Thursday, February 19, 2015

Let's Wash a Merino Fleece: Step 1, Lay it Out

Let's do a step by step process of washing a merino fleece, from start to finish. If you haven't bought your fleece yet, and you want to, please watch this video for tips on how to choose a fleece. Also, you don't need to use a merino fleece. If you want to use another fine wool breed, or fine wool cross, this process will work just the same for you:


Let's gather some materials. First, we have to alter the method I propose in my fleece washing videos, since it doesn't apply to merino (and it won't for other fine fleeces either). Normally, I do a cold soak to loosen and release dirt and large pieces of vegetable matter. But this time, I'm not doing the cold soak for two reasons: 1) I have a prime fleece which was coated between shearings, so it's extremely clean to begin with; 2) the large amount of lanolin means that the fleece floats. However, if you have a fine fleece which has dirty tips, place the fleece tip side down into the cold water and let it soak over night. It will still make it easier to wash than if you skipped this step.

I use a large, open-mesh laundry bag to wash my fleece in batches. Then you'll need to get a scouring agent. I've used professional scouring agents, no-suds scouring agents, and good old fashioned liquid detergent (fragrance-free and dye-free). I've had equal results with all three, so for me, I just use whatever I had on hand. This time, I used a fragrance-free/dye-free liquid detergent. I encourage you to test out the various products on the market to see if there's a product you like more than others.

The last thing you need is a wash basin of some kind. You can use a big bowl, a laundry wash tub, or a bathtub. I've used all three, and they work out just fine. Just make sure it's deep enough so that the dirt can accumulate on the bottom, away from the fleece. So, let's get to work.

Lay out your fleece on the floor, preferably on something to keep the fleece clean, tip side up. Like this:


Here's the part of the fleece which I think is the neck wool. The reason why I think this is the case, it has slightly more vegetable matter than the other end. I know that the shepherd skirts her fleeces well, so the rear end of the fleece has no unmentionable pieces.


Here is what I think is the rear end of the fleece:


Also, each breed of sheep will have a specific lock shape, which is best seen while it's still raw. Even within the same fleece, the locks will look slightly different. Do you see how these locks clump together? Also, the brown tips and slight cotting (the tips have experienced friction) are a result of the coat the sheep wore all year:


  
You can really see what I'm talking about in this picture. Luckily, these tips are only ever so slightly damaged, not actually felted together.


These locks aren't so dirty, which means they were part of the back and sides of the animal, neither too close to the mouth nor too close to the rear:


These locks are from the prime part of the fleece, which is the wool which comprises the sides of the sheep, but not the belly, rear, our mouth. It is extremely clean:


This part of the fleece is likely from the shoulders of the animal. The clumps of locks are less blocky, but not dirty and there isn't any cotting:



The tips on this part of the fleece are slightly more dirty, since this is part of the fleece which starts to head down under the body of the sheep. It's still good wool to use, but you'll need a bit more finesse when it comes to the carding process to keep these locks as clean as possible:


You should also get into the habit of measuring the locks of your fleece while they're raw. Sometimes, the locks get discombobulated during the washing and handling phase, and it's more difficult to tell how long the locks are unstretched. Also, this information becomes useful if you are spinning this wool for a specific purpose. Without the lanolin, and when the locks get separated into individual strands, the locks will poof up more. Think of what happens when you brush out a lock of wool (or hair...); it spreads out and takes up more volume. As you can see, these locks exceed 10cm (just shy of 4 inches) unstretched:


In the next post, we'll move onto separating out the prime parts of the fleece from the seconds. This step is only important if you want to use them for different projects, and if there is a huge disparity in how the different parts of the coat feel. When I have a whole fleece to use, I always do this step, even if I ultimately put both parts of the coat together. If you know that you won't need this step, just skip it and move onto the next step. Since there will be lots of photos for this project, I will be breaking this up into several posts so I don't inundate you with too much information at once. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below. So, what is your favorite fleece to process? Or, is this your first time? Let me know!