Thursday, January 08, 2009

Washing Wool--Fresh off the Sheep

A few months ago, I promised to post what I did with all that raw fiber I purchased at the WI Spin-In last fall.

Why bother washing and processing raw wool? Some people don't want to bother with it--They just want to spin and knit. Here are some reasons to consider washing your own raw wool :

* It's about 1/2 the price of washed and carded roving.
* I get a lot of satisfaction out of taking the wool from sheep to finished yarn.
* It's a chance to get to know the sheep farmers, too.
* Some people prefer to "spin in the grease" as it makes their hands soft.
* The smell of raw wool is earthy and "clean"
* It makes me feel closer to the earth (I grew up on a farm, but now I'm a city-dweller.)

What is "the grease?" I've heard some people describe it as sheep sweat. It's really lanolin exuded by the sheep, that gets onto the wool. It can make your hands nice and soft as you spin ... The washed and carded wool is rather dry, but it's clean.

This is a photo of wool locks. The ones on the left past the center are clean and dry. The siny, crimped locks on the right are still "in the grease." This gives an idea of the color the lanolin adds to the raw fleece. It's kind of golden and shiny--a nice luster. This can be deceiving, as it will wash out.

I asked my friend and Fiber Artist, Lynda Collins, for her favorite method of washing raw wool, without felting it. Here's what she recommended (with my photos, comments, and suggestions) :

Lynda : "As for washing wool, I would be very careful about using the washing machine. If the washer fills with water or in any way sprays water on the wool, it will felt. This is what I do to wash wool ":

Step 1
Lynda : Fill a large basin ( I use my bathtub. It is easy to drain and rinse out afterward) with warm soapy water.
Michele : I used my washing machine, despite Lynda's warning above. I let the empty tub fill with water. I have NOT added the wool yet.

Lynda : Use a mild soap.
Michele : My preference is for Dawn Dishwashing Liquid. It's gentle enough to use with your bare hands, and it lives up to the slogan : "tough on grease."

I used about 2-3 Tablespoons for about 3 pounds of raw wool (I was starting with relatively clean wool, so you may need more or less depending on your circumstances).

Other gentle soap options might be Orvus Quilt Soap or Orvus WA Paste that can be purchased at a farm supply store. This is wool from sheep, a farm animal, after all. Let us know what you like to use ...

Step 2
Lynda : Spread out a fairly large piece (compared to the wool to be washed) of loosely woven fabric (gauze, organza, etc.)
Michele : I'm using a piece of scrim, because that's what I had on hand.

Step 3
Lynda : Place the wool in the center of the fabric.
Michele : I used about 1 pound of raw wool in this bundle.

Lynda : Gather the corners of the fabric and secure them.
Michele : I tied a knot and made a sort of hobo-bundle.

Michele : Here's the under-side of the hobo-bundle :

Step 4
Lynda : Lower the bundle into the warm water. You may have to press the wool into the water to get it wet, but after that, DO NOT TOUCH the wool. Walk away and let it soak for 20 minutes or until you remember to get it, whichever is longer.

Michele : This is the color of the water after about 10 minutes of soaking in the warm soapy water.

Michele : This is the water after soaking for 2 hours. I elected to repeat the soapy wash.

I know you're thinking "Ewe! [pun intended] It's not really muddy water--remember, these were tidy fleeces from sheep who wore jackets. Most of this "mud" is the lanolin.

Michele : This is after the 2nd soapy soak.

Step 5 - Change the wash water.
Lynda : Pick up the four corners of the cloth and raise the wool out of the water in the tub, basin [or washing machine]. If the water is really dirty, gently lower the wool bundle into a bucket to get your hands free. Drain the wash water and refill the basin with new clean, warm soapy water without moving or touching the wool. Move the wet wool bundles back into the warm soapy water. Repeat the soak.

Step 6 - Rinse
Lynda : When the wash water looks reasonably clean, remove the wool, drain the wash water and refill the basin with warm rinse water. Repeat the soak, taking care not to move or touch the wool, or it will felt.

Michele : This is the water after the rinse cycle. Much better, I'd say!

Step 7 - Spin Dry
Lynda : After the rinse, take the wool out of the water using the corners of the fabric again. Hold a bucket under the bundle and take it to the washing machine. Gently lower the bundle into the washing machine and put it on spin dry.


Michele : I took the bundles out off the washing machine, let the water drain, then put the bundles back in for the spin-dry cycle. This way, the water rushing through the bundle on the spin cycle was limited, which in theory limits possible felting.

Step 8
Lynda : Once the spin cycle is over, take the wool bundle out of the washer and spread it out on an absorbant surface like a towel, ironing board, sweater drying rack, whatever you have ...

If the wool has bunched up, gently tese the wool out to be loose and fluffy. Handle the wool as little as possible. COme back the next day and you should have clean, dry wool. I have used this technique on very fine, easily felted wool with good results. I get very little if any damage to the fibers.

Michele : I spread my clean wet wool out on a window screen so that air could circulate on the underside and help in the drying process. This screen is set over the bathtub to allow for air circulation on top and bottom.

Drying times may vary. It's winter in Wisconsin, now, so the air is dry and cold. If the racks are by the wood fire, they dry rather quickly in a day. In the bathroom, where it's cold, it might take longer. In a humid summer, it might take days to dry.

Look, Ma! No felt! Just clean, dry fluffy wool!

This fleece lost about 1-1/2 pounds in lanolin after washing. I started with 6 pounds of wool. Now I have about 4-1/2 pounds of clean and washed wool.

Stay tuned for the carding process ... aonther day.


Vicki W said...

I would never do this (because I don't knit and I'm allergic to wool) but that was darned interesting!

Sojourner Design said...

Thanks for that tutorial... the wool looks lovely!

I may be misinterpreting Step 5, but I would not re-fill the tub with the bundle of fleece in the tub.

Never thought about removing the bundle before allowing the water to drain, but I agree this might prevent a little felting.

I like to move on to the next step (ie another wash cycle, or rinse) before the water cools down too much. This prevents the grease from re-solidifying on the fleece.

That said, I send out most of my stuff for washing and carding!


Purple Missus said...

Just had to say what a fascinating blog post.
Look forward to seeing the next stage too. :)

The Wool Pantry said...

I just ran across your blog from my P&R Forum, any way Washing Wool really caught my eye. I have been wanting to do this for a long time. but wasn't sure how to start. Some one gave me four bags of raw wool that had just been sheared. It is about 3 Months old now. Can I still use it. I wasn't sure how to sort it. It was so dirty and I got fustrated. Can you give me any advice. I would still like to try my hand at it. I do a lot of needle felting and nice to have free wool, but sad to let it lay.

Hallie said...

I can't thankyou enough for this blog post! I just happened on to a big bag of raw wool in a thrift shop and was so excited but clueless as to what to do! Thankyou thankyou thankyou!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I live in Southern Spain in a wonderful village and yesterday, my neighbor Antonio called me to ask if I want some raw wool just sheared from his sheep. I will give it a try. I remember my great aunt doing this at the river some 30 years a small Transilvanian village...childhood memories. I was wondering if I can use geranium flowers petals to dye the fiber? Smaranda

Aurora G said...

Does the lanolin clog your pipes or the machine?

Aurora G said...

Does the lanolin clog your pipes or the machine?

Michele Matucheski said...

That's a great question! I don't do enough wool for the lanolin to cause problems with our plumbing. Truthfully, 2 fleeces will last me a good 10 years!

I guess you could wait for the lanolin to solidify and scrape it off the top of the rinse water, before letting it drain. Then you could use the lanolin, too.

Sabrina Sumsion said...

Thanks for the great article! Now I need to get my hands on some wool . . .

Ally said...

I just ordered some fresh-sheared wool and then realized I have no idea how to process it. This post was extremely helpful and I am looking forward to your post on carding. In the first part of your post it seems like your saying some people choose not to wash the fleece and go directly to carding and spinning? What would the end products be for that process?

Michele Matucheski said...

Yes, some people prefer to spin the wool "in the grease" which means with the lanolin left in tact. It's kind of like spinning with lotion on the wool. The washed and carded wool is rather "dry" to spin, and some people actually add lanolin back into it for spinning--after it's been washed. Once you feel the raw wool and the washed wool, you'll know the difference.

Anonymous said...

I totally understand the desire to do things from scratch!
But I don't understand this: there are two instances where you warn not to get any water on the wool, but isn't the whole thing immersed in water?

Michele Matucheski said...

That's a really good question, Anonymous. It's not that the wool can't get wet, it's that you don't want the water to agitate the wet wool. That action will cause the wool to felt. It's ok for the wool to soak in the water. But the action of the water filling the tub with the wool also in the tub will felt the wool. I filled the washing machine, and THEN gently added the wool to soak. Does that make more sense?

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this information. Is there any step I would do if I want to work with locks to make a scarf or shawl with locks ?
Thanks--LL Coleman

Faye Dobek said...

Thank you so much!!

I was just offered raw wool ... and wasn't sure if I should accept or not!!

After reading your excellent, detailed post I will definitely be accepting and can't wait to give this a try!!

Elizabeth said...

Hello, and thank you for your great article. My situation is a wee bit different in that I am saving the raw hair off my Bichon Frisé. I let his coat grow all winter. I don't think they produce lanolin. It's difficult to keep him from matting. I do comb him quite often, but some mats are unavoidable when you let his coat get that long. What I do is bath him, then clip him.
My question is, what if there are some mats in the wool? Can they be carded out?

Anonymous said...

I have sourced some raw wool that's just come off a sheep. I want to use it as stuffing for an organic sofa I'm building. It sounded simple but I'm in way over my head in the wool dept. I appreciate your info on how to wash wool. I don't know what felting means. Does it mean it would clump together? For my purpose would that be a bad thing? Also, is it possible to get 100% of the sheep smell out? Thanks.

Kelley said...

If you are wary of using the spin cycle you can roll the bundle in a large towel, and press down, repeating the process several times (no rubbing though) and then let air dry, and you will get the same results. 😊