Updated: Oct 3, 2022
We shear around 30-40 sheep in the spring and another 70-90 in the fall. That makes a pretty big pile of unwashed fleeces! While I don’t wash all of them, I wash enough to be on the lookout for the best, easiest, fastest method. Over the years I have tried several methods, and my process has evolved.
First, let’s take a step back, before we wash the fleece we need to skirt it. Shearing is a pretty fast paced activity, so I try to do a little skirting on the fly, but usually end up doing it again before washing. My skirting table is homemade, just a frame of 1 x 3 lumber with hardware cloth stapled over it. I have two of these frames hinged together and just set it on sawhorses by the shearing shed. It also doubles as a drying rack after the wool is washed.
Skirting Table/Drying Rack in Closed Position
A Closer Look at the Construction of the Rack
With the fleece spread out on the skirting table it is just a matter of “skirting” the course, poopy wool from around the edge. The belly and breech (rear) wool are not usually a quality fiber so they are removed and can be used for other purposes. After working around the edges pick out any big pieces of vegetable matter and second cuts (short pieces of wool). Depending on the season and the sheep there may be chunks of neck wool that are too contaminated with hay to salvage, so those are pulled out as well.
Washing Container Options
Once the fleece is skirted it is time to move to the wash process. First, we look at the washing container. Some of the options I have used are: trays, buckets, wash tubs, and a washing machine.
We raise Cotswold sheep and with their beautiful long locks there are times that they need to be very delicately washed to retain the full curls. To wash individual locks, I have used trays that I have picked up at nurseries to carry pots of flowers. These work nice to sandwich the wool between two trays and then submerge them in water to soak. It keeps the locks intact while they soak.
Nursery Tray Works Great for Locks–If I need to buy more plants to get it, that’s just a bonus!
Trays Sandwiched Together to Wash Locks
The bucket is pretty simple for about 1 pound or less of fleece. I like to wash a full fleece at one time and buckets are too small for a full fleece.
Buckets with Milk Crate to Drain Wool
Laundry Wash Tubs
The wash tub is a step up from the bucket. Usually, the tub has two sides so you can wash two fleeces or wash one and drain another at the same time.
Laundry Wash Tub with Milk Crate to Drain Wool
One drawback of both is that you have a fleece in water and either have to dump it out or pull it out while you drain and refill. One way I found to make this a little easier is to use a milk crate as a strainer. For the bucket I sit a milk crate on a second bucket and dump the first into the crate, letting it drain by gravity. With the wash tubs, I have a couple strips of wood that I put across the top of the tub and sit my milk crate above the tub of water. Then lift the wool out and put it in the crate. Once the wool is all removed from the tub, I open the drain to drain the water out. In my case I put the wash tub on my back porch and run a hose from the tub to the yard to drain.
At the risk of looking like the Beverly Hillbillies, when my washing machine would no longer agitate clothing, it worked perfectly for soaking and spinning wool. It would easily hold an entire fleece. I put it on the back porch, and until the spin mechanism broke, it worked beautifully. I filled it with a hose from my laundry sink and drained it into the grass. But alas, it finally gave out, and I had to decide if I wanted to replace it.
A great way to remove water from the fleece is a spin dryer. It will hold about 3lbs of wool, so a large fleece will need to be divided to spin it. The dryer is a centrifuge that pulls the water out of the wool as it spins.
Wringer Washing Machine
When my husband and I were first married, we did not have a washer hook up in our 1860 farm house. With money being tight we improvised. I purchased a wringer washer at a farm sale and put it in the yard. Viola, laundry service! I loved that wringer, in spite of it biting my hand a few times. So, even after we did modernize, I could not let my wringer go. We even moved it to the new house, much to Dan’s displeasure. It was moved from spot to spot in the basement for years. Finally, inspiration hit. What about using it to wash wool?
Wringer Washing Machine
So, now I have a somewhat portable washing station. It is currently in my laundry room/pantry for the winter, I fill it with a hose from my laundry sink and drain into buckets. Soon it will be back on the porch that is off the pantry, so I can still fill it with the hose but also hook up a hose to drain it into the yard. Now, I can squeeze more of the water out of the wool after each wash which reduces the number of washes/rinses because more of the dirt and lanolin are removed. I flip the lid open and swing the arm out over the tub, so I can run the wool through the wringer to remove the water and then sit it on the lid. Perfect. (It also looks pretty cute on the porch, kind of a vintage look.)
Now that I have settled on a washing container, what’ next?
With finewool and dirty fleeces I like to presoak it before the wash. I use room temperature water and allow the fleece to soak for 20 minutes or so. Drain the water and remove as much as possible through which ever method is being used.
I begin by filling the tub with water from the tap, as hot as it will get from the tap. It doesn't need to be hotter than tap water. Enough water should be used so that the wool moves freely.
To be more sustainable, we have a rainwater barrel to collect water to wash wool. When I use rainwater, I use a bucket water heater to heat the water for wash and rinse.
Another way to save water is to use the wash and rinse water with another fleece as a presoak. It is best to use the same color fleece when reusing water.
Next, we need something to remove the dirt and lanolin. I have used a number of different kinds of soap/detergent over the years with mixed results. I currently use Unicorn Power Scour. I have read that the PH of the fleece and the Power Scour is the best match, especially for medium and finewools. I have found that laundry detergent works pretty well on longwool fleeces that are sturdy, but on finewools it tends to be too harsh, and tips break while processing. I like the Power Scour because it has a light fragrance that is not overwhelming (or also comes without perfumes) and it cleans very well.
I add the Power Scour to the water in the tub and agitate it just enough to dissolve before adding the wool.
Finally, Getting to the First Wash
Now, finally it is time to add the fleece. If you are washing wool in the house, it is nice to have an exhaust fan or window in the room. I personally do not have a problem with the smell of soaking fleece– it reminds me of, well, sheep! But not everyone is as pleased with the smell, so I usually turn on the exhaust fan. If you are not using the wringer washer, it can also be helpful to put the fleece in a mesh laundry bag to make it easier to corral when you need to remove it. Add the wool to the water and do not agitate it because soap + water+ agitation=felt.
First Wash– Tea?
The first wash is the most gratifying one (or presoak). Real progress is made, and you can really tell by the color of the water! Here is where most of the washing tutorials are a little different from my real-life process. Many will say to remove the fleece in 15 minutes or before the water has time to cool. That seems like good advice, but I usually leave it in for an hour maybe longer, and *gasp* sometimes the water completely cools. After soaking you are ready to drain or run the wool through the wringer to remove as much dirty water as possible. We have a septic system for our home, and I would not recommend washing and draining wool into a septic. It is kind of like pouring grease down the drain. I always dump or run it out into our yard where it has the added benefit of moisture and a little fertilizer for the grass and flowers. Repeat the wash process for a 2nd time if needed. After each wash, I often pick through the locks as I add them back to the next wash or rinse. I pull open the dirty locks to allow the water to wash away the dirt.
A Little More about Water Temperature on Second Wash/Rinse
I use the same temperature of hot tap water. It may be because I am not washing super fine fleeces that would require more care, but I have never had any problem with fleece felting during the washing process. I never worry about making sure that the water is the same as when they were removed from the last wash. That has been my experience after washing hundreds of pounds of fleece, but I am sure there are some that have had them felt if great care was not taken. It is a matter of knowing your fleece. I would not use cold water on fleece that was in hot water, this could cause felting.
Second Wash- Looking better!
How much lanolin needs to be removed will depend, in part, on what you plan to do with it. If you are going to use it without commercial processing, leaving a little lanolin is nice for spinning. Commercial processors want squeaky clean wool, so it may be necessary to wash a second time. Also check that the dry fleece does not have any tacky feeling of left-over lanolin.
Time to Rinse
Same process as the washes, just no added detergent. Some people add a cup of vinegar to the final rinse to make sure that all of the detergent is removed. Usually, two rinses should do it.
Clean Wool Just Run Through the Wringer– Ready to Rinse
Drying the Wool
If you are drying up to a pound or two, the mesh laundry bag can work nicely hanging on the clothesline. I use my skirting table as a drying rack and can fit 2 or 3 fleeces on it at a time. It is nice because I can spread them out, and they dry from the bottom as well. I either set it up outside or inside depending on the weather. If it is windy, I only put one fleece on one side and use the other side as a top that folds over the fleece to prevent it from flying away as it dries.
All Dry! Rack in Open Position
It can be a little intimidating the first time, but it really is an easy process. I think some people are scared off by the fear that they might felt the fleece if they do not follow the steps perfectly. Start out with an inexpensive fleece or a medium or longwool fleece, and you can build up confidence. It is amazing to see the transformation!