Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to Wash a Wool Fleece

I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I raised sheep---and sold their wool to hand-spinners---for four years before I tried washing one of the fleeces for my own use.  I'd somehow gotten it into my head that washing fleece was HARD, that in my ignorance I would inevitably ruin the precious locks of wool, and end up with an ugly, matted mess.

Eventually, after my flock had grown large enough that I had surplus fleeces piling up, I figured that it wouldn't be a tragedy even if I did ruin one when I washed it.  So I gave it a try.  And here's what I discovered:

WASHING FLEECES IS EASY!  What a revelation!

So, just in case you, too, suffer from wool-washing anxiety, let me show you an easy method for doing it. 

You will need:

  • A dirty fleece
  • Plenty of hot water
  • Two big dishpans (or a double sink)
  • Dawn dish washing liquid
  • Borax (optional)
  • Wooden spoon (optional)
  • Towel
  • Drying rack (more about this later)
Now you're ready to begin.

1.  Lay out your supplies so you'll have easy access when you need them.

2.  Fill one large basin with very hot water.  Once it's full, squirt in a generous amount of dish washing liquid and, if desired, a sprinkling of Borax.  Borax helps get the fleece cleaner, but too much can be harsh on the wool fibers, so don't overdo it.

3.  Stir the ingredients so that they dissolve fully in the water.  Use the wooden spoon if the water is too hot for your hands.

4.  Lay the wool on top of the soapy water, then press it down gently with your hands or spoon until it is submerged.  DON'T STIR OR AGITATE THE WOOL or it may begin to felt.  Depending on the size of your basins, you will probably only be able to fit about a pound or so of wool in at a time.  The wool will come out cleaner if you don't pack it in there too tightly, so split your fleece up into as many batches as necessary.

5.  Once the wool is completely submerged, let it soak.  The exact amount of time isn't critical, but it's best that you don't wait until the water has cooled off a lot.  I usually let mine soak for at least 15 minutes, but probably no more than an hour.
6.  Push the wool gently to one side.  Drain the dirty water from the basin and refill with more hot water.  If necessary, you can add a little more dish washing liquid.  DON'T LET THE WATER POUR DIRECTLY ONTO THE WOOL or it will begin to felt.  Let the wool soak again for about the same amount of time.
7.  Once more push the wool gently to one side.  Empty the basin and refill with more hot water.  Don't let the water pour onto the wool.  This is your pre-rinse, so don't add any more dish detergent this time.  You also don't need to let the wool soak.  Just press it gently down into the water to start letting some of the soap rinse off.

8.  Fill your second basin with hot water.  This is your rinse basin.  One handful at a time, lift your wool out of the pre-rinse basin and dunk it into the rinse water.  Then lift it out, let it drain for a moment, and lay it on your towel to sop up some of the excess water.  If I'm going to be washing a lot of wool, I drape my towel over a rack (something like an oven rack will do) placed over a basin, so that when my towel gets completely soaked, the water with drain down through the rack and be caught in the basin.  That way I don't have to stop to change towels.

9.  When the rinse water gets cloudy or soapy, empty it and refill it with hot water.  While it's filling, you can transfer your wool from the towel to your drying rack (more on that in a moment).  Keep refilling the rinse basin, dipping your wool into it, and laying the wool aside to drain until the whole batch is rinsed.

10.  Once your wool is rinsed, lay it out on a drying rack to dry.  A drying rack can be anything that will hold the wool and let air circulate over and around it.  You can use an old screen door or window, a baby gate, an old sheet stretched over a wooden frame, etc.  My favorite is to use these stackable sweater drying racks.  They are inexpensive, don't snag your wool, and the stackable option lets you dry a lot of wool in a relatively small amount of space.  I use four of them for one fleece.  If you stack them in front of a box fan turned on high, you can dry your entire fleece in 24 hours.

For another great idea for a convenient tool to help you wash your wool, check out what this blogger does with cat litter boxes.

If you're a hand-spinner, washing your own wool can save you money, since raw fleeces are the cheapest form of wool.  If you'd like to give it a try, we have lots of lovely Icelandic fleeces available.  Mention that you saw this article, and I'll even give you a $2 per pound discount!


V.R. Leavitt said...

That's pretty cool!! I would have thought it was really hard too.

Cate K said...

Good job! Love looking at your farm website. I'm over in the Northern Neck of Virginia with a couple of Shetland Sheep. I never knew there were so many shepherds in Virginia. I'm just starting to find people. Have you learned to spin yet?

Nancy Chase said...

Hi Cate! Yes, I learned to spin long before I got sheep. That's why I finally had to figure out washing... so I could spin my own flock's wool. That's my project for the summer: washing, carding, spinning, so that eventually I can get to the really fun stuff: weaving!

UniqueDesignsbyMsP said...

I envy your skill. I have a friend who spins, but I can't seem to get the hang of it. Kudo's to you for being able to start at the source. :)