Any time I feel like I could bear to wash fleece, is the right time to be washing fleece. I don’t love it the way I love spinning, but I’m prepared to do it so I can spin local fleece. And, I have a lot of fleece right now and have turned more down. Several times! The capacity to wash fleece came upon me, so I made a start.
I am washing a fleece that is Polwarth or perhaps a Polwarth cross. Polwarth is a fine wool, but this sheep mows a lawn, it isn’t a prize stud animal with breeding for fineness–so maybe not the finest Polwarth ever. Polwarth is a big breed. This photo shows the garbage bag the fleece came in, packed quite full. That’s after skirting (removal of the really yucky and really short bits at the point of shearing). In the picture I am 2 kg in, with 1.75 kg of raw fleece still to go. I am washing it 250g at a time. So that is many rounds of soak, wash 1, wash 2, rinse. Big job.
This is lovely fleece–soft, a beautiful colour, and with some very dark sections and some where the sheep’s age is starting to show in some greying. Also, fine fleece is the greasiest and the easiest to felt (that means it is hardest to wash well) and I much prefer washing coarser fleece. However coarse fleece makes itchy hats… so off we go!
Now washing raw fleece is a subject on which much has been written. I have drawn the conclusion that there are many ways to arrive at a cleaner fleece, and that different people have the capacity to manage different methods. It isn’t always obvious why. Most spinners have found a way, even if most of us have felted at least one fleece on the path! Anyway, here’s a small list of my personal suggestions.
Care for your back. Plan for safe lifting and carrying of things like containers full of hot water. Do not do anything in your own home that your union would criticise your boss for making you do. In my case, I carry water in containers with a handle (a bucket, not a dye pot). I lift with care: engage the belly muscles and bend the knees, lift with your big muscle groups and not your back. Consider the carrying involved and plan for safety and comfort.
Care for your plumbing. Is it up to this? Is anything going to stop short cuts and entire locks washing into the drain?
Expect things to get messy and wet. Set up your work station accordingly. I use gloves, apron, the lot. I always have a couple of the dyeing towels at the ready, one on the floor soaking up spills and one just in case. I like to use colanders or sieves that fit my buckets/dye pots so that I can rest wet fleece in them and squeeze it firmly–I gather everything before I start. In my case, I need an electric jug to raise the water to the right temperature. The hot tap won’t do it. I use scales to weigh my fleece and cleanser. I always have a container for bits I want to remove. Short cuts, seeds, pine cone parts, dead bugs, locks I have pulled out of the drain. I like to remove all barriers to removing anything I don’t want, immediately.
Consider your cleanser. I’ve heard of people using just about everything to clean fleece, from grease removing products used in the car industry, to dishwashing detergent, soap, fleece specific products, soapnuts, and fermentation. I’d like to use something clean and green but the green claims of a lot of products are hard to adequately assess, some of them travel long distances to get to me, and others don’t seem to work very well. I’ve been right up to “I will never do this again” at times, too, and I’ve found choice of cleanser can make a big difference to how difficult it is to get fleece clean and how good the outcome is.
Have a water saving strategy. Saving water and saving energy go together when you’re using hot water. I try to save water by soaking the fleece overnight in cold water before I start. I lift the fleece out, squeeze it to get as much water out as possible (then squeeze some more–wool is super absorbent), and move to the hot water wash. The soak water is full of nutrients so I use it as a fertiliser on the garden. I wash two batches at once. The final hot rinse for the first batch becomes the first hot wash for the second batch. I am on a roll at the moment, so I put tomorrow’s fleece to soak in the rinse water of today’s.
Yesterday I soaked two batches in the final hot rinse water of yesterday’s fleece washing, and two batches in cold water. This morning I was greeted with two very different sights. The batch that had soaked in cold water still looked like wet wool. The batch soaked in hot water allowed to go cold had a layer of grease on top. This is what is happening as your water cools down. Don’t leave it too long!
Have an entertainment strategy. I have about 15 minutes between hot washes and rinses, and it goes so much better if I have something pleasurable but interruptible to do. This time, I’ve been watching 12 minute videos from the Woodlanders series when the internet allows. It is beautiful. It is wonderful. It is inspiring. Basketry, charcoal, mushroom growing, forest care, nut growing and more! It shows several different Indigenous traditions. It includes woodland cultures and traditions from several different countries and continents. Also, crowd funded, so if you love this series all about forests and those who live and work in them–feel free to chip in, if you can.
Accept feedback. The wool itself will tell you whether what you did worked. In time as you come to spin you will find it felted or you won’t. You’ll find it clean or still too dirty for your taste. You’ll find it a bit sticky from retained greases, or you won’t. Then it’s on you to work out why. I think a lot of us have the concept that wool+ heat+alkalinity+agitation=felt. The wool, the heat and the alkalinity are unavoidable. Agitation is harder. You have to look for your blind spots. Examples include: running water into a vessel that contains wool. Pouring the whole load of water and wool into a draining sieve or similar (water running through wool=agitation). Then there’s good old fashioned playing with the wool while it soaks. I don’t. Submerge it, hold it down, if necessary squeeze and release once or twice to reduce trapped air, walk away.