Wash a fleece with me

Wash a fleece with me

***This post should have been published yesterday but somehow the scheduling didn’t go through, apologies for the delay!***

The days are so much longer here in Scotland. When blessed with sunshine (which happens more than you’d think), this is the perfect time of year to wash fleeces.

I recently bought a Leicester Longwool fleece from a small farm that specialises in conservation of this rare breed. I’d bought from them before, so I knew I’d be happy with my purchase.

Now, for those of you who live in a house with a garden, washing raw fleeces might not be a somewhat mammoth task, but I currently live in a flat. Some creativity was in order.

I’m lucky enough to have a very generously sized kitchen, which is where the beginning of the processing begun.

part of a shower curtain is laid on the floor

I laid down this piece of shower curtain on the floor (it’s a leftover from my dyeing setup, I used the rest to protect the wall when working). I can already tell you I was naive and had no idea what I was getting myself into.

a bag with a fleece in it, with Muriel written on the outside

Here is the fleece, ready to come out and play. Muriel is the lovely sheep who grew the wool, she was so named because she mewed more than baah-ed 🙂
This fleece is around 6.5kg. You can already see where I was getting at when I said I was naive, don’t you?

Muriel's fleece is on the floor, ready to be unrolled

The owner of this flock was kind enough to send me some very good written instructions on how the fleece was rolled, and how best to unroll and wash it.

Leicester Longwool fleece on the floor, with human foot nearby for size comparison

If you’re laughing at my tiny plastic protection right now, I don’t blame you. I laughed too! I photographed my foot so you could have an idea of scale. Oh boy.

Time to sort the fleece according to body areas and discard the bits I didn’t want, which in the case of this particular fleece wasn’t much.
Sorting the fleece this way helps me know which parts will be more useful for different purposes. The wool on the back of the sheep (which you can see in the middle) will have better curl definition, and the bits near the rear end will be coarser and less curly. There’s a use for each part, but I want it separated so I can work quickly once it’s all washed.

I must give credit to the shearer, he did a stellar job. I had hardly any second cuts (tiny bits of wool you get from when the shearing machine goes through the sheep a second time, to even the “haircut” out). This person was definitely removing the fleece knowing it was to be used by a crafter, which I greatly appreciated.

closeup of the fleece with very dirty tips and extremely white cut ends

Have you ever wondered about how dramatic a Before and After can be in washing fleece? Here’s your answer. The end bits have been subjected to the elements, the part nearer the animal is pristine. Once I’m done, I hope it’ll look mostly like the white bits.

Next, I carefully roll up the fleece into sections to soak.

a rolled up section of fleece, ready to be soaked

What one does next with a fleece depends on personal preference. I like to soak it in cold water and change the water often, until most of the lanolin (the natural oils the sheep produces to protect its coat) is washed off. Once that’s done, I use very hot water a few times, and then add detergent to it. Once the water comes out mostly clear, I’m done. All that’s left is to rinse it, lay it flat to dry and then play with the lovely curls.

two fleeces soaking, one dirty and the other almost clean

Notice the huge difference! The one on the right already has some detergent in it, the left doesn’t as it still needs a few more cold water soaks.

I’m sure some readers will be worried about processing a fleece indoors. Allow me to share what I did to stay safe and clean:

  • Firstly, I purchased the fleece from a trusted high-welfare farm, which means the sheep are kept happy and are constantly monitored for health issues (thus ensuring the wool isn’t contaminated with pests or other nasties)
  • The fleece was always handled with gloved hands and I never touched other surfaces whilst doing so.
  • I never ate or drank whilst processing the fleece
  • Once I was done separating it into sections, they went into plastic bags and all surfaces were thoroughly washed, even the ones that the wool never touched, such as counters
  • The bathtub was thoroughly washed and sanitised before being used by humans
  • (Finally: if you have pets, make sure they stay away from raw wool! My cats are abnormalities and didn’t care one bit for it, so they stayed away on their own.)

On my next blog post, I’ll share how the fleece came out once dry and the locks separated.

Have you ever washed a fleece? How did your experience compare to mine? Let me know in the comments.

26 thoughts on “Wash a fleece with me

  1. First thought – what were thinking to attempt the job indoors ??
    But after reading the post it became obvious that your determination and enthusiasm won over the tricky conditions.

    What an achievement! 🙂

    1. Haha, it’s either indoors or not at all right now, so indoors it has to be! The dreamy wool also helps 😀

  2. Muriel is a big girl isn’t she?
    I have washed a fleece – long ago and outside. It’s so long ago now that I can’t remember what breed it was . I had devised a “patent” fleece washing system and a post about this is on my list of to do’s.
    I think that you may find drying the fleece as much of as a problem indoors as washing it even if you do the process in small batches.
    Looking forward to hearing how you get on.

    1. Muriel is very likely a big girl indeed 😀

      Drying it was fine, actually! It’s now all dry and safely stored in paper bags, awaiting the purchase of extra pillowcases. This flat has high ceilings and the temperature has remained at around 23ºC, so it’s the best time of year to sort this stuff out.

      More news on my next post 😉

  3. Excellent description on how to and on the parts of the fleece. I wish our shearers were as considerate of the users as yours was. I’m really looking forward to the end results.

    1. Thank you 🙂 I’m sure this particular shearer was instructed to cut the wool for crafting, so he sacrificed Muriel’s final looks instead!

  4. Brilliant post, and so informative too. Well done, and be rightly proud of your achievement.
    I doubt I would have known where to start, but following your process a newbie would have a ‘recipe’ to follow.

    1. Thanks! It’s a mammoth task for sure, especially because I was trying to get it finished as soon as possible so as to not hurt my other half’s nose with the sheep smell 😉

  5. good on you tackling that inside. I have washed fleece before and hope to again. My woolly pigs will not give me a nice clean fleece like that. They like to save hay in their wool for eating later.

    1. I find it tiring, but fun – I love seeing the wool turning brighter and fluffier as I go 😀

      It’s funny you should say that, these sheep are free range and, according to the shepherd, like to play around in certain, more hay-prone areas, but I didn’t find much of it in the fleece. Do you thing Muriel got peckish and had hers?

  6. What a huge fleece! Way to go for persevering and getting it all sorted and washed. I have washed one fleece inside and others outside. I definitely prefer outside but understand that you don’t have outdoor space available. Every time I wash a fleece, I think, “never again”. It is so much work!

    1. It really is huge. The next stage is the one that’ll give me headaches, having to sort out the curls by crimp and size… oh boy.

      Ah, what you think about washing a fleece is also me, not on the washing bit but on the storing – “where am I going to keep all of this?!” is the usual question.
      (On a side note, “never again” is also what I think as I get a new tattoo, but I never learn…)

  7. At a sheep sheering someone handed me the top knot. Now I’m wondering if I should have touched it and how to store it until I get home and can wash it. Should I wear gloves? All the cautions above make me think I should throw it away. I want to use it in my felting as a memory. A good memory, I hope.

    1. Hi, Lorrie. As long as you wear gloves, you’ll be fine. The main issue is mostly the rear-end bits, which can have sheep poop attached.
      The best way to store a raw fleece is in a paper bag or a pillowcase – basically, something breathable. Plastic is a big no no, especially if where you are gets very warm. Keep it in a place where sunshine might reach it, to avoid moths enjoying the fibre before you’re ready to play with it.
      Fleeces are a bit of work but well worth it, promise 🙂

  8. You really did get a lovely fleece there. I bought a partial fleece at a fiber festival. Once I removed the poopy bits, and other pieces, there was quite a bit gone. I was told how to clean the wool, and used an Australian product called “Scour” or something like that. Once it was thoroughly cleaned, I put the fleece pieces in separate laundry bags, and ran them through my portable laundry spinner. It was nice outside and I was able to lay it between some screening fabric I had. I’m certainly glad I did it, and it made me appreciate the loving process done by others. My last fleece, a lovely cream CVM, was washed by the breeder. They came highly recommended: used only eco friendly products, and had a special drying room to dry the fleece. It came back beautifully done, but it was $85 on top of the fleece price. Brian said pay it! (I love him ❤️)


    1. Hi, Capi! I asked this shepherd to keep me in his list and let me know once he was ready to shear his flock, I’m almost sure I was the first person to purchase 😀 I just jumped on the opportunity as soon as I got his email.

      Could it have been Unicorn Power Scour? I used to use that too, but it gets quite expensive after a while. Now I’m back to using dishwashing detergent, with wool softener (also by Unicorn) in the last wash.
      Laundry spinners are our best friends for sure! I did use my gravity spinner to remove most of the water, but I think I forgot to say that in the post, oops 🙂

      $85 isn’t cheap but you know what? If it saves you the trouble and you can, it’s definitely a great option – plus, you’re keeping the small holding wool trade alive!

      PS – Brian is a wise man 😉

  9. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful sheen on Muriel! I know I am a bit weird at the best of times but it made me very excited (I need to get a life!).
    Muriel is a big girl and fair dues to the shearer as you said. I love your comment about little or no waste – that all parts of the fleece will be put to use. It reminds me of my mother in law when she used to talk about being a child on the family farm – they slaughtered their own meat as was usual then.
    You finished on a cliff hanger Leonor – I would have happily settled in for the morning to find out more.

    My only experience was washing Alpaca – a beautiful gift and the (human) donor was waiting to see what I would do with it. I washed it and darn well managed to felt it in the process! I hadn’t a clue what I was at! In the end I bought a car hair brush and, over the space of about a week, teased out sufficient fibre to make a hat. That is one hat I will not forget!

    Looking forward to part 2. 🙂

    1. Not weird at all, Helene, I was super excited about the sheen too! Leicester Longwool fibre is usually very shiny and I love seeing the curls morph from snow white to a bit more yellow at the tips. It’s like following the sheep’s growth journey 😀

      I definitely try to use as much of the product as I can. The fibre that I can’t use from the fleeces I process is used as core wool for dryer balls, which I sell. Having a small business definitely keeps me on my toes!

      Before I even finished reading about your alpaca experience, I must confess I was already laughing – I pretty much guessed what was coming. You see, I’ve made the same mistake before! Camelids have hair, not wool, so it asks for a slightly different processing method. Next time, simply brush it and use it as is, since alpacas like to “wash” in dust, but don’t produce lanolin. Once you have the finished item, then you may soak it gently 🙂

      (Fun fact about me: I have a slight hair phobia. This means my disastrous alpaca-washing experience was also terrible for me, since the animal’s hair really feels like human hair when wet – I told myself I’d never wash another alpaca for as long as I lived!)

  10. I was going to say that the fibre you can’t use would make good lining for a runner/string bean trench; it makes good hanging basket lining too; and the poopy bits could be soaked in a bucket of rain water to make organic liquid fertiliser before the fibres are composted, or left out for birds’ nesting material.
    Then I remembered that you’re in a flat with no garden, but perhaps the information will help some of the others.

    1. I do compost my food and have placed the poopy bits in it for the local council to use as they please 😉

  11. I’m very behind on this…but not on the poopy end🤪
    I was raising eyebrows & smirking at your ‘bit’ of plastic – having washed a fair number of fleeces. But, I’m full of shiny admiration for what you have achieved. Thankfully you have a large open space kitchen floor. We’ll done you.

    As others above, once I have sorted & portioned the fleece (outside) I have my own patented system which requires systematic logical rhythm of changing multiple containers in sequence….no interruptions please 🤨 generally this is done when I can dry the fleece (again outside).

    Like you I store my fleece in pillow cases (charity shop or car boot finds) BUT – I always turn the pillow cases inside out to prevent the fleece sticking into the seams & I always attach a shipping label to the cases with the breed name on.

    The words….’never again’ ring out loudly each time

    Looking forward to seeing your beautiful shiny crimped fibres & what you do with it. X

    1. Haha, you were definitely ahead of me on the bit of plastic 😀 How could I have been so silly?

      Isn’t it interesting how we all have our own methods of processing fleece? And, isn’t it doubly interesting that a non-fibre person doesn’t even begin to imagine there’s people out there who talk about this sort of subject?

      Ooh, turning the fleeces inside out, that’s clever! I’ve got to do that. Yes on the label, if I didn’t label it all I’d be lost, what with my goldfish brain 🙂

      “Never again” – curious what fleeces and tattoos have in common! x

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