e Working with Wool ​​​​​

September 22, 2012


Wool washing is not a difficult task but thoroughness is important. Andrew spent some time last year trying out different methods of washing and you can check out his research here.

The Notes is a great place to look for things that have already been done and Andrew's article as well as several books, including In Sheep's Clothing, helped provide the framework for my task. Jane's knowledge and skill was very helpful, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to wash some wool with her.

A section of Luna's Fleece ‒ cut side down

Take a look at the tips (see above photo) for damage or breakage as that will influence your final project. Luna's wool is dirty, but the tips look strong and intact.

With the cut side up you can see some yellowing that may be from sweat, from oils, or it may be stained. Washing will tell us more

The same section of Luna's Fleece ‒ cut side up

As far as the question of where to wash a fleece, it can be done in the bath tub, in a washing machine, or any handy tub that is appropriately sized for the amount to be washed. I chose a purple storage tub and put it in the bath tub where it would be easy to fill, and easy to drain too.

A purple storage tote used as a tub for washing wool

I first put the wool into mesh laundry bags to help keep the fiber oriented, and then filled the tub with HOT water. To speed things along, I had turned the thermostat on the hot water heater up since I wanted water that was hotter than is appropriate for bathing. If you do that, it helps to leave yourself some notes to be sure that you return the water heater setting to it usual position.

adding Dawn detergent to the hot water bath

The combination of really hot water and a grease-cutting detergent dissolves sweat, the lanolin and oils, thereby freeing the dirt.

Pressing the wool into the hot water

I chose to put the wool through two wash baths and two rinse baths. In between baths I strained out the dirty water by using the washing machine's spin cycle while I was waiting for the basin to refill with clean water. Using the spin cycle for less than a minute does a good job of getting more of the dirty water out of the wool and reduces the overall amount of water needed. By spinning the dirty water out of the fleece, it's removed from the process before it gets a chance to foul the next rinse's water.

straining the wool

Look at all that dirt! We could do things to reduce the dirt such as have our sheep wear canvas coats all year long, and coats would keep the wool cleaner, but at the risk of heat-stressing the sheep. Our goal is work with nature instead of trying to make it do our bidding.

The white plastic bag shows how dirty the wash water became

A second washing of the spun wool released some more dirt, but left the tub with comparatively clear water. While the first batch of wool was on its way to the washing machine to spin, I decided to use the water to start a second batch of wool - thereby getting twice as much wool clean for almost the same amount of water.

A second washing

Allowing the wool to soak for about an hour in each bath helps release the dirt with out agitating the wool. Agitating wet, slick wool is essentially how felt is made, something we want to avoid when preparing wool for spinning.

now to the rinse stage

More HOT water and no detergent this time. The water is still somewhat dirty but the process is working. One more spin in the washer then a final rinse and the water is nearly clear.

A Second Rinse

I decided to rinse the wool a third time since I had to fill the tub anyway for the second batch that I started and as you can see the water is clear.

A Third rinse is usually not necessary if you get all the water out between baths

Drying clean wool is like drying a fine wool sweater. It needs time, space, and air flow. The air flow was provided by placing clean window screens over the arms of chairs and setting the wool on the screen. Turning the wool over a couple of times a day helps too.

A bag full of clean wool drying on a screened rack.

A few days on the drying rack or sitting in the sun and the wool is dry and ready to be combed. The wool is somewhat compacted but not felted and pulls apart easily.

fleece - out of the bag

I was truly amazed by the amount of dirt that was washed out of the wool. One of the fleeced I washed weighted 92 ounces after skirting and before washing. After washing the wool weighted in at 67 ounces ‒ a loss of nearly 25%.

another bag-full of clean fleece

While the process takes most of a day it only requires my attention for about 10 minutes each hour. For a hands-on time investment of 2 hours I produced almost 4 pounds of fleece ready to be converted into something warm and fuzzy.