January 11, 2011

How and When to Wash a Raw Fleece

raw fleece washed with ammonia

Someone who doesn't spin but takes an interest in my activities recently asked me whether I'd noticed fleeces for sale on the Local Harvest website.  He wondered how long a fleece would take to deal with, and at what point in handspinning these fleeces get washed.

The time needed to process a fleece depends on how much fibre and grease there is and what method you use.  Fleece is measured by weight.  Average weight of a fleece is four to six pounds; some breeds give less and some more.  The amount of grease depends on the sheep breed.  Generally a breed that gives crimpy, fine, short, matte, and soft locks also gives a greasier fleece.  Coarse, long, shiny ringlets come with less grease.

The length of locks varies by the breed and that affects the size of the fleece.  Cotswold sheep get sheared twice a year, since their wool grows 10-12 inches a year but on the the other end of the spectrum a merino sheep's wool growth is more like 3-4 inches a year.  The size of the sheep (a factor of breed, gender, and selection for size) partially determines fleece size, and the age too: a lamb gives less when it has been shorn before it has lived the whole year.  Lambswool is more fine than wool from an adult sheep but I'm not sure if this would affect fleece size much.

You can send the fleece out for washing to a milling company.  You can wash at home with the washing machine if you are very careful not to allow the agitator to move and you contain the wool with net bags.  You can wash the locks by hand in a basin with dish detergent or a cleanser meant for washing fleeces.  You can boil the wool over a wooden fire in a kettle of hot ammonia and water, keeping the wool safe in a basket inside the kettle.  You can use a fermentation method that is supposed to be incredibly smelly but effective and low in effort.  You can also pre-rinse your fleece by running the unshorn sheep through a stream.

I washed a fleece in a basin once.

Only get a fleece if you have time to wash the fleece before the grease hardens, which is within a year of shearing.  If you are ever in the company of handspinners and want to spark a conversation, ask them how many fleeces they have in storage that they need to wash.

To wash a fleece you need to be able to tolerate the smell and presence of dirt and dung.  The worst will be discarded by the shearer but a lot remains.  When I got my fleece I thought that part of the fleece was grey and part was brown, and then I washed it and realized it was all grey wool with brown dirt on the parts that had been lower down on the sheep.

There is a small risk when handling raw fleece of encountering a deadly substance that naturally occurs in soil.  I'm not going to name it because it's not a word I want this blog picked up for in the search engines, and I don't have any recommendations for avoiding the stuff because I don't know of any.

Wool is washed before spinning.  In the seventies, people spun wool "in the grease" but that has gone out of fashion.  Yarn spun out of wool in the grease is supposed make water-resistant fabric.  To get a yarn with grease but no dirt, according to Peter Teal's book on wool combs, you can wash the wool and add oil such as olive oil afterward while combing.  I haven't done this.  I have handled commercially-produced sweaters from Finland.  They looked beautiful and clean, and I could feel a light residue of oil on the fabric that I assume was added after the wool was washed.

The guild I belong to devoted a whole meeting to the issue of washing fleeces and brought in an expert to talk about it.  The guild has also devoted meetings to what happens next with a fleece.  Again, there you have the option to send the wool out to a mill for custom processing instead of carding or combing by hand.  Some mills will process a single fleece.  Others require a minimum number of fleeces and the fleeces in the batch get mixed together.  You can buy a drum carder, which does a similar job to what a custom mill does.  A drum carder is a hand-cranked or electric motor-driven machine small enough to sit on a table top.  Instead of a milled strip of roving, the wool comes off the carder in the form of a batt.  Handspinners don't just buy a drum carder to speed up their wool processing, they use them to blend multiple colours of dyed fibre into interesting preparations to spin.


  1. What temperature do you wash with? I just washed some of my fleeces over a wood fire but used laundry detergent. Cotswold came out great but Finn seemed a bit dry (it was the not as good part of the fleece though). Wondering if it was the fleece, detergent, or water temp.

  2. Thanks for asking. For the one solitary fleece I've washed, which was an Icelandic fleece, I used hot water straight from the tap with hardly any cold water added. I let each batch of wool soak in the basin until the temperature cooled enough that I could put my hand in without scalding and lift out the locks.
    The fleece that you see pictured above over a wood fire, that was washed by a museum interpreter at the Frontier Culture museum in Staunton, VA. I am not sure how hot they had the water. They cleaned the wool with ammonia.
    Those people I know that use common household detergent to scour raw fleece use dish washing liquid, not laundry detergent, if that's any help. (I used dish detergent.)
    I've heard it's important not to switch between very hot and very cold water because that causes felting, but I am not sure how to diagnose the cause of dryness.
    You may want to have a look at the Fiber Prep group's discussion board on Ravelry to see what people with lots of experience have said about washing fleece. http://www.ravelry.com/groups/fiber-prep


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