A Woolly Wild guide to washing fleece

November 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am developing a possibly unhealthy obsession with wool. My watch list on ebay is all pictures of sheep, and there is wool everywhere in my house.

I just love it, I love its naturalness, and its versatility – the feel of it, its smell. And so I have been delving deeper and deeper into felt making, and wool production. Its a slippery slope that I imagine will eventually end in being overrun with sheep, but hey, there are may worst things than being addicted to wool I guess.

My most recent endeavour was to buy a kg of washed mule sheep fleece off ebay. Until the moment it arrived, I had never really worked with anything other than clean carded wool roving. But I needed a way of getting large quantities of wool for cheap, and this seemed to be it.

It arrived in a sheep feed bag, and altough it had been washed, the feel of it was still very greasy, and it had a lot of dirt and vegetable matter still tangled into it. It was so nice to see the fleece as it was though, before anything has really been done to it – all the different textures, crimps and curls that occur on a natural fleece

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I sorted it as best I could, separating the bits that were most usable, from the dirty stained bits. I then read and watched many on-line tutorials about how to wash fleece. Seems everyone does it slightly differently, so here’s the method I have been using –

Step 1 – locate a large tub or container, and some old towels, and a colander. Settle into the bathroom. Select the wool that you wish to wash. I would suggest stating with a little at first, so if it goes wrong you won’t ruin your whole fleece.

Step 2 – place the tub in the bath, fill it with hot water from the tap. The water needs to be as hot as a tap can go, almost too hot for your hands. This is to melt the natural grease in the fleece (lanolin) and get it off the wool. once your tub is as full as you need it, add a generous squirt of washing up liquid, stir gently with your hand – carefully so as not to create bubbles.

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Step 3 – add the wool! Submerge in carefully in the water, gently squeeze it so it is completely wet, but do not agitate too much! This is important, as agitating the wool in hot water and soap can cause it to felt. Leave in the hot water for 15 -20 minutes. Go and have a cup of tea or something. but don’t let the water cool down completely as the lanolin will solidify again reattach itself to the wool

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Step 4 – carefully fish the wool out of the water, and place it in the colander in the bath. Pour away the soapy dirty water, rinse your tub and refill it with hot water.

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The wool I bought was advertised as washed already, but it was still very dirty. I imagine raw wool would create even filthier water!

Step 5 – place the wool in the clean water, and leave again for 15 or so minutes.

Step 6 – remove wool from water, replace water with clean, and rinse wool again. I rinsed all my wool twice, it may need more or less, depending on how dirty it is.

Step 7 – remove wool from water, place in colander, gently squeeze out as much water as you can. Transfer the wool to a towel, spread it out on the towel and gentry roll it up, squeezing it carefully.

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Hang the washed wool over a drying rack and leave to dry for a couple of days! It will then be ready for carding or dyeing.

I am in no way an expert, this is the first time I have washed fleece myself, but I thought I would share my thoughts and experience of it. I am going to continue to learn. Once I have sorted all of this one, I am going to buy a whole raw fleece, which will need even more washing!

I found the whole process rather nice and relaxing, it is lovely to really get to know a material, all of its properties and how it is processed from the very start. I want to be involved in as many of the processes of felt making as possible. Not just making the felt, but processing the wool too. As an artist and craft maker, I want to avoid mass produced products as much as I can – to know that the wool I use has not caused harm to the planet during its production. This is so important to me, and it is something that is so difficult to actually ensure these days.

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