by Sarabeth Parido
As the days begin to shorten and our time with sunny afternoons begins to cool, those of us with dirty fleece in our basements know that time is of the essence to get the last of the year’s fleeces scoured and ready for our projects through the winter. Maybe you bought a fleece at one of our festivals this year and don’t quite know what to do next, or maybe you’re looking at a fleece from one of your favorite sheep wondering if there’s something more you can do with it— there is!
Scouring, or washing, your fleece is a relatively simple process as long as you are mindful of the steps so you don’t end up with a large batch of felt! Wool fleeces have lanolin which conditions and protects the sheep’s wool and skin. Some spinners do like to “spin in the grease” meaning spinning directly from a unwashed fleece, but most wool projects need clean wool. Other animal fibers such as alpaca and mohair will not have lanolin, so washing those fleeces usually just means washing the dirt and dust from the fiber, but with sheep fleece, the lanolin gets stripped away as well. In our scouring method, scouring the lanolin out of the fiber will actually aid in washing most of the first out with it. With just a few steps and some ingredients you may already have at home, you can turn a smelly bag of dirty wool or animal fiber into a clean fluff ready to spin, felt or craft with.
There are as many methods to scouring fleece as there are cleaning solutions. As a word of caution–this should NOT be done in your home bathtub or kitchen sink as lanolin is a grease and can cause damage to your drains (similar to pouring bacon grease down your drain). Some have the luxury of having washing tubs with dedicated drainage, but since most do not–we will be using 5 gallon buckets that you can pour out into your yard and detergents that can be easily found at most grocery or hardware stores.
What you will need:
2 - 5 Gallon Buckets with lids
1/2 cup of Simple Green Biodegradable Cleaning Solution
1/4 cup Dawn Dish soap
3-4 Mesh Laundry Bags
Kitchen Tongs and Wooden spoon
Step 1: SKIRTING
This can be the most tedious part of the process, but it’s very important for the best and most efficient end result. If you have purchased your fleece at a festival or from a fleece sale, most of the skirting should be done for you. Many fleece sales require this step to be done by the producer. Skirting is simply discarding the undesirable bits of fleece. Laying out the fleece, ideally on a large wire mesh surface, you can walk around the edge of your fleece and pull off any overly dirty or soiled parts of the fleece. Places along the fleece such as the neck, belly and parts of the britches that would have been exposed to more of the elements like mud, hay, vegetable matter, and feces can be torn away and used in compost, garden beds, or simply thrown away. Areas around the neck of the sheep where they are most likely to collect feed and hay, if desired by the fiber artist for color or texture, can still be saved, but processed separately as it will need more attention and picking than the rest. You can be as detailed in this part of the process as you like. Once your fleece is skirted and you’ve picked out bits of debris thoroughly, you can divide the fleece into a few smaller parts and place into mesh laundry bags. You want to divide the wool so that you do not overstuff the laundry bags, giving plenty of room for the fleece to space out and get clean.
Step 2: SCOURING
Fill your 5 gallon buckets 2/3 full with hot water and place the lid on one to trap in the heat. By filling both buckets at once, the water will cool to similar temperatures. Felting can occur when wool goes through extreme temperature changes- so to avoid that during the first and second wash, we want the two buckets to be as close to temperature as possible. Use caution with the hot water. You may want to add a tea kettle of boiling water to each bucket if you do not keep your water heater very hot, as the hot water is what will break down and remove the lanolin. Lanolin melts at 120F, but as the water cools it can reharden and redeposit itself in your fleece at 110F. This can lead to a sticky fleece; to avoid that you can aim for a water temperature of 130F for best results. Once the buckets are full, add in the Simple Green and Dawn to each bucket, and stir gently to avoid suds. Gently add your laundry bags of fleece, pushing them down into the water. Let the air bubbles release before fully submerging each bag. Note: depending on the size of your fleece, you may not be able to fit all into one wash. Other than temperature change, agitation is the other thing to be careful to avoid so as not to felt your fleece; do not stir your fleece or cause a lot of movement during this stage. Put the lid back onto the bucket and set a timer for 20-30 minutes. Once the time has passed, you can transfer the laundry bags from the first wash bucket to the second bucket for a second 20-30 minute wash (use tongs for this as the water will still be extremely hot). Dispose of the dirty water outside (again–NOT down your drains) and refill the first bucket with hot water and replace lid. If after your second wash, you are happy with the amount of dirt and grease removed from the fleece, then you can use this new bucket of water to rinse. If you feel like the fleece is still dirty, you can add in the detergent again and wash a third time. For the rinsing process, you gently transfer the laundry bags to the hot bucket of water and let sit for 15 minutes and then drain. You can repeat this process until the water is clear–just make sure that the water temperature does not drastically changing.
Step 3: DRYING
If you have access to a washing machine with a spin cycle that does not rinse or spray during the cycle, you can cut your drying time by putting your laundry bags through a spin cycle–spinning out most of the extra water. This will not agitate your fiber, just spin the water out. You do not want your fleece to be sprayed at all during this time, so if you’re unsure about your machine’s spin cycle, it’s best to avoid this and just allow your fleece to air dry. You can use one of these warm, sunny autumn afternoons to spread out your fleece and let your fleece sun itself! To avoid your fleece blowing away, spread it out in the laundry bag and turn often to dry thoroughly.
Once your fleece is completely dry, you can begin using your fiber! You may want to pick over your fleece again, as some vegetable matter may still be present in the fleece and should be easier to remove at this point. If you are further processing by carding, combing or spinning your fiber, a lot of those little pieces of grass and such will come out of the fiber as you process it more. For hands on fiber processing and project classes, please visit www.kentuckynaturalfiber.com/workshops to see what the Kentucky Natural Fiber Center has to offer!
Sarabeth Parido, is the Director of the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival and The Kentucky Fiber Trail. She raises her own small flock of sheep in Clark County, Kentucky along with her husband and four sons.