May 17, 2009

Sheep to Sweater Sunday n̊ 2 "Washing Your Fleece"

One little caveat before I go any further. There are a number of different ways to process fleece. What I’m sharing with you here are my preferred methods of processing ouessant fleece. As with anything, there are pros and cons with any technique (and I’ll try to point these out as we go along), but so far I’m VERY pleased with the results that I’m getting.

To a large extent I’ve arrived at this through trial and error. Even though I’ve been spinning and knitting for over 25 years – and have a “certain amount of skill” and experience – I wasn’t at all satisfied with my attempts at processing ouessant fleece last year. I felt as though I wasn’t doing justice to the fleece. In short, I was very frustrated!

But that didn’t stop me. After much experimentation, a few disappointments, some helpful advise from fellow Ravelry members, and lots of determination ... I think that I’ve finally come up with a set of techniques that seem to work beautifully for ouessant fleece.

Alright, so now you have a quality ouessant fleece (step n̊ 1), but where do you go from here?

. . . on to step n̊ 2! LOL!!

At this point you have to decided whether or not you want to wash your fleece before spinning. This question is not as obvious as it might seem. You can spin raw, unwashed fleece, even if most spinners prefer working with washed/scoured wool.

Globally speaking you have 3 different choices :

  • You can spin raw, unwashed fleece. Then wash/scour the skeins of spun wool. I did a fair amount of this last year with mixed results. The yarn just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Somehow I felt like I was missing out on something. That said the big advantage of this method is that there is basically no fiber prep at all ... but in my opinion the results mitigate this advantage.
  • You can wash and fully scour your fleece in hot water and soap. This method removes all suint, which is a natural grease formed from dried perspiration found in the fleece, and lanolin. Remember that sheep’s wool is made up of both suint and lanolin : two different things! This leaves a “dry” fleece with no natural lanolin in it. This method is particularly recommended for extremely “greasy” fleeces like Merino or Rambouillet. I used this method with some of my ouessant fleece last year. On the whole I felt that I was over-processing the fleece. The fleece seemed too dry and almost damaged. Even so, the resulting yarn was nicer than spinning raw, unwashed fleece.
  • Finally, you can soak your well-skirted fleece in cold rain water. As an interesting side note, this is how ouessant fleeces were traditionally processed on the Island of Ouessant. The fleece is left in cold rain water for 7 days. No soap, no agitation. Nothing! We let nature do our work for us. During this cold soak, the suint (and dirt) breaks down and “washes” out of the fleece, leaving behind a beautifully “clean” fleece that still retains the natural lanolin found in the fleece. This is a particularly appropriate method for washing ouessant fleece, as it is a fleece which naturally contains little lanolin. I absolutely LOVE this method of washing fleece. It’s much easier than the hot wash option, the wool comes out looking gorgeous, and the yarns produced using this method are exceptional!
RhumRaisin's fleece in cold rain-water soak
Note the tied corners of the netting

First of all, on a 1 m² piece of nylon netting I carefully arrange the wool, keeping fleece structure and lock formation intact. A thin nylon cord is tied to each corner of the netting : this allows me to lift the whole fleece at one time, keeping the structure of the locks and fleece intact ... as you will see, this is important for later processing!

I put the fleece/netting in an 80 litre plastic tub filled with rain water, being careful that the fleece stays in the "net basket".

Please note : don't stir or agitate the wool. Just let it soak. Do put a lid on the tub to keep out bugs and flying bits of vegetable matter! After 7 days, carefully lift the "net basket" of clean, wet wool out of the tub. The water will look somewhat like this :

Yummy!!! : Dirty "sheep water"

At this point, I put the "basket" of wet fleece in a "new" tub of clean rain water for a one-day rinse/soak.

RhumRaisin : Final rinse/soak

After a one-day rinse/soak, lift the net basket of fleece out of the tub and without disturbing the lock structure of the fleece, put the wet fleece on a drying screen in the shade. It can take a bit of time to dry. I usually leave the screen/fleece outside to drip dry for at least one day ... then I often move the damp fleece to a drying rack in the house. Generally speaking I try to keep the fleece on its netting until it is completly dry : this makes it easy to move the fleece without messing it up.

Drying screen : RhumRaisin in the foreground ; 'TitBijou in the background!

This is Mother Nature's way of washing a fleece : no harsh chemicals. Just pure, cool, natural rain water. This is actually a very easy process. And it does produce beautiful results.
Of course this isn't really much of an option for apartment dwellers ... but if you have some outdoor space, do give it a try! I'm sure that you'll be amazed at the results!
Next week we'll look at step n° 3!


angella said...

i love this cold soak, too.

i've only cleaned a couple of batches, and funny enuf, the last one "accidentally" sat outside for about 6 days due to crappy weather (as i do all my wool washing outside due to space, no tub, and living environment). i tend to just soak it cold for a couple days, but i found it really helped get the "gunk" out.

Diane said...

Hi Angella! The cold soak is wonderful, isn't it! It's truly amazing just how much comes out in a cold water soak ... and I don't know about you, but I personally have the impression that the wool retains a nicer handle (softer). God only knows that I've tried lots of methods for cleaning fleece, but this one is hands down the winner, particularly for ouessant or shetland fleeces.

Anonymous said...

Could you do this with Shetland or Romney? How big was the fleece you started with?
Id love to try it;

Heather said...

This looks absolutely lovely... but we don't get any rain in the summer. Can I use groundwater?

Diane said...

Keli, I think this works well with Shetland and Romney. At the very least it's a great first step. If you find that the fleece has a bit more lanoline than you want to deal with, you can always proceed with a hot soapy wash. At any rate the cold soak does get rid of the suint, which is more than half the job!

Diane said...

Hi Heather. Ground water "should" work .... BUT there is one caveat : it should work if you don't have hard water with a high mineral content. Certain minerals can discolor the wool. If in doubt, try a small handfull or two first and see how it works. It should be fine .... but ...
good luck

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