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Cleaning Wool

Have you found yourself with wool fleece and aren't sure what to do with it? Here's a tutorial to help you navigate next steps. 

There are many opinions about the best way to go about washing fiber. The steps below show how I've been washing my Shetland sheep's fleece twice a year for seven years. It seems to work well for me as I've never ruined a fleece!

Tamra Higgins

Co-owner, Two Sisters

Materials List

Two large tubs. I use kiddie swimming pools and think they work great. This year, I've put them on tables and am anticipating saving my back a lot of stress. 

Detergent. For years, I used whatever detergent I was using for my laundry at the moment, without any discernible differences between them. I did discover, however, that for wool with extra lanolin, a detergent that cuts through grease was helpful. In the late fall of 2019 a customer asked me to use the detergent BioKleen on the fleece I was washing for her as it doesn't have any harsh chemicals in it. I think BioKleen does a great job and I used it exclusively for quite awhile. I am back now, though, to using more run-of-the-mill detergents. The BioKleen does almost too good of job as I like a little lanolin left in my wool. If you want an absolutely grease free-wool, BioKleen can get you there.

Hot water. Lots of it. I run a hose from a sink in my basement to my outdoor washing area. 

Rubber gloves. You will want to wear these when you see how dirty the wool is!

Drying area. A tarp will do but even better is something that the air can circulate underneath the fleece. My drying area consists of several old tires with chicken wire resting on them. I can set this up outside or if the weather looks like it's going to take a turn for the worse, I can set it up in my garage. 

Tarp. A tarp is useful for transferring fleece from one tub to another. Instead of a tarp, I use a third kiddie pool. 

1. Skirt the fleece.
Go over your fleece and remove tags (dried pieces of wool with manure on them), obvious pieces of grass , hay, straw and other vegetable matter (VM).
1A. Hand-pick  the fleece.
This entails going carefully through the fleece to pick out all the vegetable matter. Sometimes I do this step before I wash and sometimes I do this step after I wash. If done before washing, it's a very dirty job - make sure to protect yourself with a towel or blanket and wash your hands well afterwards!
2. Fill first tub
with hot soapy water. As hot as you can get it. I use a liberal amount of detergent - a capful. Do NOT put the wool in when the water is running. Let the water settle.  PUT YOUR GLOVES ON. Wearing rubber gloves is important for protection against being infected from fecal matter found in the wool.
3. Turn off water, let water settle, and gently lay the fleece on the water
If you have an extra large fleece, you may have to gently pull it apart and wash it in two segments. VERY GENTLY push the fiber down into the water to submerge it. 
4. Let soak/Fill rinse tub.
I let my fleece soak for about half an hour. During this time I am filling my next tub/pool with hot water. Do NOT add detergent to the second tub, which is the rinse tub.  
5. Gently remove fiber from first tub.
To do this, I lift a small section of the fleece up out of the tub and ever so gently squeeze the water out, making sure I don't wring it or twist it in any way - agitation causes felting. I kind of make a sandwich out of it with one hand on top and one hand on the bottom and press. This is the hardest part of the process because the wet fleece is heavy. Once the piece is fairly squeezed out, I place it on the tarp or in an empty pool and take another piece and squeeze.
6.Place in rinse tub. 
After the entire fleece has been removed from the sudsy tub, I place the fleece pieces in the rinse tub in the same manner - place on top of water and gently push it down to submerge. Let soak for about half an hour.
7. Empty dirty pool and refill
 with hot sudsy water, same as the first filling. You may need to hose off your tarp as well. 
This will give you an idea of how dirty the wool can be after the first sudsy soak. I am always amazed at how the second sudsy soak is enough to get it clean. Rarely do I have to go a third time round. This photo shows that there are two fleeces being washed simultaneously, keeping me on my toes. Now, on to the next steps....
8. Remove fleece from rinse pool
in the same manner as it was removed from the sudsy pool: gently squeeze out water in fleece segments and place on tarp. 
9. Repeat wash, and rinse.
I have never had to wash and rinse my sheep's wool more than twice. I have had to wash wool that has come from another farm more than twice. When there is no more dirt in the water, you are done. You may still have lanolin (you'll feel it) and the water may be a little cloudy from that but it won't be dirty. I don't mind some lanolin left in. 
10. Lay out to dry.
Lay out the wool to dry in an area where it won't blow away or get soiled. Don't let it get rained on as this can cause it to felt. Turn it over a couple times a day. You can bring it inside and lay it out on towels after the majority of the water has dripped away.  Don't forget to fluff it and turn it!
Once it's dry, you're ready for picking and carding. 
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