Lanolin rich, but clean fleece.
My very first raw fleece was a beautiful silver Gotland from a spinner’s flock here in Ontario. I remember opening it up with trepidation, inexperience leading me to expect a putrid, filthy mess.
Instead a cascade of beautiful liquid silver curls tumbled out onto the tarp and my first thought was that I wanted to jump right into it. Literally. It called to me to run my hands through the silky curls and for the first time I was tempted to spin raw wool straight off of the sheep. Then my olfactory senses kicked in and I washed it.
I had no further desires to spin “in the grease” until a shepherdess in British Columbia from whom I purchased some beautiful Romney fleece recommended that I refrain from scouring it and simply wash it, and then spin in the grease. When the fleece arrived I was once again taken in by the gorgeously clean fleece. There was very little dirt or VM (vegetable matter, what we call the bits of feed, bedding, etc. that ends up embedded in the fleece) and so I thought I’d try it. I’m so glad I did.
The fiber felt amazing on my hands while spinning and again later while knitting it. My swatch lives beside my bed where I look at and feel it often. I am looking forward to washing and spinning the remaining Romney to create some amazing garments.
What is “the grease?”
The grease we’re referring to is lanolin, a soft waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of sheep. Its purpose is to help sheep to naturally shed water from their coats. This natural waterproofing quality leads to lanolin’s use in waterproofing wool diaper covers. It can also have the same result in the project you create with your yarn spun in the grease. Think water resistant hats, mittens, even sweaters. It also has moisturizing properties and is used in the beauty industry to create salves, balms, etc. and thus your hands will feel amazing after creating with lanolin-rich yarn.
“In the Grease:” What is it, and what is it not?
Spinning “in the grease” means that you are preserving the natural lanolin by not scouring it out. For some people this means spinning raw fleece straight off the sheep. I don’t fall into this school of thought; not only do many breeds contain a lot of lanolin which will make a sticky mess of my equipment, but sheep, even in a fleece that looks clean, are filthy creatures. Their fleeces contain farm dirt, manure, urine, plant matter, and possibly insects. These are not things I want on my hands, in my wheel and carders, or in my living room. Raw fleece is also stinky, and I don’t want my house smelling like a barn! Lastly, the suint (a naturally occurring detergent secreted by sheep) in the fleece causes a burning sensation on my skin. All around, I find the idea rather repellent. By gently washing the fleece you can maintain a welcome level of lanolin and enjoy spinning “in the grease” rather than “in the filth.”
Choosing a Fleece
The best candidate for this method is a clean (preferably jacketed) fleece, low in veggie matter and from a breed that is not too high in lanolin. I find that breeds like English Leicester and Lincoln tend to get hard and tacky if they aren’t fully scoured with extra hot water, so they are not the best candidates. My favorites for spinning in the grease are Romney, Gotland, and Finn, though many others will work well too.
Raw Romney locks
The trick to this method is to clean the fleece without stripping the lanolin out. This means using a gentler detergent (I like Unicorn Clean’s Beyond Fiber) and water at 110 degrees F or less.
The first step is to check your fleece over and skirt out any nasty bits that may have been missed in the initial skirting. This includes things like tags (dung), stains, extra dirty spots, and areas contaminated with VM. Measure out the fleece to be cleaned; you want to make sure that you don’t overfill your washing vessel. The fleece needs room to open up a bit and let any dirt fall out. Think fleece stew rather than fleece porridge if you need a visual!
If your fleece is dirty, begin with an overnight cold water soak. Fill your washing tub with cold water (rain water works great here) and gently place your selected fleece in it. Very gently hold it under water until it’s saturated and will stay submerged. Then simply leave it overnight. You’ll want to let it soak at least several hours, but don’t leave it longer than overnight as extreme lengths of time can lead to a degradation of the fleece. If I do this outside (which I usually do as I dump the water rather than sending it down my drain to clog my pipes and septic), I cover it with tulle to avoid any mice (or toddlers) going for a swim in my fleece!
The next day, drain your fleece, then gently press any extra water out. Avoid agitating it or squeezing too much. Next you will fill a wash tub with bath-hot water (I use a kids bath thermometer to help me measure, I like it at about 110F degrees) and a squirt of wool wash. I like to use a capful (about a teaspoon) of Unicorn Clean Beyond Fiber Wash, but something like Soak or Eucalan works well too. Once the tub is full, gently move the fleece into it (if you’re starting out with a very clean fleece you can skip the cold soak and go straight to this step). Gently submerge the fleece and avoid agitating it. You don’t have to worry about going from cold water to hot; it’s hot to cold, detergent, and agitation that will cause felting. Leave the fleece for about 10 minutes. Don’t leave it long enough for the water to cool or you will end up with sticky wool. Again drain and gently press out the water.
In the wash.
Next you’ll repeat the above step exactly, but without the wool wash. This will rinse out your detergent. If your rinse water looks pretty clean and not too soapy then you’re all set. If you were overzealous with the detergent you may need to rinse again (and know better next time!) The water may look milky and that’s ok, it’s the lanolin (we’re washing some of it out here, just not all of it). Brown water however indicates further washing/rinsing is needed. With an EXTREMELY clean fleece I’ve even been able to get away with a single wash in bath hot water with a no rinse wash like Eucalan. You can imagine what a time saver that is!
Out to Dry
Your final step is to dry the fleece. I have a salad spinner especially commissioned for the purpose, but others like to use a commercial laundry spinner. Some swear by using only the spin cycle in their top loading washing machine, but I don’t like to put any fleece water down my drain and into my septic field. After spinning out the water I lay it in a single layer on a tarp in either my basement or sunroom. If you dry outside you’ll need to watch for critters who may come and try to steal it. I turn the fleece over once a day to make sure it’s getting air on all sides. It usually takes me about 2 days of drying time.
Next it’s time to prep the fiber for spinning. With Gotland I tend to lock spin it, maintaining the texture of the curls, or spin a worsted type yarn straight from the opened locks. With the other types though I prefer to card them first, either with hand cards or a drum carder. I find that my method of cleaning leaves enough lanolin in but also removes enough of the lanolin (and all of the filth) so I don’t have to worry about it gumming up my carders or wheel. Those who spin straight from the sheep often have separate processing equipment for their greasy, dirty fleece as it will affect the equipment. They’ll also need to clean their wheel and bobbins.
You’ll notice that as you spin your hands will feel amazing from the lanolin, and you will also have that wonderful sheepy smell! You may find that warming the fleece slightly helps the lanolin melt, making for easy spinning (a great excuse to sidle up to the fire on a cool night). Spin the yarn in the matter you desire, then skein it off and set it in tepid to warm water with a drop of no rinse wool wash. When you wash your finished garments, wash them again in cool to tepid water with a lanolin enriched wool wash to avoid stripping the lanolin from the wool.
I hope I’ve inspired you to try this method of spinning in the grease. By gently washing the fleece but not scouring it you’ll reap the benefits of the lanolin without having to deal with the problems or filthiness of spinning a completely raw fleece.
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