Posted in Breed samples

Fleece Washing

March 2, 2013 - 5:44 pm

Note: The photos in this article were published on Flickr several days ago while the blog was down for repair, so you may have seen them. The blog is fully up and operational now, so I’m moving it to the blog, and expanding the text significantly. 

Before I can actually start washing I prepare the working area, which for me is primarily the sink in the kitchen. I remove all the clutter so I won’t splash sheep water on things that are hard to clean, and put out towels on the counter to catch splashes, and a towel on the floor in front of the sink.

Sheep are lovely, charming, amusing, dirty, dirty critters. I always pay attention when I’m washing a fleece to make sure I contain the filth, and don’t contaminate myself or my home with it. After I’m done with the washing, the sink and counters will get washed with soap and wiped down with bleach water, and all the the tools run through the dishwasher.

Preparing the workspace

I also set out my tools. For me, the tools are:

  • Gloves which are long enough and thick enough to protect me from the hot water
  • Plastic spoon for stirring the wash agent into the water, and for poking and shifting the fleece around in the bath
  • Candy thermometer for measuring the temperature of the bath
  • Wire cookie cooling racks with folding legs. I use these to lower the bags of fleece into the water and to take them out without overly disturbing the fleece.
  • Wash agent; generally Unicorn Power Scour
  • Most importantly, a good solid drain plug that will hold the water in the sink for 20 – 30 minutes without leaking.


I have the fleece next to the sink in a laundry basket. It helps me tote the fleece around particularly when it’s wet since there’s enough of a lip on the bottom to contain any water that drains out of the fleece. It’s also easier to carry a dozen or so bags of fleece in a basket than in my arms, and causes less disturbance to the fibers.

fleece ready

I boil water on the stove in big stock pots. I kept a second pot around after a handle fell off just for using in scouring.

Water boiling

I boil a pot full of water, then pour it into the sink basin.

Water in sink

Using a candy thermometer, I add tap water to the sink until I get to the desired temperature. I aim for 135 – 140°F.

Check the temp

Once the basin of water is at the right temp I add the scour. Power Scour has good directions on how much is needed for a given weight of fleece. I use about 3 pumps per sink full on the Shetland, but would use more for a heavy grease fleece like a Merino.

Adding scour

I stir enough to distribute the scour in the water, but the less suds I raise the easier it will be to get the fleece into the bath.


Next the fleece bags go into the water. Note how they’re stacked on the upside down cookie tray, and I’m using the legs as handles.

Fleece going into the bath

I generally let the fleece settle into the bath on its own so no air is trapped, but once it’s most of the way down I’ll use a second rack to push it the last little bit into the water making sure the whole fleece gets wet.

Submerging fleece

After 20 minutes- and I always set a time because I’m good at forgetting fleece for hours at a time until I have some other use for the kitchen- I remove the fleece from the water (ICK!!):

Removing fleece

Drain the sink:

draining the sink

Wash it out:

rinsing it out

Roll up and gently ring out the bags of fleece to remove as much dirty water as possible:

wringing out the fleece

Note that too much agitation will felt it, so err on the side of being gentle.

wringing out the fleece

And then make a new, clean bath to repeat the process until the fleece is clean and rinsed.

new bath

I made a tactical error on this fleece by not evaluating how dirty it was; this sheep appears to have been a bit overly fond of mud. After the first bags went into the wash and I saw how filthy it was the rest was put in the tub to pre-soak and remove the dirt before removing the grease. It ended up getting three baths like this:

tub soak

before it was clean enough to get effectively scoured. I used some Planet dish soap to reduce the surface tension enough for the fleece to soak. If I had just put the fleece in the water without adding some soap it would not have gotten wet; wool is quite good at resisting penetration by water. After all that’s part of its job for the sheep. 🙂 Soap helps the wool fibers slide into the water without trapping a lot of air. If there are air bubbles in the fleece it won’t soak, partly because it stays dry, but also because the air will float it back out of the water.

When I wash a fleece I have three goals. The first is to remove all the dirt. The second is to remove all the lanolin/grease. The third and most important is to cause as little disturbance to the fleece as possible, both to minimize the possibility of felting and to make later processing as easy as it can be.

Most sheep fleece has more grease than dirt to remove, so pre-soaking is overkill. Alpaca/llama fleeces are the opposite of sheep- they don’t make grease but they bathe in dirt, so they’re full of it. Worst of all are goats, which have large amounts of both dirt and grease, and bucks particularly are quite smelly to boot.

It takes different processes to remove dirt and grease. Dirt will wash out relatively easily with soap and water of any temperature. Heat can also turn some kinds of mud into a quite an effective dye. Grease has to be melted to be removed, which is why I heat the water for scouring baths so hot. It’s worth noting that too much heat can damage fiber, so it’s good to keep the baths short and not too far above the melting point of lanolin, which is between 100 – 120°F. My preference is to remove dirt and grease in separate steps when I have to deal with both, and to remove the dirt first.

The last step in the process is drying the fleece. I built a nifty and cheap drying rack that functions equally well outdoors on a sunny day and indoors over a heating vent in the cold and damp weather that’s more common here. I need a second one, so stay tuned for the blog post about building it.

I also have a second fleece for Deb in the wash, and found some different sorts of wool and interesting characteristics in that fleece to share later.

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March 3, 2013 5:44 pm

It looks like the right size bags are key to your washing method – they need to fit your sink nicely! Where did you find the ones you use? Mine are way too big….


March 3, 2013 5:44 pm

These came from Target, but they seem to have shifted to using a finer mesh; I went to get some more bags a couple weeks ago and the ones they had were different. I ordered some from ebay here:

but they are smaller and I haven’t decided if I like them or not. The older bags are about 15″ x 18″, and the newer ones are 12″ x 15″.

It does depend on the sink, though. My last house had a deeper, wider sink, and I could stack two of the cookie trays in it, and the bags were a bit smaller than optimal. Too small is probably better than too large, though! The new ones were a bit awkwardly small for getting the fleece into without mussing it too much when I bagged up Deb’s second fleece yesterday. Which has had three (!!!) bathtub soaks, and is now heading into it’s scour. I’m hoping for one wash and one rinse, but we’ll see.


March 3, 2013 5:44 pm

very nice! i’d love to see a picture of your drying rack as this is one of my biggest challenges when washing fleece… where to lay it all out to dry.


March 3, 2013 5:44 pm

I posted a pic on twitter this morning; on my iPad at the moment so hard to get links. @jennigma if you want to check it out.

Deborah Robson

March 10, 2013 5:44 pm

This fleece is now in the San Juan Islands, and I’m working on “reassembling” it to show the folks at the retreat how you kept it all organized. Fun! Thanks again (again).

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