Looks like dead mice: washing wool in the lock

Chester, the sheep from whom my fleece came

I have been working my way through four pounds of a Rambouillet/Romney fleece, bit by bit, over the past several weeks. I really didn’t have any specific project plans for this fleece, other than to wash it, flick the tips of the locks open and spin from the lock into a bulky sort of yarn. My general theory is that it might make me a nice sweater, but my theories are very much like fog in the wind; subject to vanish or transform into something entirely different with one good gust.

Meanwhile, I had a big pile of dirty fleece with which to contend:
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It had been skirted (had the most disgusting stuff removed) and the large pieces of vegetable bits were gone, too. In fact, it was a very nice big pile of dirty sheep. As far as dirty sheep go. Even the most tolerant of families prefer that their houses not smell like unwashed sheep, though, so it has to be cleaned.

The first thing to do, though, to protect your other woollen items is to plunk it in the deep freezer for a couple of weeks. This kills any moths, eggs, larvae, etc. that might have jumped aboard in the last barn in which the fleece was stored. Sometimes storage barns are cold enough to kill of buggses, but I don’t count on it.  This step is particularly important if you’re not going to wash the whole fleece right away instantly-like. Often these barns are just cold enough to send critters into hibernation. Your nice, warm house will feel like SPRING!! to wool-munchers. So kill ’em off before you start.

If you want to wash wool by the lock, first you need to divide your fleece into locks or clumps of locks. Just tease them gently into the clumps that seem to fall naturally like so:

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Here’s a whole section of the fleece, ready to go:

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Here is a handful of locks, gathered together by the butt ends (the part nearest the sheep or the cut part):

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Then you fill a bit pot of water that is as hot as you can get:

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I use the kitchen sink tap because my shower and bathroom taps have a heat regulator install that is supposed to prevent me from scalding or freezing my husband if I run into the bathroom and flush the toilet as he’s showering. If you have an old house with old plumbing and a husband who can attest to this by virtue of the above experiment, by all means, use your bathtub to fill the pots.

I like using small buckets for washing in the lock because it keeps the amount of fleece that I’m working with at a manageable level. when trying to preserve the lock structure, being able to manipulate the fleece without felting it or distorting the locks is really important. My favourite pot is the black enamelled one in the picture. It has a spaghetti strainer insert. The other “pot” I use is my salad spinner, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So you fill the pot and add a healthy dollop (which means quite a lot) of ordinary enzyme-free dish-washing detergent. Dawn works great. Ad this AFTER the water has stopped running. Suds are undesirable.

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Next, start feeding the locks into the soapy water tip first. I do it this way because the tips are the dirties parts and the dirt falls out better. Also the butts are the parts most likely to felt and this seems to help prevent that.

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Let the wool sink into the water:

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Put the lid on (if you have one) to keep the heat in. Let it soak for around an hour.

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After an hour or so, you’ll have water that looks disgusting:

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If you’re using a spaghetti-straining pot like mine, just lift the wool out with the strainer, rinse and refill the base pot with hot water and plunge the wool strainer back in again, like so (note: If you need to wash the fleece again because there are still decidedly yellow spots due to lanolin, add soap and wash again):

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If you’re using a bunch of ordinary old buckets, this is where I enlist the help of my trusty salad spinner. Take the bucket and the salad spinner, with the insert in the spinner and quickly and fluidly tip the wool and water into the spinner basket. Do this over a sink or tub or outside. Try to avoid pouring in the bottom glugs of water, as they will contain dirt that has fallen out of the wool.It is important to leave the basin in place to catch the water. Simply using the salad spinner insert as a colander and allowing the water to go down the drain as you pour means that the wool and water are mixed more and the fibres are bashed around more. When you transfer the wool and water in a fluid dump, it seems to reduce the potential for felting.

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Then lift the basket of the salad spinner, dump the water, rinse the salad spinner basin and refill it with hot water. If you need another wash, add soap. For this fleece, one good soak was sufficient.:

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I sometimes find a few rinses are necessary. On the final rinse, add a splash of vinegar to restore the pH of the wool. Soap is alkaline and alkalinity is not good for wool in the long-term.

Then spin the wool dry:

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And lay to dry on drying racks. The ones I use are made from the plastic grid-work that covers florescent light fixtures (like in elevators). It’s cheap, doesn’t rust and can be cut to fit whatever rack you lay them on.

Voilà! Dead mice (at least, that’s what I think they look like):

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Just for the record, I usually weigh a sample of fleece before and after washing. The sample I weighed was 104.5 grams before cleaning and 85 grams after, so I’ll lose about 20% of this fleece to grease, which is actually not bad at all!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kelly says:

    Wow, did it ever get white!! Great job. I had no idea about the butt end being more prone to felting – makes sense though. I’ll definitely keep your method in mind the next time I process a fleece. I have a pile of mangled Jacob fleece to attest to my past failure. I use it for different things though, like stuffing plush toys.

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