Washing wool is kind of like baking bread – there’s very little action, a good amount of waiting around, and everybody does it slightly differently.
I’ve had so many questions from all my lovely customers since opening up shop, I’ve decided to give a little run down about how I handle my fleeces. This is by no means the ultimate and only way to wash fleece – but it’s what works for me at home, and it’ll give you a good jumping off point.
In this post I will specifically handle sheep wool, with additional posts coming later about camelids and other species as I get them in stock.
A word about lanolin…
The first thing to understand is that lanolin melts between 37-40C. Not all fleeces have tons of lanolin, but all of them have it in one concentration or another. Lanolin is the greasy substance you’re feeling when you touch a raw fleece – it’s a natural waxy material secreted by sheep in order to help protect them from the elements (water and snow). Some people enjoy spinning with lanolin still in it – and in fact traditional Aran yarn includes higher amounts of lanolin to help aid in keeping the sweaters made from it more waterproof.
While lanolin does melt at a balmy 37-40C, those temps are best utilized if you have a centrifuge. I’ve found that if you have your bath water hovering around 40C the lanolin has a chance to redeposit while your fleece is soaking, so upping that water temperature is important for a home wash.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll assume that you want to get that lanolin out – which is how I generally process myself. With the lanolin will come the dirt and crud that’ll be present in the fleece too.
A word about soap…
While laundry detergent may seem like an obvious choice, it’s best to avoid. Laundry detergents often contain all sorts of other ingredients that brighten colours, or whiten whites. These can have deleterious effect on wool, often making the wool seem rougher and more brittle after your wash. All you want from a wool wash is something that removes grease but is very gentle otherwise, and remains at more or less a neutral pH.
In a pinch, Dawn dish detergent will work, but I’ve found you have to use massive amounts of it, it creates a lot of suds (requiring more rinsing) and your wool is left with quite a strong smell. If you’re like me, and you enjoy a clean fleecy smell, Dawn will completely eradicate that, and your wool will end up smelling like – well, clean dishes.
The best wool washes I’ve found are Orvus Paste and Unicorn Power Scour. Both keep the water at a neutral pH (which is what you want, in order to avoid damaging wool fibres), and have very little sudsing action – also something you want so your fleece is easier to rinse. Orvus paste has no scent, and Power Scour has a scent free option.
Orvus Paste is a semi-solid soap that comes in a giant 7.5lb jug, and is available from farm supply shops. It’s primarily used for washing down horses and cows for show. Unicorn is a delicate concentrated liquid that’s made specifically for breaking down grease and proteins.
We’ll go through step by step below, using my materials and what I use at home. It should be easily adaptable to your set up.
- Wool Wash
- Hot water (around 70C)
- Trugs/large shallow buckets/laundry sink
- Dishwashing gloves
Step 1 – Prep
The first step is to decide how you want to spin your yarn. If you’re looking for a worsted prep, I’ve found it best to separate the locks and lay them all out in a neat fashion. This will help retain lock structure, which will help with hand combing. If you want a woollen prep, preserving lock structure isn’t as important, and you don’t have to be quite as organized with how you wash. Either way, take the fleece and place it in the laundry bags – locks neatly stacked, or whole sections of fleece – this will help keep everything together in the bath regardless.
Tip – if the cut end of the fleece is quite dense, give them a little tease with your fingers. This will let the fleece move around more easily in the wash, and help prevent lanolin from redepositing.
Step 2 – The WashNow that you have your wool organized and in your mesh laundry bags, take your trugs (or laundry sink) and turn on the hot water – don’t even bother with the cold, just get that water as hot as you can. Most home water will come out at about 60-80C, which is right where you want it. Mine at home is about 70C. Once you fill up the trug, put in your soap. If you do it before, the water will suds up more, making more rinsing necessary, so make sure to put it in after you’ve filled up your container.
How much soap, you ask? It’ll vary a bit with each fleece, but generally I put in about 1 heaping tbsp to 3-4L of water. You can eyeball it here – no need to be super exact. If you want to know if you have enough, give a quick (very quick – that water is hot!) feel with your fingers. The water should feel slightly slick with soap.
Then take your laundry bags full of lovely fleece and gently submerge them in the water. The water will be VERY hot, so it’s safest to not use your hands, even with dishwashing gloves on. Paint sticks from a home supply place work great, or any kind of doweling you can get your hands on. Don’t be too aggressive – you don’t want to felt your fibre, and some will felt much more easily than others like fine wools (eg. Merino). Others can take a big more rough handling, like down breeds (eg. Suffolk and Cheviot).
Depending on how dirty your fleece is, you may want to let it sit anywhere from 20-30 mins. For my dirtiest fleeces, I let it go up to 35 but will change out the water and wash again rather than let the water get too cool – that’s where you run the risk of letting the lanolin redeposit.
Your water will look really dirty – dirtier than you expected – but that’s good! Your first wash will be where the majority of the dirt comes out.
Set your timer, and walk away, let the warm soapy water do its work.
Step 3 – Draining the Wash
Since all your fleece is in laundry bags, draining is a pretty painless process. Just pop your bags out of your wash once the timer is up and place to the side. I give mine a very gentle squeeze to get a lot of the water out – again, don’t be too aggressive or you’ll have a partially felted fleece.
Next, dump your dirty water.
Step 4 – The Second Wash
I usually give all my fleeces two washes. The first wash gets out most of the dirt and muck, and the second will get out most of the remainder. For this wash follow step 2 again, but this time use half the soap you used the first time – about 1/2 tbsp to 3-4L of water. I usually set my timer at this point for a shorter soak – 15-20 minutes should do it unless you’re dealing with an extremely dirty fleece, in which case I’ll leave it for another 30 minutes. You’ll notice at this point that the water is a lot less brown than your first wash.
Step 5 – The Rinse
Drain that wool again like you did between the two washes, squeezing out the water gently without agitating too much. Time to fill that trug up again with hot water (remember, always use hot), but this time leave the soap out. Once it’s full, push your fleece in again, and it’s time for another soak. I’ll leave mine for about 20 mins, then drain, then another 20 min soak. At this point, your soap should be more or less rinsed, but if you find that you’re still seeing soap bubbles when you squeeze the water out of your fleece, give it a go for a third rinse in hot water.
If you live in a place with hard water (as I do) two rinses should do it – if you’re lucky to live with soft water you may be able to get all the soap out with one rinse. The more washes you do, the better idea you have of how much rinsing your wool will need.
Step 6 – The Spin & Dry
The first thing you’ll need to do for this step is to determine if your washing machine has a spin only cycle, or if it spins with periodic water jets. If it’s spin only, you’re in luck, the time for your fleece to dry will be considerably shorter. If your spin cycle sprays water at any point, skip this step and just place the bags out to dry, otherwise you’ll have a felted fleece mess.
After squeezing out your wool on the last rinse, pop all your bags into the washing machine, and turn on your spin cycle. Don’t remove the fleece from the laundry bags at this point – you want to keep that as neatly tucked away as you can. It’ll help your locks stay in order, and it’ll prevent any damage to your machine with bits of wool getting stuck in the drum.
But won’t they felt even without the water, you say? It won’t! Wool needs both water and agitation to felt. In a spin only cycle your machine will act as a centrifuge, spinning the water away without actually moving the bags around that much, thus you have the lack of agitation, and your fleece will stay unfelted.
Once the spin cycle is through pop the bags out and put somewhere to dry. In the summer I leave mine outside in the sun and it’ll be dry in a few hours. In the winter, I leave them indoors and somewhere warm where they dry in about a day. I live in a particularly dry climate, so if you’re living on the coast or in a more humid part of the country, your drying time will take a bit longer.
And there you have it! Now your fleece is ready for your prep and spin or felt. If you have any questions I’m more than happy to help – shoot me a message on the contact page.