Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cleaning a Sheep Fleece 101

 I've been spending the last few days hurriedly preparing three sheep fleeces to be sent to a local mill on Friday. The hurry, was in part, because the rain is due to come tonight and it's uncertain how long it will last. I dry my fleece outside so sunshine is a necessity for this process.

This is not everyone's cup of tea, but I personally love sorting through a fleece, skirting it (removing the  poopy dreaded edges), putting out burrs and bits of hay, and generally making a nice clean pile of wool. Fingers will build up a film of dirt and poop and the smell of lanolin is strong, but it's somehow deeply satisfying. As a woman, it seems this is engrained in my genes- to clean, spin and knit a fleece. I know, I know, men were the original spinners…

Once the farm debris and dreaded poopy bits are removed, it's time to put it in the wash! You need a top-loading machine to do this. Also, lots of Dawn dish soap or another brand of soap that is known for it's grease-cutting quality.

Start to fill the machine with hot water and add about 1/3 cup of soap. This amount will clean the equivalent of 2-3 pounds of fleece, assuming that you skirted it well and removed the poopy wool. Put the fleece in the washer once the soap is mixed well with the water. 

The fleece will seem to fill the entire machine. I just push it down into the water or you can also use a stick to submerge it. Make sure the fleece is completely covered in water with some to spare. The water will turn brown and dirty-looking. Turn the water off on the machine and leave it sit for about 10-20 minutes. Don't wait much longer since lanolin will started to condense at around 110 degrees F, making it difficult to remove from the fiber. Then, after the waiting period of 10-20 minutes, turn the dial to the spin cycle. This will immediately drain the water out and dry out the fleece significantly. Don't worry, it won't felt the fleece. 

After this process, there may be some soap residue left. Since I'm taking my fleece to a mill to be further processed I filled the machine up a second time with hot water (sans soap), let it sit another 10 minutes and set it on spin again. Depending how much dirt and lanolin is in the fleece, you may want to repeat the process (with both soap and water) 2-4 times. My sheep, being Icelandic, have very little lanolin and this particular flock have the cleanest fleeces I've ever seen!

To finish the cleaning, I have a large metal table with lots of stamped holes in it, that the fleece gets spread out on. This makes the drying process quick as the airflow is reaching it from all sides. A regular table works fine as well but the fleece may need to be turned over to help release more moisture.

Another thing: I like to measure the staple length of the fiber before sending it off to the mill. If I do decide to sell the roving or batting, it's a nice and common detail to inform your customer with. Take one lock of wool and measure with a ruler.