In The Raw

Beginner’s Series: WoolPart 2

I had barely cut my teeth on roving; in fact, I hadn’t even been introduced to a batt yet, when I felt the urge to get a raw fleece and process it for myself. There was just something so appealing about starting as close to the beginning as I could get. And from the moment I walked into a sheep barn an hour away from my house I knew this was going to be a love affair to last the rest of my life.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can still smell the lanolin, and less pleasant things, that made up the smell of that day.

Choosing a Fleece

Would you like to learn what to look for in choosing a fleece? This is the best article I’ve seen on the subject. It gives you such a sense of knowing what you’re talking about. A little experience and you’re a natural. It makes walking into a room full of cut fleeces seem like even more of a candy store.

Buying a Fleece

Alrighty, so you’ve picked out a fleece that you like. A couple things you might want to know.

1) Fleeces are usually priced by the pound, as in their weight. This can range all over from five dollars a pound to twenty dollars a pound and beyond. Usually the price reflects the quality of the fleece. Use your buyer’s instinct and your eyes to tell you if you’re paying top dollar for a low quality fleece.

2) Because fleeces are priced by their weight, keep in mind that oftentimes the weight includes the grease, which you will be washing out. Your fleece can reduce in weight by next-to-nothing to about half, which is the highest I’ve heard of. (Merino is a very greasy fleece, and it loses somewhere in the neighborhood of half its weight during washing.)

3) Sometimes the seller will be willing to sell you part of a fleece, sometimes not. Ask and be friendly.

4) Keep in mind, if you buy a fleece over the internet, you’ve still got shipping to deal with. All those pounds of fluff turn into shipping costs.

Washing the Fleece

Most fleeces you buy are going to be “raw,” meaning they haven’t been washed yet. All the natural grease (like you get on your hair) and any dirt is still in the wool. You can spin it this way if you really want to, but it makes everything greasy and yucky and can get a bit stout smelling.

If you have a top loading washing machine, there is a way to wash your fleece in that. That article also includes a hand washing method. I personally don’t do some of things that are mentioned, but that proves that everyone washes wool in a different, yet successful way. There is really no single “right” way to wash fleece. Whatever you do, as long as the result is nice, usable fleece, it works.

If, like me, you have a front loader, or just don’t like the idea of putting a greasy fleece into your nice, clean washing machine, you can do it the old-fashioned way in a big pot. I like to pick over the fleece first and make sure there aren’t any big hunks of any unpleasant things or any large pieces of vegetable material. (This process called “picking” or “skirting” the fleece.) Then I presoak them for a few hours or overnight to get rid of the first layer of dirt. After one or two of these presoaks I go ahead and follow this process. It’s rather vague, I know. I shall try to rectify that soon. Since I wrote that I have played with the numbers a bit, but I’m very guilty of not writing any of it down.

There are lots of different things you can put in to the wool to remove the grease. I like using Simple Green (but it’s a pretty strong chemical. It’s bought at car part stores, for goodness sake!) and Dawn dishwashing liquid. Some people use hot water and vinegar. Some people prefer hair shampoo. It really depends on what you want to try.

The important thing is to not felt* the wool. Felting occurs when the fleece gets rubbed, agitated, or experiences a sudden temperature change. When rinsing wool, make sure the rinse water is the same temperature as the water the wool was just sitting in. Do not vigorously stir the wool. Bad things happen.

*Felting is when the fibers become so compacted onto each other they resemble a piece of felt. Very bad spinning material.


When the wool is done being washed, it’s important that you lay it out to dry. Balled up wool can start to smell musty very quickly. Gently lay it out on a towel and/or drying rack and let it sit for several days. Wool can hold . . . I believe 30% of its own weight in water before it even feels wet, so give it a while to dry. Laying it in direct sunlight is great, although I’ve only done that with white fleece. I don’t know if the sun would lighten the pigment on darker wool. (Does this mean I get to go buy a black fleece to find out?)

What do you do with it when it’s dry? You’ll find out tomorrow.

2 Responses to In The Raw
  1. Mama Mentor
    September 10, 2009 | 6:04 pm

    All this talk of fleece and fiber is very distracting right now because I don’t have time to do anything about it!

  2. Rebekah
    September 10, 2009 | 7:50 pm

    I’m suffering from the same thing. Now I want to go buy three or four fleeces.

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