b Washing Wool

Notes from Windward: #71


Washing Wool

November 2011

As I experience the natural cycles that unfold before me, I endeavor to expand my knowledge, skill and comfort level with and evermore components of the cycles. Having learned a great deal about the physical care and nutrition of the animals here at Windward, this year I began expanding into the next level of integration: learning to work with the raw materials the animals provide.

Unwashed fleece

This summer I worked with the fleeces from this years shearing. After the actual shearing and storage, the next major step in the process is to clean and wash the wool. Removing the lanolin (oil) and particulate matter from the raw fleeces in preparation for the turning the wool into an useful end product.

I tried many different methods of wool washing, beginning with what others had pioneered and proven to work (which tended to be highly energy and labor intensive), and moving into a experimental realms to try to use ever smaller amount of material and energy in the process.

Whittling away superfluous components of a process is a key component to efficiency. As I often say, my work here so much involved finding ways to allow nature to do the work for me. Often times this means that things take more time.

the sheep wearing their funny hair cuts after shearing

[note: As it occurs to me, there is usually a tradeoff between energy (in the form of labor, heat, chemical energy, materials and hassle) and Time. Since nature seems to get everything that needs doing done eventually, this balance makes sense. The urge to get things done quickly is so often the source of the systemic inefficiency and waste that plaques the planet today.

Rediscovering, teaching, and preserving by use, the practices and technologies that were common to our predecessors is a rewarding and essential component to my life here. In many ways, I understand it to be essential as our times demand us to find ways decrease our material impact on Earth.]

Below I have given a step-by-step breakdown for each of the processes I tried. Included under each process is an evaluation of the upsides and downsides of the process. And why these considerations are important from the perspective of devising a sustainable process.

Hot Soapy Process
Consists of 2 stages of washing and 2 stages of rinsing. Throughout the process, the wool is kept within a constant temperature range. between 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit.

I added about 3 table spoons of liquid detergent to 4 gallons of water at 120 degrees.

[note: I used nonionic detergent. Non-iodized soap will react in water, forming an alkaline solution. Alkalinity (along with heat and friction) causes the tiny scales on the surface of the wool to open up. With even a small amount of agitation, and particularly in the presence of slippery soap particles, these scales can attach one another. If this occurs, when the alkalinity is rinsed out and the fibers cool down and contract, you will end up with a clump of fabric. This is an essential part of the process of making felt, but when washing wool it is generally unwanted. So, I used a nonionic detergent (the blue dawn liquid dish detergent to be exact) in washing. I also hardly even touched the wool in the wash so as not to force the fibers together. These precautions resulted in a nice non-felting wash.]

I put as much wool in the bucket as would fit under the water line (about 1/3 of a fleece) and gently swished it around every 15 minutes or so until the water temperature dropped to around 100 degrees.

low temperature of around 100 degrees F

I prepared another soapy water bucket in the same way as before, and repeated the process.

Then I ran the wool through 2 more 5 gallon buckets full of warm clean water to rinse out the soap and remaining but loosely bonded oils. The wool was allowed to drain and put on the racks to dry in the sun.

The whole process took about an hour to complete, and required me to be very attentive to the temperatures. The end result was thoroughly cleaned wool.
  • it will clean even the dirtiest wool
  • labor intensive (you have to be around for the whole process)
  • uses a lot of soap
  • uses a lot of water
  • uses a lot of energy to heat the water
  • high likelihood of felting the fibers
  • only 1/3 of a fleece can fit into a 5 gallon bucket
  • is very container intensive
Looking toward a future where clean water, soap and heat energy will be less readily available, I tried out some other methods for washing wool.

Hot Process
In this experiment, I simply removed the soap from the hot-soapy-process. Washing the wool through 4 stages of warm water between 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit.

The end result was nearly as good as with soap. My untrained senses could hardly spot the difference. Upon drying the hot process fleeces seemed a bit more greasy. The grease was minimal, and is not something that would stop me from using it as I would any other washed wool.

wash water from hot process (left) and hot soapy process (right). The amount of crud removed looks to be very similar.

The whole process took about the same amount of time as the hot soapy process.
  • uses no soap
  • fleece comes out well washed enough to work with
  • cleaned the really dirty parts of the wool
    Down sides:
  • still uses a lot of water
  • uses a lot of heat energy
  • only 1/3 of a fleece can be washed in a given batch
  • likely to felt the fibers
With the success of this experiment I wanted to try out removing a different component of the Hot Soapy Process.

Cold Soapy Process
This was just like the hot soapy process but I used unheated water. 2 soapy buckets used until the water was very dark in color. followed by 2 buckets to rinse.

Our well water comes out of the ground at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I ended up using water from the tap (from the well) for the soapy buckets, and water from a rain barrel for the rinses. Although I did not measure the temperature, the water was at least 55 degrees if not colder.

The result this process was a decently washed fleece. maybe slightly more greasy than the Hot-process and the really tough spots (like the underside and rump areas of the fleece) did not wash well at all and had to be removed. All and all the end product is still clean enough that I would feel comfortable running it through a drum carder or had card without fear of it gunking up.

Washed wool from the cold soapy process (right) and hot process (left).
  • no hot water used
  • fleece comes out well washed enough to work with
  • uses a lot of water
  • uses a lot of soap
  • only about 1/3 of a fleece can be washed in a given batch
After all of these processes, I was unsatisfied with downsides. Having chopped firewood, hauled water and made soap before, I recognize the amount of back work involved in a worl without cheap and abundant resources.

So I scrounged around in books and online to find another way that will use less water, heat, soap and containers. Eventually I found a fermentation method described by a homesteader who had heard about the basic principles from a long line a homesteaders.

I gave it a shot and here's what I came up with.

Fermentation process
In nature there is always bacteria performing essential tasks. As you have notice, if you spill some cooking oil on the ground, eventually the oil spot disappears. where does it go? Some of it is being digested, metabolized and transformed by native colonies of bacteria. And I imagine that some of it is also being degraded by the solar radiation.

The fermentation process involves creating a nice home for the bacteria to live, and providing them with a free lunch in the form of lanolin saturated wool. With enough time, the bacteria eat up a great deal of the oil leaving a frothy pungent liquid behind.

fermentation solution after the first batch

The process itself is fairly straight forward. First, I took a barrel and filled it with about 20 gallons of water. I stuck an entire fleece into water and let it sit until it started to smell "off". By "off" I really mean, "on", because I know that the smell is a sign that bacteria magic is taking place.

Once it started to smell, I took the fleece out of the water, let the juices drain back into the container, and went ahead washed it in some cold soapy water to ensure it was good and clean. This initial fleece is what I have deemed the "inoculating fleece" since it got the colony of bacteria up and running.

Washing the inoculating fleece with some cold soapy water.

I then added another entire fleece to the fermentation barrel and added water to compensate for what had been evaporated or lost with the first fleece. I let the fleece sit in the fermentation barrel for at least a week. (A little more will not hurt it.) I gently stirred the fleece every few days to make sure everything made contact with a large volume of the liquid.

I then removed the fleece and let it drip dry into the barrel. Then moved it onto racks to sun dry.

I repeated the process, adding a fleece to the fermentation barrel and letting it sit for a week or so.

At most, I was able to wash about 4 fleeces in this process before the fermentation liquid was too ripe to handle. It was pretty potent! I then simply started the process over by draining the barrel and refilling it water.

the fermenting solution after fourth batch

[Note: I did not rinse the barrel out because I wanted some of bacteria to stick around to re-inoculate the process.]

The fleeces produced through this process were equal in quality to those produced by the cold-soapy process; substantially free of grease, and clean enough to use in wool working equipment.

I believe that one could wash an indefinite number of fleeces this way with a very minimal use of water, soap, energy, time, and hassle (so long as you can deal with the smell of fermenting fleece grease).

All in all I spent about a month to wash the remaining fleeces of the shearing. If I had more containers I could easily handle 10 batches at a time, given that I only spent about 5 minutes every few days in the process. If we had several sheep with very a very similar kind of wool, I would be inclined to do larger single batches. But since our fiber flock is so diverse, I kept each fleece separate.
  • no heat
  • no soap
  • very little water (about 10 gallons per fleece)
  • not time intensive
  • wash a whole fleece at time
  • Smelly
  • Takes about a week to wash a fleece
  • Not impeccably clean results (the tough grease spots are not broken down)
It is plain to see that the fermentation process has the greatest amount of upsides. I will plan on continuing to practice this method, and will be teaching it to others who come here wanting to learn how to work with the wool.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71