As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm making a handspun, handwoven quilt for a customer, doing all the steps myself, from sheep to finished product.
After finalizing the design and selecting which fleeces I will use, the next step is to prepare the wool for spinning. This is the most time-consuming and tedious of all the steps, but it's crucial, because the wool doesn't exactly come off the sheep all clean and ready to spin.
Sheep live outside. They lie down on the ground. They rub up against trees. They stroll through patches of tall grass and weeds. So naturally, their wool picks up some dirt and debris: seeds, twigs, bits of chaff, dust, thorns, etc. The same lanolin in the wool that helps protect the sheep from the weather also helps small bits of debris stick to the fleece.
So, it's important to prep the fiber thoroughly to remove all the debris, so none of it ends up in the final product.
For the past few days, I've been working on preparing Urbana's lamb fleece, which is truly luscious. Very soft and rich, with a beautiful luster. Here's what it looked like while Urbana was still wearing it. This photo was taken about a month before she was sheared. From a distance, she looks pretty clean, right?
This is what the fleece looked like after it was sheared. If you look closely, you can see all the little bits of VM (vegetable matter) that are caught in the wool.
Picking out all the VM is a tedious, time-consuming task, that requires a lot of patience and attention to detail. Each individual lock of wool, out of an entire garbage bag full of fleece, must be examined.
I grasp each lock by the outer ends, give it a good shake to dislodge any second cuts (small bits of wool that were accidentally cut short on shearing day), then spread the fibers out and pick out any debris, from burrs or thistle pods all the way down to tiny flecks of dirt that are smaller than the head of a pin. Sometimes I hold the tuft of wool up to the light to check for debris I have missed. Sometimes I lay the tuft against my leg and brush it with a flick carder to dislodge the last few crumbs.
It took me three afternoons of picking VM to completely clean Urbana's fleece. (Last time I cleaned a fleece, I tried washing it first, then picking out the VM. Doing it that way took much longer.) If we had a nice, weed-free, manicured pasture, our fleeces would start out a bit cleaner. But we're not there yet, so for now I spend a little extra time in the fiber prep stage.
Here's what Urbana's fleece looked like when I was done. Much cleaner!
Here is the bucket of second cuts, VM, and dirty wool that I discarded. Nobody would want all this stuff in their quilt!
Now the wool is ready for washing. I've already written a post about how to wash a fleece, so I won't repeat myself here. But to continue to track the process of this quilt, here's a photo of Urbana's fleece soaking in the wash water. That fleece looked pretty clean, didn't it? But see how brown the wash water becomes? I only picked out the visible flecks of debris. Now the soapy wash water will remove the dust, sheep sweat, and lanolin.
Here is the washed and rinsed wool, still wet, laid out on the drying rack in front of the fan. By tomorrow it will be dry and ready to card. See how much whiter it is now? And how the beautiful natural sheen of the wool is starting to show through?
But wait! What's this? Even after all the time I spent picking debris out of the wool, now that it's clean and white, suddenly thousands more teeny tiny specks of debris have become visible, where they weren't visible before.
No need to worry. The washing has removed the sticky lanolin from the fleece. Once the wool is dry, most of the remaining impurities will fall off naturally when I card the wool. Any truly stubborn bits that remain after that can be picked or brushed loose as I handle the wool before spinning.
Stay tuned for Part 3!