—VM. But VM is not the end of the world. Some can be picked or shaken out before scouring. Still more will come out in the wash, and even more will come out in the processing, especially if you are using combs or a flick card. And then the spinning and plying allows more to fall out or for larger bits to be picked out. Don’t write off a good fleece due to a little barnyard dirt. You’d be dirty, too, if you had to wear the same clothes for six months to a year!

Of course there are those fleeces with teeny, tiny ground-up bits of hay, and there might be more than you would like to deal with. So, if it is a breed type you are likely to see frequently, it’s okay to pass by the dirtier ones. But for those rare occasions you stumble upon a rare breed, don’t be afraid of VM.

Excerpted from The Spinner’s Book of Fleece© Beth Smith. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.