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Processing a really dirty fleece, I mean really, really dirty…

Processing a really dirty fleece, I mean really, really dirty…

So many of us can’t resist a decent free fleece.  We all know that with a little work and water most fleece can produce some lovely fiber, right?  Early summer makes for full on fleece washing season.  I have two cheviot cross fleece that need to be washed before fall.  I use rain water as much as possible to rinse the fleece.  By rain water I do mean torrential down pours from thunder storms.  But lately we’re not getting rain unless it’s accompanied with horrific wind.

When I wash a fleece I leave it dry where ever I can find a space.  This fleece was particularly large, so it took up a lot of the deck.  I had to improvise by using net hangers.

Old lawn chairs that were past their prime

And a plant trellis I found at the local discount store which was particularly useful because it expands and then fold up for easy storage.

This cheviot is a cross with some other unknown breed.  It’s primarily for meat and was left to fool around in the fields and in the barn.  There is straw, and other bits of crud embedded in the top of the fleece, lots of lanolin protected the sides and under belly, so the majority of the fleece is decent condition. It was a lamb so there was amniotic tip damage as well as sun damage. But some of it was very nice, lovely and crimpy, as well as very soft.

Because the fleece was so questionable the only way I would ever consider processing this was with combs.  Combs have a tendency of breaking any fiber that is at all fragile.  This is exactly what I wanted to do with this fleece.  The combs would remove the damaged tips, trap the straw, manure, and other debris.  The major downside of using combs is wastage.  It would be huge on a fleece like this.  The other choice would be to hand tease the fibers from the debris, card and then spin the wool into yarn.  The end product would be a decent yarn, but I suspect it would be a bit fragile.  The fleece was just not worth that much work.  So out came the combs.

I have a few sets and am a firm believer in getting the best tools you can afford for the job at hand.  It won’t hurt you at all to get really beautiful tools either, its good for the soul. I did a test using my light combs, made by Roger Hawkins.  Sadly, these are no longer being manufactured, so I cherish the ones I have.  This is one of the reasons I only did a test with these little ones.  The wool was too dirty and too coarse for these combs.  The results were extremely good, but the output was tiny.

So I cracked out the larger set.  These need to be clamped to the table because they can take a lot of pulling and tugging when the combing gets a little rugged.  This set was made by Alvin Ramer, again these are not being manufactured anymore either.  One of the most important differences between the two sets is that the smaller set are relatively safe.  The tines are not sharp.  These are the ones I can safely and comfortably use while watching a movie or talking with someone.  On the larger set the tines are extremely sharp and must be used carefully.  Combing must be done at  90 degrees to the tines.  Some people think you comb down on the tines.  You do not; you comb across the tines.

This shows you the quantity of wool that can be loaded onto the larger comb.  It is locked into the block, which is clamped onto the table.  The other comb will be used in a downward motion to comb out the wool.  You can also see why this fleece is worth the work,  just look at that staple length!!

I did say there was lot of wastage – after three times getting combed this is what I threw into the compost, per combing.  So, I would comb once and there would be a tangled mess left behind.  That was removed and thrown out.  The wool was combed again, the tangle was removed and thrown out.  The wool was combed again, and once again, the tangle was removed and thrown out.  Finally the wool was dized off and turned into roving. The estimate for wastage is going to be 35% – 45% on the washed fiber.  The wastage on an unwashed fleece is anywhere up to 50% by weight. The final tally is wastage of approximately 65%.  I have to really estimate high because of straw, manure, lanolin and skirting.

The diz can be anything with a suitable hole.  Some people use buttons, I like this shell because it’s concave.  It needs to be turned as you diz to catch the little bits along the edge.

You need to see the difference in size between the two combs.  I have a third pair, but they are safely stored away.  They are the four pitch, sometimes called English wool combs that I used when processing Cotswold fleeces.

I really like the end result of combing.  It takes time and a bit of patience.  It also takes muscles that I forgot I had.  But it’s a wonderful way to salvage an unsalvageable fleece.  It’s a great way to enjoy a garden, park or private space while listening to birds, children playing in a pool, or a book, or music.  The fleece really was pretty awful, but the results are great.  I did a couple of test spins, singles, two ply and three ply.  The wool is resilient and bouncy.  It should dye nicely and ultimately be useful.


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