It’s raw. It’s natural. Yes, it smells too

October 16, 2008 at 2:07 pm 3 comments

“It” being a freshly shorn fleece!  Sheep aren’t soft and fluffy like in cartoons.  Their wool is permeated with oil (lanolin) and suiet, or sheep sweat, and the outmost edges (the part you pet) usually has dirt,  flecks of straw and grass, and around the backsides, ‘tags” which are comprised of things that come out of the sheep and get matted up in their wool.  Yuk.

The first thing to do with a fresh fleece is to “skirt” it.  That means to remove those nasty tags, and short or coarser wool from the edges of the fleece, leaving behind the main part of the wool. Shake what it left out a bit so straw and such falls off (aka “VM” – vegetative matter), roll it up with the cut ends facing out, and bag it.  The resulting bundle of pungent, oily fleece is what you get when you purchase a raw fleece. 

What to do now?  Learn why it costs so much to have a raw fleece commercially processed by doing it yourself!  I hadn’t washed a fleece in years, but a few weekends ago I purchased two, and in the twenty feet or so between the raw fleece tent and the pick-up booth of a wool mill, I decided to process them myself instead of sending them out!

My fleece were small and heavily skirted.  Both were from border leicester/blue-faced leicester cross sheep from a “certified humane” farm in the area.  “Maddie” was five pounds of creamy-colored wool (thats her in the first picture, above).  “Victoria,” a lamb, was two pounds of dark black/brown wool.

Maddie went into the washing machine:


Yes, you can wash a fleece this way, if it’s not superfine (like merino), and you follow a few rules.  Fill the machine without the fleece in it.  Use very hot water in the first washing (I boiled some in the microwave to add).  Soak, DO NOT AGITATE.  Let me repeat that most important point: DO NOT AGITATE.  Use plenty of a mild but grease-cutting detergent, like dishwashing liquid.  Soak until the water starts to cool, then, while its still plenty warm, drain and spin.  If your machine is one that sprays water in the drum during the spin cycle, you’ll want to turn the water off in the back, at the hose bibb, during spinning.  Repeat as necessary until the fleece is clean.  After the first washing (when the lanolin is gone), you can let the water cool, and even soak it overnight to help loosen the dirt in the tips. Rinse in the same manner you washed, then lay the fleece out to dry. Voila – clean fleece:

Some spinner like to spin “in the grease.”  Contrary to what I thought as a new spinner years ago, that doesn’t mean spinning raw.  Instead, in means cleaning the dirt out of the fleece by soaking it in warm or cool water.  The suiet (sheep sweat) will act as a natural mild detergent, taking out the dirt but leaving the lanolin behind. 

Victoria, being a smaller and finer fleece, was washed by hand in the sink.  This little fleece really wanted to felt up on me — it’s very very soft and fine — but in the end, after picking through it, it came out wonderfully as well.

Now that they are clean, I can take my time deciding what else to do with them.  Raw fleece, if not cleaned within a few months of shearing, can become stained or damaged.  The lanolin and suiet harden and bond, making it much harder to clean. 

Washing these fleece was a break from my main occupation recently: getting ready for the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival ( just over a week from now!  I’ll be a vendor — so I’ve been dyeing and spinning and making like mad!  If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come see me there.  I’ll have yarn, rovings, buttons, gift items, and Spinolution Mach I spinning wheels for sale!  Here’s a sneak peak at some of the things I’ve been getting ready for the booth:


Entry filed under: HANDSPINNING, OTHER FIBER FUN. Tags: , , , , .

ASJ – Progress Report Fiber Festival – I did it!

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. islandsweet  |  October 16, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    well = that was the clearest explanation of fleece washing i’ve read! it gives me courage to give it a try.

  • 2. Carrie  |  October 17, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Great explanation. Coincidentally, I’ve washed two fleeces in the past week as well. One was a border leicester that was a dark charcoal gray/brown and not well skirted at all (globs of goo in the wash water, eeeew). I washed half of it by hand and it was a chore, but the resulting fiber was worth it–BL is one of my faves to work with. The other was a chunk of Corriedale I bought this spring which I did in the washer. It came out clean but still has a ton of lanolin in it, so I think I have to use hotter water, a pre-soak, and more soap. Now that they’re done, I have excuse to buy more fleeces this weekend at NYSWF! Wish I was close enough to visit your festival next weekend. Good luck!

  • 3. knittedgems  |  October 22, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Thank you for this great tutoria!
    I have two skeins to wash (that were spun in the grease) and one fleece to wash. I’ll be using a few of your tips.


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