Washing Raw Fleece

There are probably as many different ways to wash a fleece as there are breeds of sheep, and each person will have their own preferred method. This may be based on how they were shown, or the best way to use the facilities that they have available to them. If you live in a small flat with no garden, then your options will be more limited than those with access to lots of outdoor space.

Washing a whole fleece requires much more space than washing small pieces, but basically the process is the same.

I’ve probably washed in excess of 60 fleeces over the past few years, both sheep and alpaca. Some I used to spin and felt myself, some were turned into rugs, some fibres were sold, and others were used in a variety of fibre based craft workshops here on the smallholding.

I don’t work with gloves on as I think there are benefits to being able to feel the fibre as I work. However, do remember that you are working with a raw fibre that will contain soil particles, faeces, urine, possibly a mini beast or too and a variety of seeds and other vegetable matters, so you may like to where protective gloves – an apron is useful too – I do always wear one of those.

So, you’ve collected your first raw fleece from a local farmer, or bagged one online, and now you’d like to take it from its current state to the beautiful fluff that you’ve seen people posting images of all over the internet.

I work on a large makeshift table made from a weld mesh panel that is approx. 7ft x 5ft propped off the floor by whatever happens to be handy – upturned buckets are a favourite. You could just as easily work on the floor, though this can be hard on your back. Laying an old sheet or tarpaulin on the floor first will help to keep your fleece from picking up more dirt.

I take the fleece out of the bag and loosen it if it was folded up. I give it a shake and allow any loose second cuts [short bits of fibre created when the shearer goes over the sheep a second time to tidy it up] or large bits of vegetable matter to fall out. If the fleece has been stored for a while, particularly if it’s been cold, the fleece might feel a bit stiff or sticky. Don’t worry about this – it’s just the lanolin on the fibres.

I throw the fleece onto the mesh table cut side up, and gently run my hands over the surface, picking up any short second cuts that are still lingering after the shake. Any other unwanted bits can also be picked off.

After carefully rolling up the fleece, I flip it over so that the cut side faces down, and the tips of the fleece are uppermost. I spread out the fleece so that it’s nice and flat and I have a good clear view.

Now I start to remove anything that I don’t want to use – this is called skirting and may have already been done by the shepherd or shearer. All around the edges of the fleece you will find matted [cotted or felted] fibres, very coarse areas, or areas that are heavy with dung – your compost heap will love all of it, so simply tear it away from the rest of the fleece. This ‘skirt’ area will have been around the belly, legs and tail of sheep so subject to much dirt and friction. The skirt area is useful to put around the base of fruit bushes and in the bottom of plant pots. Roses, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, pumpkins – all heavy feeders that will make good use of this waste material – I use it in the cut flower garden here too.

Any very coarse fibres that aren’t felted can be separated to be used for whiskers etc for needle felting.

The other area that you might need to separate is in the middle, along the sheep’s back. Sometimes this can be much felted. If it is, simply tear out the felted piece and put to one side. Felted pieces like this make useful cores for larger needle felted work, stuffing etc.

What’s left might look rather grotty, but it can be quite startling how different a fleece can look after a good wash.

Before we get the water out, one last job is to search the fleece for vegetable matter. This can be grass seeds, bits of hay and straw etc. If you’re lucky, the fleece will have very little. Too much vegetable matter can sometimes make the fleece more trouble than it’s worth to process.

So now your fleece is ready to wash [scour].

You can, in theory, just use your fleece as it is. But that means that as well as on your hands, all that grit, dust, urine etc. on the fibre is going to be fixed into whatever you make– and that will not smell good! You certainly could not sell such an item.

My main pieces of kit for washing fleece are a large black plastic bin with a shallow, upturned wire basket in the bottom and an old twin tub washing machine that I keep specifically for fleece. I fill the bin half full of cold water and immerse the fleece. I don’t stir or agitate in any way. I’ll leave it for a few hours or ideally overnight, then lift out the fleece [taking care - a wet fleece is very heavy] and dump it into the adjacent stone sink to drain. In the mean time I empty out the dirty water completely [useful for watering plant pots] and refill with cold water. The basket at the bottom holds the fleece away from the grit that falls to the bottom of the bin.

I resubmerge the fleece and soak again. This may be another overnight or just an hour or so depending on how dirty the fleece was. I might repeat this cold rinse up to 4 times until the water poured away is much cleaner than the first rinse.

Whilst the fleece is draining in the stone sink, I will now fill the twin tub with very hot water and detergent – usually washing up liquid– but there are lots of specialist wool washing products available for you to try.

If you live in the South or East of the UK and have very hard water, you will find Power Scour products particularly effective. Hard water can leave deposits on fleece which makes them feel unpleasant. Using domestic borax or washing soda will counteract the hardness and improve the effectiveness of the wash. Detergents are much more preferable to soap based products in hard water areas too.

Washing in cold water will get rid of dirt but will keep the lanolin which results in a lanolin rich or lightly scoured fleece.

I lift the fleece and carefully resubmerge into the hot water and allow to soak for about half an hour to an hour depending on how fast the water cools. You want to take the fleece out while the water is still very warm to keep the lanolin and debris suspended in the water with the detergent. I drain the water and repeat the process. I usually would only do this twice unless the fleece was exceptionally filthy. Finally, I fill the twin tub with lukewarm water without detergent and soak the fleece for a final time to rinse off any remaining detergent.

Fleece may felt if water temperatures are too extreme. Never put a hot fleece into cold water. Always allow the fleece to come to room temperature first or match the water temperature to the fleece.

Then I put the fleece [whole if it’s a small to medium size] into a spin dryer that I keep especially for fleece. This uses centrifugal force to squeeze out the excess water without felting. From here I simply throw the fleece back onto the wire mesh table and on a nice sunny day the whole fleece can be dry in an hour.

Once completely dry, its ready to store or card, comb etc.

Learning to wash a fleece effectively will save you money and give you a greater choice of fibre from what is available commercially. It also means that you can make use of locally available fibre which will help to minimise your impact on the environment and adds to your product appeal if you are selling your fibre based creations.

If you would like to be guided through your first raw fleece preparation, visit the website for the next raw fleece workshop here at The Little Lancashire Smallholding.

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