It’s that time of year when many spinners’ thoughts turn to washing raw fleece, as sheep shearing season in the UK is at its peak in May and June. My flock were shorn early this year (at the beginning of May), and I now have a mountain of wool to sort.
I don’t wash a lot of raw wool myself, as much of our clip is sold as raw fleeces, or sent away to Halifax Spinning Mill for processing. However, when I do wash fleece, I prefer to do it with the least possible fuss. I’ve developed a method that works for me, which uses minimal hot water and very little handling of the wet wool – all of which helps reduce the risk of felting the fibre. I use a great detergent, developed specifically for wool scouring (Unicorn Power Scour), which is the key to this method’s success.
When I wash fleece, the first soak, the one with detergent, is the only one I do with hot water, all the subsequent rinsing stages are completed after the wool/soap solution has cooled, and with cold water. Many spinners prefer to rinse their fleece while the wool is still hot, with hot rinse water. The theory being that if wool grease (lanolin) is allowed to cool in the soap solution, the lanolin will redeposit back onto the wool fibre. In my experience however, if you use a really good wool scouring product, cold rinsing doesn’t leave the fleece feeling appreciably different from that rinsed hot. I don’t want to totally strip the grease in any case, as it make the fibre feel nicer for carding and spinning. Handling hot, wet, soapy wool carries a risk of felting it, no matter how gently you handle the fibre. Cold rinsing much reduces this risk. I do a fuller, more strenuous scour of the yarn after it’s been spun, when it’s better able to withstand agitation in a soapy solution, and indeed benefits from the slight felting it gets then.
This part’s a little technical, and I emphasise that these are only my (unscientifically proven) thoughts on the subject. As I mentioned before, the key to the success of the cold rinsing method is down to using a specialised wool-scouring product. I use Power Scour. As I understand it, the detergents in Power Scour bond exceptionally well with the wool grease during the hot soapy soak, and lock it away as a detergent/grease suspension in the water. My theory is that the high temperature only serves to melt and release the grease from the wool fibres, so that it can bind to the detergent molecules. Once the grease/detergent molecules are trapped together, the grease can’t redeposit back onto the fibre, as its bonding sites are attached to the detergent. From what I recall and have read about detergent chemistry, the way a detergent works is to form a grease/detergent structure called a ‘micelle’, which is a ball-like structure with grease on the inside and detergent on the outside. The outside of the micelle loves water, and would prefer to float around in water than to reattach to wool fibres (see this for a fuller description of the chemistry involved). So, once that has happened, it doesn’t matter whether the rinse water is hot or cold, the grease/detergent suspension merely needs to be rinsed out of the fibre mass. The detergent has to have a really strong affinity for lanolin for this to work, which is seems the detergents in Power Scour evidently have. Suffice it to say, I’ve tried this method with other kinds of soap such as washing-up liquid, human hair shampoo and animal shampoo, and the results weren’t great, the fleece remained tacky and unpleasant to handle afterwards.
I’ve yet to discover whether wool washed this way suffers from being stored for a long time. Some say that scoured wool that hasn’t had the lanolin totally removed (i.e isn’t so degreased that it squeaks), can’t be stored for any length of time. Over time, the little remaining lanolin can harden and become near impossible to remove, even with vigorous scouring. Since I tend to store my fleeces in the grease, and only wash what I need prior to spinning, I haven’t encountered this as a problem. I do usually use a rinsing conditioner (Unicorn Fibre Rinse) in the final rinse solution, to reduce static when processing the fibre, perhaps that helps with storage too. Wool that I’ve washed does seem to be fine even after 6-12 months of storage (I don’t get a lot of time to spin these days!).
Anyway, enough preamble, here’s my method for scouring raw wool:
To Wash Raw Fleece using the Cold Rinsing Method
You will need:
You will also need:
- Approx 300g raw sheep’s fleece.
For beginners a breed with low tendency to felt is easiest, eg. Downland (Suffolk/Ryeland/Southdown etc.), or another medium-stapled wool such as Texel, Cheviot, Lleyn etc. British breed fleeces that are more likely to felt include Shetland, Mule and some longwools such as Bluefaced Leicester and Wensleydale. For this tutorial, I’m using some of our homegrown coloured Ryeland fleece.
- A 5 litre bucket
- Access to hot water, household hot tap water is fine
- Access to cold water, plenty of it
- A space outdoors for draining and/or whirling the wool bag to spin out the water
Step 1. Tidy up your fleece a little, removing any mucky (poopy) bits and any double cuts (short bits of wool where the clippers have run over the fleece twice). You can pick out some of the VM (hay/straw etc) if you like, but you can also do that later. Put your fleece into the net bag. Putting two colours together is fine. Zip it up and set aside.
Step 2. Fill your bucket to ¾ full with hot water, as hot as your household tap will produce. You want your water around 45-55 degrees Celsius If your tap water is below 45 degrees C, top up with hot water from the kettle (be careful, you don’t want to get scalded!).
Step 3. Put on the plastic gloves. Dispense two pumps of Power Scour into the hot water. Swish it around, not too much, you want it mixed, not sudsy. The water will look a little opaque at this stage.
Step 4. Dunk the whole net bag with the fleece into the bucket of hot water, all in one go. Push it gently under the surface of the water. You can move it slightly, but DON’T STIR or mix vigorously pummelling or kneading the fleece at this stage will give you felt!
Step 5. Lift the bag gently once or twice, to ensure that the hot soapy water has penetrated through the fleece. The water will look a muddy brown colour at this point. That’s normal. The Power Scour is doing its work, removing the dirt and lanolin from the fleece.
Step 6. Leave the fleece to stand in the bucket of hot water until the water is cool, or tepid. DON’T prod it or swish it about. Handling fleece in hot soapy water is how felt is made, so unless you want felt, don’t touch it at all at this stage. You’re best off walking away and forgetting about it, as the temptation to poke the fleece bag can be very high!
Step 7. After an hour or so, or ideally overnight, you can return to your bucket. Now that the water’s cool, your fleece is much more able to withstand a bit of handling while wet (i.e. without felting it). Ideally, find an outdoor drain, with a relatively clean surface nearby. I found a drain grill on our lawn, which was ideal. Gently lift out the fleece in its net bag and allow it to drain over the bucket for a few seconds. Then put it aside on the ground. The remaining water/soap/lanolin solution will look a dirty brown colour. This is normal.
Step 8. Pour away the used soapy solution from the bucket into the drain. Our drains lead to a septic tank, which is fine as Power Scour is fully biodegradable, and can be safely drained into a septic tank system. You could do this in an indoor sink, but be aware that if you wash a lot of fleece, over time you’ll risk blocking the drain with wool grease as it cools.
Step 9. Fill the bucket with cold tap water. Dunk the fleece in its net bag into the water and swish it around. You’ll see some opaque water flowing from the bag.
Step 10. Drain the water and repeat the cold rinse until the water flowing from the bag is clear, or nearly clear. The number of times will depend on the kind of fleece and how dirty it is. Wool from our sticky Shetlands takes 3-4 rinses, while our nicely behaved Ryelands take just 2-3 rinses. The picture below shows how the water looked after the second cold rinse of my Ryeland fleece.
Step. 11. This stage is optional, but it does leave the fleece with a lovely scent and little static when dry. Once the water runs clear, fill the bucket once more with cold water. Now dispense one or two pumps of Unicorn Fibre Rinse from into the bucket. Swish to mix. Dunk the fleece in its bag in the Fibre Rinse solution and leave it to soak for 5-10 minutes.
Step 12. Drain the water away. Squish the fleece bag a little to extract the remaining water. If you have a spin dryer, now’s a good time to spin out the net bag with the fleece in it, the
wool will dry much faster if it’s been whizzed through a spin dryer for a minute or so. If you don’t have a spin dryer, you can try the spin cycle on your washing machine, only make absolutely sure that the program doesn’t add any water. Alternatively, you can get a good amount of the water out by swinging the bag around your head for a few minutes, on a lawn is ideal. Make sure you do this safely away from people, pets or anything else that you don’t want to get wet!
Step 13. Fluff up the fleece a little, then hang on a washing line or airer to dry. The fleece will dry faster if you can take it out of the net bag, but outdoors it tends to blow away, and indoors you’ll find that it’s a pet and/or child magnet. It might still feel a bit tacky at this stage. That’s ok, you want a little oil left on the fleece as it makes it more pleasant to spin. It’ll feel much less sticky once it’s fully dry.
Step 14. Once the fleece is dry, remove it from the bag, fluff it up again and appreciate the woolly cleanness of it. It’s now ready to comb, card or spin from the locks. (No picture of that stage yet, it’s still on the line, drying).