Washing Raw Fleece
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
There are probably as many different ways to wash [scour] a raw fleece as there are breeds of sheep, and each person will have their own preferred method. This may be based on how they were shown, or the best way to use the facilities that they have available to them. If you live in a small flat with no garden, then your options will be more limited than those with access to lots of outdoor space.
Washing a whole fleece requires much more space than washing small pieces, but basically the process is the same.
I don’t work with gloves on as I think there are benefits to being able to feel the fibre as I work. However, do remember that you are working with a raw fibre that will contain soil particles, faeces, urine, possibly a mini beast or too and a variety of seeds and other vegetable matters, so you may like to where protective gloves. An apron is useful too – I do always wear one of those.
I work on a large makeshift table made from a weld mesh panel that is approx. 7ft x 5ft propped off the floor by whatever happens to be handy – upturned bins are a favourite. You could just as easily work on the floor, though this can be hard on your back. Laying an old sheet or tarpaulin on the floor first will help to keep your fleece from picking up more dirt.
I take the fleece and loosen it if it was rolled up. I give it a shake and allow any loose second cuts [short bits of fibre created when the shearer goes over the sheep a second time to tidy it up] or large bits of vegetable matter to fall out. If the fleece has been stored for a while, particularly if it’s been cold, the fleece might feel a bit stiff or sticky. Don’t worry about this – it’s just the waxy lanolin on the fibres.
I throw the fleece onto the mesh table cut side up, and gently run my hands over the surface, picking up any short second cuts that are still lingering after the shake. Any other unwanted bits can also be picked off.
After carefully rolling up the fleece, I flip it over so that the cut side faces down, and the tips of the fleece are uppermost, then I spread it out so that it’s nice and flat and I have a good clear view.
Now I start to remove anything that I don’t want to use – this is called skirting. All around the edges of the fleece you will find matted [cotted or felted] fibres, very coarse areas, or areas that are heavy with dung or mud – your compost heap will love all of it, so simply tear it away from the rest of the fleece. This ‘skirt’ area will have been around the belly, legs and tail of sheep so subject to much dirt and friction. The skirt area is useful to put around the base of fruit bushes and in the bottom of plant pots. Roses, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, pumpkins – all heavy feeders that will make good use of this waste material.
The other area that you might need to separate is in the middle, along the sheep’s back. Sometimes this can be felted. If it is, simply tear out the felted piece and put to one side. Felted pieces like this are still useful for a variety of craft activities.
What’s left, might look rather grotty but it can be quite startling how different a fleece can look after a good wash.
Before we get the water out, one last job is to search the fleece for vegetable matter. This can be grass seeds, bits of hay and straw etc. If you’re lucky, the fleece will have very little. Too much vegetable matter can sometimes make the fleece more trouble than it’s worth to process!
So now your fleece is ready to wash [scour].
My main piece of kit for washing fleece is a large black plastic bin with a shallow, upturned wire basket in the bottom. I fill the bin half full of cold water and immerse the fleece. I don’t stir or agitate in any way. I’ll leave it for a few hours or ideally overnight, then lift out the fleece [taking care - a wet fleece is very heavy] and dump it into the adjacent stone sink to drain. In the meantime, I empty out the dirty water completely [useful for watering plant pots] and refill with cold water. The basket at the bottom holds the fleece away from the grit that falls to the bottom of the bin.
I resubmerge the fleece and soak again. This may be another overnight or just an hour or so depending on how dirty the fleece was. I might repeat this cold rinse up to 4 times until the water poured away is much cleaner than the first rinse.
Whilst the fleece is draining in the stone sink, I will now half fill the bin with very hot water and detergent – usually washing up liquid – but there are lots of specialist wool washing products available for you to try.
If you live in the South or East of the UK and have very hard water, you will find Power Scour products particularly effective. https://www.wildcraft.co.uk/products/unicorn-power-scour Hard water can leave deposits on fleece which makes them feel unpleasant. Using domestic borax or washing soda will counteract the hardness and improve the effectiveness of the wash. Detergents are much more preferable to soap-based products in hard water areas too.
Washing in cold water will get rid of dirt but will keep the lanolin which results in a lanolin rich or lightly scoured fleece.
I lift the fleece [which is now at air temp] and carefully place into the hot water and allow to soak for about half an hour to an hour depending on how fast the water cools. You want to take the fleece out while the water is still very warm to keep the lanolin and debris suspended in the water with the detergent. I drain the water and repeat the process. I usually would only do this twice unless the fleece was exceptionally filthy. Finally, I fill the bin with lukewarm water without detergent and soak the fleece for a final time to rinse off any remaining detergent.
Fleece may felt if water temperatures are too extreme. Never put a hot fleece into cold water. Always allow the fleece to come to room temperature first or match the water temperature to the fleece.
I lift the fleece and drop into the sink to allow a lot of the water to drain away. Then I put the fleece [whole if it’s a small to medium size] into a spin dryer that I keep especially for fleece. This uses centrifugal force to squeeze out the excess water without felting. From here I simply throw the fleece back onto the wire mesh table and on a nice sunny day the whole fleece can be dry in an hour.
Once completely dry, its ready to store or card, comb etc.
If you'd like to learn more about raw wool and how to source, clean and use it, why not take a look at one of our workshops here?