Thursday, April 04, 2013

Wool Washing 101

I get asked "How do you wash wool?" a lot, especially during the summer when raw fleeces are most available. In the interests of time and my decided dislike for repeating myself ad nauseum, I'm putting a full set of directions here. First though, I'd like to thank Paula Shull, fiber artist extraordinaire, for teaching me the basics of washing wool--my method is based on her method, and it works.

To Wash Wool

1 raw fleece
Large flat work surface
7-10 yards nylon netting
20-50 small rubber bands
2 24x36 mesh lingerie/laundry bags
1 top-loading washing machine
60 gallons very hot water (above 140 degrees)
1 stick or large wooden spoon
1 kitchen timer
1 cup Dawn dishwashing liquid
1/2 cup white vinegar

The key to easy washing is selecting good fleeces. The less dirt and vegetative matter (VM) in a fleece, the easier the fleece is going to clean up and prepare for spinning. Bargain fleeces can be cleaned up and made spinnable, but they require a lot of time and work; when the time and irritation is factored in, a $5/lb. fleece frequently costs more than a $10/lb. fleece.

Step 1: Skirting
Even award-winning, show-quality fleeces sometimes need a bit of skirting, and regular fleeces frequently need a bit more. Skirting removes the worst of the stuff that won't be used anyway, and keeps it away from the wool that will ultimately go through the combs or carder and be turned into yarn.

To skirt a fleece, simply roll it out on a very large, flat surface: I spread a big blue tarp on the driveway, then slide the fleece out of the bag and roll it out. Fleeces are usually rolled the same way--folded lengthwise with the freshly sheared side out, then rolled from head to tail and stuffed in a large plastic bag--so unrolling it should be pretty easy. Once the fleece is unrolled, pick out any obvious VM, and go around the edges of the fleece, pulling away the short bits and dung tags. As you work, pick up the fleece as best you can and give it a good shake to remove any loose second-cuts: if left in, those will end up as nepps.

Step 2: Washing
The water for wool washing must be hot and plentiful. Turn the setting on the hot water heater to the maximum and leave it for at least 8 hours before checking the temperature of the hot water coming out of the tap (if the hot water supply is shared with other members of a family, let them know the hot water is very hot; no one likes being scalded). If it's still under 140 degrees, plan on washing smaller quantities of fleece at a time on the stovetop, or contact a plumbing contractor about a new hot water heater.

Cut at least several pieces of nylon netting 24 inches x the width of the nylon netting (usually 72 inches) with the scissors.

Working along the raddle lines (the places where the locks naturally separate), break the fleece down into dinner-plate-sized pieces. Take a piece and set it in the middle of a spread-out piece of nylon netting, then gently wrap the nylon netting over the fleece. Continue wrapping until you have a large "sausage" of nylon netting stuffed with the piece of fleece. Put a rubber band at each end of the "sausage" to keep the nylon netting in place. Keep making "sausages" until the entire fleece is broken down and wrapped in nylon netting.

Fill each lingerie bag with one layer (about 6) sausages, then close each lingerie bag.

Fill the washer with hot water and turn off. Dissolve 1 cup of Dawn dishwashing liquid in the hot water, then add the lingerie bags of wool, pushing them beneath the surface with a stick or wooden spoon. Close the lid, set the timer for 40 minutes, and walk away.

At the end of 20 minutes, turn the washer setting knob to "Spin" to drain the washer and spin out the wash water. Do not use a Spin setting that adds water during the cycle. Remove the bags of wool and set them aside, then refill the washer with hot water and turn off. Add the bags of wool, push them beneath the surface, close the lid, and set the timer for another 20 minutes.

At the end of the second 20 minutes, turn the washer setting knob to "Spin" to drain the washer and spin out the water. Again, remove the bags of wool and set them aside while filling the washer. When the washer is filled, add the vinegar, stir, then add the bags of wool, pushing them beneath the surface. Close the lid and set the timer for 20 minutes.

Step 3: Drying
At the end of the third 20-minute period, drain and spin the washer and remove the bags of wool. Open the lingerie bags and remove the sausages. Open each of the sausages and carefully spread the wool to dry on a drying rack in an airy place, preferably out of direct sunlight. As the wool drys, feel the wool: does it feel clean? If not, roll the sausages back up and repeat the washing steps. I have found that medium-grease fleeces such as Romney and Corriedale just need one washing; high-grease fleeces such as Cormo and Rambouillet need two.

Step 4: Storing
Once the wool is completely dry, store it in a cool, dark place. I use 12-gallon plastic storage bins as I can simply stack the wool in the box with the nylon netting it was washed and dried in dividing the layers. This preserves the lock structure for combing.