A friend of mine recently once encouraged me to "try something that scares you every day". Well that something for me this past week was learning how to wash my own sheep fleece. Washing the wool is one of the first steps to processing it, and the main purpose is to get rid of the lanolin and organic matter. Lanolin is the oil naturally produced by sheep to keep the wool clean, act as a moisturizer and help shed water. Lanolin accounts for anywhere between 5-25% of the raw wool weight.
I previously have had wool washed by several local businesses, and the price ranges from $4-8.00 per pound. We have been sending 50lbs or more at a time to have it processed into yarn, blankets and roving, so I thought I would investigate the process to see if it is worth doing myself. I have been nervous to try it for fear of felting (or otherwise ruining) the wool. Since I have been home on break from school with a barn full of freshly shorn fleeces, I figured I would give it a try.
Below is the process I used, which I found on Spinderella's Wool Mill website. I have modified some of their instructions, which I will try to describe in my processes. If any of you are wool washing veterans and have suggestions for improvement, please let me know.
1. We sheared the middle of December (see previous post), and during shearing, we try to make sure we are separating out manure tags, belly wool, etc. in the barn to reduce the amount of skirting to be done in the house. Even still, I spent over 30min. on each fleece, picking through it, discarding organic matter and undesirable wool before starting the wash process. I usually did this the night before so I could get started with washing first thing in the morning.
2. The website calls for water up to 150 degrees. Our tap water didn't get that hot (until we turned up the thermostat), so for the first couple attempts, I was boiling water on the stove and dumping it in the machine... not exactly quick, but it worked. Once you fill a washing machine full of hot water, you dump in detergent (I used Dawn), stir in to not create suds, and add the fiber handful by handful. The fiber then sits in the hot water for 20 min. The article mentioned adding salt to the water, but our water is soft and our fleeces are not extremely dirty, so I did not bother with this. I also used less detergent (2/3 - 3/4 cup instead of 1 whole cup).
3. After the fleece sat for 20min. in the hot, soapy water, I lifted it out into the sink next to the washer. I then drained the dirty water and refilled with hot water and soap to repeat Step 1 for a total of 2 washes. The second wash I let sit for 15-18min. instead of 20min. I don't really think the time makes much of a difference. The first couple times I actually spun out the water as the article mentioned. Since then, I have not done this and lifted out the fleece to reduce the amount of agitation. I also ruined two fleeces by felting during this stage because I accidently left the washer on before the spin step.
4. Next, I conducted 3 rinses using the same method: Fill up the washer with warm water, add the fleece by the handful, and then lifted out after a few minutes. On the 3rd rinse, I actually let the washer spin out the water and the fleece to get a lot of the water out to assist with the drying process. The article mentions putting baking soda and vinegar in one of the last rinses, but I didn't find that necessary because the water was very clear by the 3rd rinse.
5. After spinning out, I laid a tarp out by our wood stove in the living room, and spread the fleece out. Throughout the day, I would fluff up the fleece, turn it over, and pick out large pieces of organic matter still left in the wool. It was actually amazing to see how much chaff still came out while it was drying!
Our cat really loved laying in the wool! (as you can see by the photo above!). After ruining 2 fleeces, I was feeling a bit discouraged, but someone said I was paying too much attention to the little details of doing it right, and to not worry about the temperature of the water, measuring the detergent exactly, timing the soaks, etc. It took me 2-2.5 hours per fleece, as I was taking my time lifting out the wool and placing it back in the water each time. I have since washed 5 fleeces successfully and will continue to make this a winter project! Four of the fleeces will be going to Finger Lakes Woolen Mill to be made into roving, the fifth will probably get made into yarn. Only about 10 more to go... haha Again, any input to speed up the process or personal experience would be appreciated. :)
Emmaline Long, main owner of Orchard View Farm, has a passion for Lincoln sheep and loves educating others about her breed and farm, She currently serves as the Vice President of the National Lincoln Breeders Association.