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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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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!