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How to Wash and Prepare Fleece

Working with raw fleece can be both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. Even under the best pasture practices and shearing conditions, fleece will contain “stuff” that needs to be kept out of the fiber preparation and spinning processes.

Lanolin is one substance that most spinners like removed from the wool they spin. Lanolin is produced by the sebaceous glands of sheep that enables their coat to readily shed water. The lanolin also helps to prevent the wool from felting on the sheep.

Lanolin, also known as “grease,” is actually a waxy ester (wax), not a true fat. Lanolin can comprise 5-25% of the weight of a fresh fleece. Commercial applications for lanolin include cosmetics, skin care products, and industrial lubricants.

On average, the fine wool breeds produce fleeces with shorter staple length and higher lanolin content. This higher lanolin content may necessitate a second round of washing (scouring) with detergent. Cormo, Corriedale, Debouillet, Merino, Polworth, Rambouillet and Targhee are all examples of fine wool breeds.

The long wool breeds typically produce fleeces with lower lanolin content. Blueface Leicester, Coopworth, Cotswold, Lincoln, Perendale, Romney, Teeswater and Wensleydale are all example of long wool breeds.

Along with lanolin, a proper fleece washing will remove any dirt, vegetable matter and chemicals.

The most important thing to remember when washing (also called scouring) fleece is to avoid too much agitation. Agitation will felt the wool making the fleece a tangled mat of useless fiber. In addition, well scoured wool is less likely to be damaged by the combing or carding process.

On a final note, please note that no amount of proper, or careful scouring can “transform” a poor- quality fleece into a fine fiber for spinning.

The following is but one method of scouring fleece. Additional methods can be found in The Spinner’s Guide to Fleece.

5 Easy Steps to Clean Fleece

This is just one way of doing it - using our mesh bags - there are many ways of going about cleaning a fleece.

1. SKIRT

Take raw fleece and lay it out on the floor. Take off the very dirty wool around the edge of the fleece and check the rest of the fleece and remove any dirt, hay and any other foreign material. Turn the fleece over and remove any visible short cuts.

2. SEPARATE

Separate the fleece into smaller pieces, and bundle it up, trying to keep most of the cut ends facing in. Then put the bundles in mesh bags and close the bags with rubber bands.

Note: Some people like to pre-soak a fleece in cold water before washing. This helps to begin to loosen and dissolve the dirt. The presoak works great for uncoated fleeces with dirty tips and wool with red clay on it. Hot wash water will permanently set red clay stains; so the pre-soak can be very important. If you use pre-soak you must be very careful not to agitate the wool when you go to the next step (washing) that uses very hot water. Drastically changing the water temperature combined with agitation will lead to the wool felting; however going from hot water to cold is far worse than the other way round. Soak for 24 hours, then drain and go to the wash cycle.

3. WASH / SCOUR

Put HOT water in a large tub or washer, enough water so that when the wool is submerged it isn’t too cramped. BEFORE putting the wool in, add enough soap to make the water feel slippery. The Woolery offers a full line of scour products from Kookaburra, Namaste Farms and Unicorn. Alternatively, you can use dishwashing detergent provided that it has grease cutting properties.. Add the fleece, make sure it is wet, but don’t agitate it or mess with it more then you have to or the wool could felt. Always add the wool to the water, don’t run water onto the wool, this could felt it also. Let the wool sit in the soapy water for around a half hour. Then take the wool out and gently squeeze out the water (if you are using a washer just put the washer on the spin only cycle, leaving the wool in, then take the wool out before adding the rinse or other wash water).

If you are working with a very muddy or oily fleece you may need to do two washes. The second wash would be the same as the first one, but you may not need as much soap. 

4. RINSE 

To rinse: put water that is not as hot as the first water was, but not cool either (you want to avoid sudden change in water temperature so the wool doesn’t felt) in the tub or washer. Put the wool in for 30 or so minutes. If the water comes out very dirty or soapy you will need to do a second rinse, same as the first.

NOTE: If using the washer, at NO time should the washer be allowed to agitate—if it does, you will have felt!

5. DRY

After rinsing the wool, spin the water out using the spin only cycle on the washer. Take the wool out of the bag and lay it out on a towel to dry. If you don’t want to use the washer to spin out the extra water, the wool will just take longer to dry. 

Video - Washing Fleece

Video - Spinning Washed Raw Fleece - with Permission from Sharon Tree