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.

Fleece sorting

February 23, 2013 - 3:22 pm

I volunteered last weekend at Madrona to wash some fleeces for Deb Robson‘s upcoming Explore 4 retreat. Thought I would document here, both so Deb can see what it looks like unrolled and so I can share some of my process. I have sorted one of the two so far.

First I dumped it out of the bag:


The tag gives some details about this Shetland fleece:


“Bently” gave this as a yearling fleece. The note says there was some that was cotted and removed; coated more or less means it was hanging in what look dreadlocks or matts. 

Next I unrolled it:


Unfolded it:


The neck is to the left and the butt to the right. The part that sticks out of the neck towards the top is what was underneath; shearers start more or less at one ear and shave under the chin to the other, so fleeces always have a flap like that.

Next I started looking at how to sort it. I identified three staples:


The sides are the long, double coated staple on the left. The center sample is the neck wool. The sample on the right is the back wool. The entire fleece is double coated, but the back and neck have less guard hair, with the back having almost none. The crimp also changes from tight and spiraled on the back to wavy around the neck and loose, almost long wool-ish on the sides.

I did some minimal skirting, identifying the mucky bits like this:


Then stated separating it into staple types. To separate I pull from the tips of the locks, gently separating them:


Until I have fully separated fleece. This is the neck wool and back wool.  Notice the back wool here has a grey undercoat:


Eventually I ended up with four piles:


That’s the skirtings to the bottom of the picture, the neck wool to the left, the back wool in the center, and the sides making a U around the back wool.

Next I divided it into lingerie bag sided sections:


until I had this:


Two bags of neck, three bags of back, and 7 bags of sides. The skirtings pile is perhaps a bag and a half worth- it looks like more because it’s handfuls of wool, and because it’s closer. I’m leaving the skirtings raw in a plastic bag in with the washed fleece, so Deb and her students can see what I chose to discard. One thing I didn’t attempt to do was remove short cuts.  There were some, but it didn’t seem like a big problem. Here’s what to watch for:


I labeled them so Deb can reassemble the washed fleece if she would like. There are zip ties with beads attached to the zippers on the bags; this allows me to wash the fleece without worrying about destroying the labels or contaminating the fleece with ink or something else that could leech into the baths.

For her reference, the bottom of the neck is in the bag with the orange tie and pink bead, and the top is in the orange with red bead. The side wool has brown ties, and the back has grey. The color order of beads is (1) clear (2) yellow (3) green (4) blue (5) purple (6) pink (7) red, and they were laid out like this: 

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