From Raw Fleece to Carded Batts of Wool

From Raw Fleece to Carded Batts of Wool

Our guest author/artist today is Zara Tuulikki Rooke.  She generously offered to take us through the process of preparing fibers from her own sheep to use for felting.

As I enjoy felting, I feel very fortunate to also be able to keep a couple of sheep. My four ewes are crossbreeds, from traditional Swedish breeds including the more well-known Gotland, and the perhaps internationally less well-known Rya and Finull. In any case, they do have really nice locks.

Photo 1

In Sweden, the common recommendation (with exceptions for certain breeds) is to shear the sheep both in the spring (to remove the thick winter fleece before they have their lambs and before the summer) and in the autumn (when they return to the barn and start spending more time indoors). The summer fleece (sheared in the autumn) is considered to be of higher quality. It has been grown while the sheep have been out grazing nutritious green grass, and not full of hay and straw like the winter fleece. Below is a photo of their summer fleece, sheared last autumn. The lighter, brown tips are from bleaching by the sun (and probably some dirt as they are unwashed).

Photo 2

My ram is from an old breed called Åsen. His fleece is straighter, without real locks. This breed can have a variety of fleece characteristics and different colours in patches on the same individual animal. My neighbour also has a ram of the same breed, and the darker fleece (black-brown-grey) on the photo below is from one of her lambs.

Photo 3

In addition, I also buy raw fleeces from pure Gotland sheep from a farm in a neighbouring village. The photo below shows some of the variation you can get between individuals, both in colour and in the size and shape of the locks. The lambs are born black, but later the wool turns grey and the once black tips are bleached by the sun. Or rather, they grown an increasing proportion of white hairs – there are no grey hairs, just different proportions of white or black hairs making the fleece look grey.

Photo 4

To a felter, this abundance of raw fleeces must seem like an ideal situation. And I certainly think it is. But, the process of turning raw fleece into carded wool is quite time-consuming. And that is what this post is really about.

After shearing, the fleece needs to be skirted and sorted, to take away wool that is too short, dirty or tangled. The short wool can either be from the head or legs of the sheep, or the result of what we call double-shearing (i.e. shearing a patch a second time to even it out). You usually also need to remove a fair amount of grass seeds and other vegetable matter that gets stuck in the fleece. That can take a lot of time, but it helps to do the sorting on some kind of wire mesh that allows small bits to fall through.

Then comes the washing. I try to get as much washing as I can done outdoors in the autumn, after shearing, up until the temperatures drop below freezing (in the North of Sweden that can be quite early in the season). I leave the wool to soak overnight in net-baskets in an old bathtub filled with cold water. The next day, the water will be really brown, but that just shows how much dirt you can actually clean out from a raw fleece with just cold water. I change the water at least twice after that, allowing the wool to soak for at least a few hours between changes, until the water no longer looks dirty. In my opinion, washing the wool in just cold water is sufficient if I am going to use the wool for wet-felting. During felting it will anyhow get washed again with hot water and soap.

Photo 5

During the winter, I do the washing in my bathtub indoors (which prevents anyone in the family taking a shower/bath for 24 hours), and then I usually use lukewarm water. If the wool is very dirty, I also add some washing powder (the type used for knitted wool items). The main rules when washing, to avoid felting the wool in the process, it to avoid too hot water, or quick changes in water temperature, and to disturb the wool as little as possible.

After washing comes drying. The net-baskets are easy to just lift out of the water and then I usually hang them up for a while to drip off a bit. If I am washing a smaller amount of wool, I often use one of those contraptions meant for spinning water from salad. Then I lay it out to dry, on a wire mesh or on towels on a clothes drying rack. Drying takes time, usually several days. It helps to turn the wool over each day and fluff it up a bit each time. It may seem dry on the surface, but wool has an incredible capacity for retaining moisture.
Finally, you have your washed and dried wool, ready for carding. However, some locks do need to be teased first. This means pulling apart the locks/fibres – and you will probably find even more grass seeds now. The photo shows washed locks, before and after teasing. It´s an extra step in the process, but if the locks are tangled in the tips, teasing really does facilitate the carding.

Photo 6

I own a drum-carder, which really does save time compared to using hand-carders. The wool is feed in under the small drum, which in turn feeds it onto the larger drum, as you turn the handle. After two or three runs through the drum-carder, you can finally lift off a batt of lovely, fluffy, carded wool. Then you can start felting!

Photo 7

It does take a lot of time and effort, and I do swear about grass seeds through the whole process, but each step also has its own charm. I often find it very relaxing to sort, tease and card wool. It provides an opportunity to really feel and look at the locks – and to plan what to do with them. And at the end of the day, when I look at my washed locks and carded batts of wool, I feel really wealthy. Perhaps, in part, because I know how much time and effort has been invested into those locks and batts of wool.

Thank you  Zara for such a wonderful tutorial with exceptional pictures to show us the whole  process from fleece to wool batts!

26 thoughts on “From Raw Fleece to Carded Batts of Wool

  1. A fascinating post – especially for a city-dweller like me whose wool comes from a shop.

    Your washing process looks very organised and well thought through – lovely photos to show it too.

    The wool that comes off your carder looks so soft and perfect!

    1. Thanks Lyn! 🙂 If you have a large stock of raw fleeces, you do need to organize the washing system. I felt like I was racing against time and the prospect of coming out one morning to find the wool frozen in ice in the bathtub. So, for a while I had quite a tight schedule – soaking wool in the evenings and changing water in the morning before work and again when I got home from work.

  2. A complete delight, I felt I was with you on this journey, I have only cleaned small amounts of fleece so I can understand the seedhead problem for larger fleeces. Thank you for this descriptive personal account of how you get your lovely felt 🙂

    1. Yes, grass seeds are a real nuisance! Picking out seeds, outdoors, on a warm and sunny day is OK. But less so on a cold and windy day, when you are sorting your 10th raw fleece. And however many you take out, there will still be some left at the end… But the sheep do enjoy their time in the pastures (and sticking their heads deep into the hay), so seeds and other vegetable matter is inevitable. I try to think of it as proof that the sheep have spent time in a natural environment… 😉

  3. I am SO jealous! I know it’s a lot of hard work, but it does look so rewarding, the locks and your batts are gorgeous. Thanks for this, Zara 🙂

    1. It IS rewarding. After a hectic autumn I can spend the winter carding and felting my own wool, which always feels nice. And the sheep are really lovely animals.

  4. Zara, thanks so much for sharing the process of preparing fleece–from the shearing to washing to carding. It’s quite a process, and the excellent photos helped me to understand the amount of work involved. I have a new appreciation for those who “do it all”!

  5. Zara, I feel soothed just reading about your process with the wool. You give it a zen-like fee. Thank you so much for taking time from felting to share this with us!

  6. Thanks Zara – what a wonderful post! I have done this with a couple of fleece and it is a lot of hard work. The amount you get done is amazing. I am almost out of my last merino fleece so I may have to get another this spring. You make it look easy so perhaps you’ve inspired me to try again 🙂

  7. As someone new to the whole world of wool and the felting process this was a super post. Thank you for the great explanation of the different processes and the excellent photos.

    1. Many thanks for a very nice comment! I really enjoyed writing this – and having an excuse to take photos of both my sheep and wool in my stash. 🙂

  8. Thanks for sharing this Zara. Some beautiful locks and batts there! I’ve only ever scoured one fleece at a time and found it hard work – can’t imagine doing as many as you do. 🙂

    1. Thanks! 🙂 I do end up experimenting with felting raw, unwashed fleece too. But it does help to also use some carded wool then to secure all those locks. 😉

  9. Thanks for sharing your wooly journey with us, Zara. I can’t say how envious I am of your sheep, they just look so happy and I just know you love to have them near you 🙂

    I live in a flat so can’t afford the wonderful luxury of washing fibres outdoors, but I hope to be able to sometime in the future – for now, it’s just the tub, and having the whole bathroom smell of sheep during the process!

    1. I guess only those who love sheep and felting can appreciate the smell of wet wool in the bathtub… Other members of my family are not quite as thrilled as I am. 😉

    2. Hah, I know! I’m lucky because my partner is a painter and his acrylics sometimes smell too, so there’s no pointing of fingers here 🙂

  10. Zara, I enjoyed reading the processing of your wool and the pictures are so well done! Thank you for sharing. I am in the process of cleaning several merino fleeces, bought in a bale, unseen, and worst of all infested with moth eggs!! I was ready to give up until a friend told me about soaking the fleece in soft water for a week. It makes its own cleaner, kills the eggs and smells to high heaven, (like a barn that hadn’t been cleaned in a long, long time) but once washed several times in hot water with Dawn dish soap I have these beautiful white locks that I will tease and card. I’m so glad this is working because I was ready to burn it, so it wouldn’t infest my stash!!

  11. ️Thankyou for showing this process, I have been given some fleece from a next door neighbour , I look forward to trying this out!

  12. Thank you so much. I’m just staring out and I feel after your words of wisdom I feel a lot more Confident in felting. Kris

  13. I am feeling a tad overwhelmed as I was taught to pick, card, and spin in the grease, then wash the yarn…. that was 35 years ago…. I have continued with my efforts over the years but with the duties of work and child rearing it was intermittent to say the least. I have recently picked it back up and have been ‘studying’ all I can so as not to waste the beautiful llama and sheep fleeces I have. That being said, I have some nice wool batts I had picked and carded in the grease and was wondering if it is possible to wash them? Or would I be better served to simply spin them up and start fresh with the other wool I have. Having always lived further out then most, I am a lone spinner, have never got out and joined/visited any group, so in many ways I am self taught. lol.., I recently purchased a new wheel, the Kromski Minstrel, It is beautiful and responds very nicely and am anxious to try the many different techniques the variation of whorls gives you.
    Thank you in advance for you input,

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