Fleece – To Wash or Not to Wash, That is The Question…

A webmistress’s lot includes many tasks — one of the most interesting is to take note of the search terms by which readers reach the site. It is very early days yet, but it seems that one topic of burning interest is how to deal with a raw fleece — typically, how one should be washed. As these questions are not yet answered here, I sought to satisfy our visitors by asking our resident spinning expert about handling fleece.

Beth: Gill, when you taught me to spin, we used a raw fleece, unwashed – and I have carried on working in this way but I keep reading about other spinners washing their fleece before working with it.  Is there a “right” or a “proper“  way to work with a whole fleece?

Gill: I’ve always spun my wool “in the grease” and for a few decades never knew that this was looked down upon in some quarters! It seems to me though, that you’re making life much harder for yourself than necessary by washing a portion of fleece before you spin it.

Beth: Yes – you must need some arm power to lift a whole wet fleece! And what about the volume of water needed for washing and rinsing. It’s not very “green”, is it?

Gill: If I was to wash a fleece prior to spinning it, I would wash it in small portions and, you’re right, that would take up an enormous amount of water and electricity.

Beth: Don’t  you need to take a lot of care when washing the unspun fibre?

Gill: Yes, fleece, the yarn spun from it and the garments made from that yarn are very tough in many ways, but they also have their delicate side.  I have on more than one occasion had the galling realisation on opening the washing machine that washing that particular garment on that particular wash cycle may not have been the right thing to do! And this, even more so, applies to fleece.

Beth: Yes – I have shrunk a few jumpers in my time, though these days I tend to make my felt intentionally… but, back to the fleece. Are there any hygiene implications in working with a dirty fleece? I mean… can I catch something nasty if I don’t wash my fleece?

Gill: As far as I’m aware, pregnant women are advised to steer clear of pregnant ewes (due to the risk of Listeria), but the sheep are not sheared until at least two months after lambing, and providing you take common-sense precautions, there’s not likely to be a problem .

Beth: I think some people are inherently averse to,  er… what we used to call when I worked in hospital as the “tishy bits.”  I think you refer to them as “daggy bits”?

Gill: Yes. Fleeces are normally “skirted” shortly after shearing. That is – taking off any wet areas or areas of faeces. These parts of the fleece can be put in a bucket of warm water to make liquid fertiliser for the garden  – the grotty fleece can then be used on the compost heap or as some mulch.

Again, common-sense precautions – washing hands afterwards etc – are all that’s needed. Personally I’d rather deal with that than a baby’s nappy!

Beth: So, why would you recommend working with an unwashed fleece?

Gill: Pure and simple, because I’ve always done it that way, and find that the lanolin in the grease does wonders for my hands. Wool is so much easier to spin with all that grease in it, especially if you are in a warm environment, and skeins of yarn are a darn sight easier to wash and dry than fleece.

Beth: But… I have read some opinion that maintains that skeins will never completely release their dirt as the fibres are now twisted and locked together. Is that true?

Gill: In my experience, you lose some of the bits when you are carding, more pop out when you’re spinning and plying and the dirt etc. comes out in the wash. However, on the rare occasions that I think that the fleece is just too mucky to bring into the house and spin, I don’t wash it with soap or detergent, but just soak it in hottish water for a while, and then lift it out gently. Don’t throw the water away though; it makes a great liquid fertiliser for plants (see above). The fleece should be gently squeezed in a towel to take as much of the water out as possible, then put in a pillowcase or similar and spun on a low speed in your washing machine.

Beth: I suppose that gets rid of some of the muck without damaging the natural oils.

Gill: Yes, cleaning this way has the effect of getting the real grot out of it, whilst leaving in some of the grease to aid your spinning.

Beth: I know that some spinners do use detergents at this initial washing stage. Would they not then have to further treat their fibre before spinning it? It must be very dry once the lanolin is removed.

Gill: I’ve heard that it’s possible to make an emulsion from olive oil and water and spritz this on to the fibre before spinning. However, I’ve never seen the point of washing grease out, just to put more back in, although I do realise that some folk are more comfortable doing things this way.

Beth: What about the fermented suint method that I have read of? I was going to try this out but am worried about having a stinky vat in the garden when I have three border collies to contend with…

Gill: I’ve only recently come across this method, which sounds like a development of the plain hot soak I described earlier, but I would not think of doing it as a matter of course, especially in our damp cool climate, where it would be difficult to dry large amounts of fleece afterwards.

Beth: Well, I reckon you are not in that camp of spinners that spend endless hours in fleece preparation… separating and carding, and then washing individual locks before spinning.

Gill: I’m afraid not.   Although I am aware that some fleeces are dirtier than others are and need more preparation – carding etc – I believe that the less preparation a fleece requires the better.

Beth: So, you are comfortable with the back to nature approach, while others maintain that it is not possible to spin properly without hours of fleece cleaning and preparation. This requires bottoming!  You know, I think I am going to try some (reasonably) controlled experiments. I think I shall wash some fleece and try spinning it. I might try differing methods of preparation. Tell you what, though – I am NOT trying a fermented suint bath until next summer when we have a chance of a few dry days in succession.

Shall I blog about my adventures as I go?

Gill: Yes, please – but I probably will not change my mind or my methods 🙂

We’d be interested to hear others’ views on the ‘wash or not to wash’ debate, but remember – when it comes down to it, there are no Spinning Police!