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Confessions of a Wool Processing Convert

Or Welcome to the Wonderful Word of Processing Fleece!   

In honor of our new sampler, we decided to cover the processing of raw fleece into a finished yarn this month.  While there are certainly numerous other posts on the topic (you can find links to some of our favorites at the end of the blog post) we often get questions and we like to share tips when we can.  Here goes!


I never thought I would enjoy dealing with raw wool.  It’s greasy, smelly, has … things … in it and my hands are gross when I finish handling it.  And the buckets of scour water – it’s like there’s a mud puddle in there sometimes!  Right?  Are you with me?  Well, that’s what I felt about it anyway; I was not a fan.   

And yet…

The raw fleece to finished object process is wonderful; you control all the steps and create exactly the textile you want (with some practice and sampling of course).  For a control freak, it’s ideal.  For someone who wants to maximize their expense to enjoyment ratio, it’s heaven.  For a person who wants to explore, it’s perfect.  

Don’t get me wrong – there’s still grease and grime, and things, but you pretty soon realize that wool has different smells by the breed and place of origin (for you wine lovers out there, pour a glass and enjoy your wool’s terroir!) and those fumes soon become a source of stress relief and comfort.  I should really consider starting a “Baaa day” – wool fumes and a facial or mani/pedi!

It all begins with scouring the raw fleece you acquired.  Lots of people are intimidated by this process but it’s really quite simple.  In fact, it’s fundamentally identical to a thing we all do every day: bathing.  Scouring wool is literally the process of immersing something dirty in hot water, cleaning it with soap, in this case scour, and rinsing all the grime away.  

The Steps

Shaken, not stirred…

Select a fiber you wish to try.  Open its bag and set the bag aside – you will want to keep the label.  Shake the fiber out gently over a trash can to loosen the locks and shake out larger bits of vegetable matter (“VM”), dirt and debris. You don’t need to get TOO crazy here, but a good shake does make a difference.  VM will not scour away, but it can be difficult to get the fleece to let it go until the grease is gone.  This is also a good time to open up some of the dirty tips with a comb if there are any particularly clumpy ones.  

Those happen – sheep like to frolic in muddy pastures and barns, and while the shepherds work really hard to rotate flocks away from such things, they are sheep.  They live outdoors and they get rained on.  They tromp around in grass, they lay on it, even in the rain.  And coating is often not practical or healthy for sheep, and always more expensive for a wool buyer.  

Just remain calm, this is after all dirty fleece.  Shearers skirt at the time of shearing.  Shepherds skirt again when they inspect the fleeces.  98% of anything you might see in your bag is VM or dust and debris.  1.5% is tarry tips (which are oxidized lanolin and I highly recommend a cold soak for those). Only very rarely might a dag (yes, that is a dob of sheep poop) sneak through.  But look, they’re vegetarians and we all clean ourselves, so let’s not panic ok?  Wash your hands afterwards.  Wear rubber gloves if you want.  This is not cause for alarm, let alone the destruction of a shepherd’s reputation or someone’s business by attacking them online and decrying how unacceptable and poor you find their wool.  These things are often subjective.  

Gently place the fiber in the mesh bag.  You don’t want to stuff the bag so tight, or fill the tray so much that the water has no room to work.  Leave lots of room for the water to get in and do its magic and a solid couple of inches underneath the fiber when it’s wet for the grime to fall away.  If over packed, the grime stays in and you have to rinse and scour more.  

If the fiber looks very grimy – give it a cold soak for an hour or so.  I frequently do this with particularly high grease fleeces such as merino and cormo as well.  I’ve even left them overnight by accident.  I try to limit it to overnight as I am not personally a fan of the fermented suent method of fleece scouring.  Periodically take a look and if there are muddy tips, you can gently rub them between your fingers to loosen the dirt.

You can gently rub open dirty tips, in this case where we have some mating dye on the wool.

 

Most of the mating dye has been removed with a cold soak and by gently opening the tips. 

You can actually stop here if you want.  A cold soak is actually sufficient for cleaning if you want to retain the lanolin for a more water resistant garment (say for mittens, hats, or even heavy fisherman sweaters).  

A kitty litter tray makes a good scour tray

If you want to scour the wool, now is where we get into the nitty gritty.  Put a dollop of scouring fluid in a container.  And fill that container with piping hot tap water (hot enough to scald your hand should you attempt to leave it in the water for more than a second or two after the water has been sitting for 10-15 minutes). I don’t use a boiling kettle to supplement my tap water because I use a scour designed to be used at home hot water temperatures.  This saves me time and costs because my hot water is already hot for home use and I am not adding time and electricity or gas for getting the kettle up, let alone carrying a boiling kettle to wherever my scour bucket is.  

I can tell you that I find the water best suited to this purpose in my laundry sink which is located about 5’ from my hot water heater and in between the heater and my washing machine.  While that means I have to go to my basement to deal with my scouring, it also means I tend to scour wool on laundry day.  

Immerse the wool in the hot scoury tap water.  Remember, there should be plenty of room for water to penetrate the wool and for the grimy bits to fall out.   I can’t stress this enough.  If you don’t think you have enough room for the water to get in and do it’s magic, or if you are finding that it takes more than 2 scours after you’ve done a cold soak, you might consider less fiber in your water.  Let the wool soak for 18-20 minutes, I’ve even done 15 minutes for less grease wools like shetland.  

Remove the wool from the grimy water, either by lifting the bag or the colander, and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water.  Your water no doubt looks something like below.  Like I said, a muddy river has camped in your bucket.  Dump that in your garden, I assure you the plants love that stuff.  I had roses blooming under my bathroom window in January once because I scoured wool in the bathtub into mid January and they kept getting dumped on.  Hydrangeas like it too.  If you are concerned about any chemicals that may have gotten into the wool from sheep dips or the like, simply don’t pour it on edibles.  The wool scour I prefer is environmentally friendly so I am not concerned about that.  

Muddy river water? no, just dirt from the a fleece.

You’ll repeat those steps one more time then rinse the container out – it probably has silt in the bottom.  Refill the container with piping hot clear water – no scour.  Immerse the bag in the water and let soak 18-20 minutes.  This is your rinse.  It’ll get out any remaining scour and dirty water that may not have been squeezed out after the second scour.  You MAY need a second rinse – err on the side of the rinse.  In this second rinse you may choose to add some Fiber rinse to condition the fiber.  Rinse is particularly welcome in the case of down breeds which tend to feel “crispy” after scouring.  The rinse will also restore some of the lanolin we scoured out alongside the grime.  

If I have a particularly low grease, clean, fleece I might top off the 2nd rinse water to bring the temp back up to scalding, add some scour and reuse the water for the first rinse of my next batch of wool.  But I only suggest this on particularly clean, low grease fleeces.  

Once you‘ve completed your rinse cycle, remove the bag from the water and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water.  If using the colander method – press the water out.  Your fiber should look something like this-

 

And, it’s now much less dirty!

At this point lots of people will try the whole thing again – thinking the fleece is still dirty.  Maybe it’s not bleach white like they wanted.  Fleece comes in a wide range of white from buttery to pearl.  Nothing you do will change that white color, it’s part of the protein and collagen the sheep made.  Embrace the array of natural whites.  If you want bleach white, you’ll need commercially bleached fiber – and yes, I do mean bleached.  Sparkling white has been bleached in industrial vats with strong chemicals and then treated with optical brighteners.  By processing our wool we avoid all these industrial chemicals; it’s part of the allure.  If you hate that your white is buttery, you’re only option is dyeing – or giving away/selling your hard won processed wool.

Or maybe they think those tips are still filthy. They are not still filthy.  Remember that cold soak I suggested earlier?  The one before which I combed open the tips, or wherein I massaged the tips to help loosen them up?  Both of those actions help solve tips such as these.  Whatever you do, do not scour again.  Further scouring may actually damage the fiber.  Turn the fiber very gently out onto a towel or mesh sweater drying rack and let it dry.  Maybe turn it over onto a drier section or a fresh towel half way through.  Generally I walk away for a day.

Once the fiber is dry, it’s ready to flick, comb, card or lock spin into yarn.  If those high grease fleeces still feel greasy, it’s ok to get another scour and rinse WITH fiber rinse in, but I wouldn’t worry about it unless it’s hard to process or spin.  You still have to set your yarn AND wash and block your finished object.  Over processing now will only augment damage to the fiber later.  And remember, those finished objects have a long career ahead of them.  

If you are still worried about your tips and want to make sure you don’t need another round, go ahead and flick them open to release the dirt (experience will generally have you do this as part of your pre spinning preparation instead). If the tips were damaged, they’ll come off in the flicker and there’s no cause for alarm. You may achieve this by tapping or by twisting the lock in the center and brushing the ends.  Tapping opens the fiber into a cloud, brushing retains lock structure. Tapping is a woolen preparation and creates a lofty airy yarn, brushing is worsted and creates a smooth, dense yarn.  

Congratulations!  Your fiber is ready to spin.  Wasn’t that easy?   

Frequently Asked Questions

What is this black stuff?  

Most likely it’s tar – oxidized lanolin and grease.  Let it soak a while and it will come out when you flick.  It is not a cause for concern, but a cold soak would be helpful as they tend to be stubborn.

Why is it so grimy?  

Sheep live outside and some like lounging in mud.  Some even snuggle into compost heaps.  They don’t shower and even though they may get rained on, it doesn’t help them much unless they walk through a moving stream or river, thanks to all that grease.  That’s why we use hot water and scour.  

My wool isn’t white!?  

White comes in many shades from almost bleach to creamy butter.  Wool runs the gamut.  If you want bleach white – well, wool is probably the wrong fiber for you.  If you try bleaching it, it’s likely to be damaged.  Take a page out of Beth Smith’s book and love all the shades of white!    

The tips aren’t completely clean, do I scour it again?  

If you scoured as instructed, then no.  Those tips have some staining from the grease or still contain trapped dirt.  The fleece is clean; flicking it will open the tips and release the dirt.  Once it’s dry – is it still really greasy? Then the water temp may not have been high enough.  This sometimes happens with very fine wools like merino.  Do a “second scour’ again this time adding a kettle of boiling water and re-rinse and dry.  It should solve your problem.

 

Now those links to my favorite wool scouring posts:

http://bethsmithspinning.com/wool-scouring-simple-and-mostly-quick/

http://bethsmithspinning.com/washing-wool-by-the-lock/

http://independentstitch.typepad.com/the_independent_stitch/2008/08/washing-wool.html

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