Last week we opened up our community page to trading raw fleeces between our members and we have received a lot of questions on how to go about cleaning it. Of course you can spin in the grease but that's not everyone's cup-of-tea and if you hope to card you need to clean off the natural waxes and oils (that stuff called lanolin that is sometimes in hand and baby bottom creams) to keep your carders in good working order.
First of all, don't be tempted to try and clean a whole fleece in one go. You can just clean a fleece in small manageable batches and spin the first lot while the second lot is drying.
You don't need fancy equipment either.
Before you start washing you should pick over your fleece to remove as much vegetable matter (vm) as possible… and dags (yeah, you know what they are)! You may also like to divide your fleece up into different sections. Some sections of the animal’s fleece are finer than others. Some areas will have sun bleaching and have weaker fibres while other sections may be more matted such as around the haunches and lower sides or wherever the animal has rubbed against the ground etc. Further details on how to divide up your fleece and identify the best bits can be found in the Ashford Book of Hand Spinning available here.
This very sexy black alpaca fleece grown in Albury NSW from my dear friend Rachael had very little VM and was pretty clean. Vegetable Matter is just bits of grass, twigs and sometimes seeds that get caught in the animal's fur in the paddock.
Some spinners will save the best quality sections of a fleece for some lace spinning or babywear and use the other sections for outerwear or felting while the really rough stuff is good for stuffing for pet bedding etc. For your first few fleeces don’t stress to much; enjoy the process and blend it in together if you want to. You will learn more as you go along.
What fleece to start with eh? The answer is always the first one you can get your hands on! Haha! Alas, mine was a very greasy fine merino. That meant there was a lot of natural waxes and oil to melt and wash out. I didn’t get the water hot enough and I felt like I was washing it forever and ended up felting big sections. Meh! We all have to start somewhere! Merino is one of the hardest to clean as it is very fine, felts a treat and has a very high wax and oil content, it’s similar for Corriedale too.
If this is a worry to you I do suggest starting with a Huacaya (short haired) alpaca fleece. They aren’t greasy like sheep fleece and are a lot less likely to felt with over-handling as the fibres have smaller scales than sheep fibres. I say Huacaya because they are the short haired variety of Alpaca. Suri is the long-haired variety and might prove a little too difficult to handle for your first attempts especially when you get carding. I process Huacya fleeces the same as I do my merino fleeces except they take less rinses/soaks and can handle cooler water.
This merino fleece from Chiltern VIC has beautiful crimp and is about a 18 micron. It is almost 'crunchy' with lanolin (greasy) and you can smell it. The lighter sections at the end of the staples are the tips that have been exposed to the sunlight and have been naturally bleached lighter.
As our community members have pointed out, Alpaca fleece can have a higher percentage of vegetable matter in it as alpacas do like to have a bit of a roll and a frolic in the paddock and can we blame them?! I still find it easier to shake and pick vegetable matter out of an Alpaca fleece compared to a greasy sheep fleece though. Alpacas do also have 'guard hairs' which are longer wiry hairs poking up above the soft fibres, see them in the photo below? You can pull them out by hand or leave them in. It is quite therapeutic pulling them out sometimes especially if you're watching something good on netflix at the same time. Haha!
Note the long guard hairs poking up out of the top of this alpaca fleece staple.
The guard hairs have been removed from this staple of alpaca fleece.
It's up to you what fleece you start with. Don't be afraid, just give it all a go to determine your own preferences.
I have 4 of these baskets which I have drilled holes through the bottom of for extra drainage.
I lay the staples of my fleece in the basket in rows all facing the same way. This does seem to reduce the risk of felting and if you are careful they'll come out the same way. Mine don't haha!
Resist over-filling the baskets because you need the water to permeate all the fibres and room to wash out the waxes and oils. You may have seen that others use washing bags instead of plastic baskets. These can work well too but with my own testing I always manage to felt a bit when using these bags; I’m a bit of a rough-nut!
Fill your bathtub with the hottest water you can to the level that will be at the top of your baskets. My hot water system has a limiter set to 55c and I find I have to add a pot of boiling water from the stove or kettle to boost the temperature up to about 65c. You need that extra heat to melt the natural wax (lanolin) in sheep fleece, especially merino. Put extra water on to boil in case you need to add more. Then add a really generous squirt of washing up liquid or a professional scouring detergent to the water. I often use budget dish liquid which works fine. I add about a tablespoon per 100g of raw fibre. Yes that is a lot but it requires a lot to tell that lanolin who’s boss!
With washing gloves on, lower your tubs of fleece into the water and push the fibres down gently to saturate. You want to avoid agitation as much as possible or it will felt your fibres. Then leave fibres to soak for 20 mins. Check the water temperature during this time, you don’t want it to go below 60c so add hot water from the stove or kettle taking care not to pour it directly on your fibres. If I'm only washing alpaca, I don't bother trying to keep the temperature up mind you.
Here are my 3 baskets of fibre after only 2 minutes in the bath. You can see dirt already starting to leech into the bath water. The top basket is the merino and the bottom 2 are the alpaca.
After 20 mins you drain the bath. Lift your baskets out to drain, I prop mine over each end of the bath with a dowel rod at one end to support them.
Ahh... fantastically filthy bath water from the first wash.
Then refill the bath with hot water to 65 degrees or more. You want to avoid putting your fibre in cooler water as this will felt it. Add the same amount of detergent and repeat the 20 minute soak maintaining the heat with added water as before. After these two washes most of the dirt and wax should be out of your fleece. But if it is a particularly greasy fleece I wash it 2 more times for the same duration reducing the washing liquid by half on the 3rd wash and then not adding any washing liquid on the last wash. After the final wash/rinse, I drain the bath and then carefully push down on my fibres to remove some of the water. The alpaca was done with just 2 washes, the merino needed a 3rd go so I moved it to the kitchen sink where I could get the water hotter and not have to use so much water for just 1 basket.
Some will advise rolling your fibre and squeezing in a towel to help dry it quicker, I don’t do this as my kids generate enough washing ha! I peg some nylon netting or old curtain fabric over the top of my clothes drying rack ( or cot side propped on chairs) and then spread my fleece over it to dry in the sun and air.
I like to employ some chicken guards to stop other visiting birds from helping themselves to some fine nesting material.
I rotate it over every now and again to make sure it’s drying evenly. In summer this can take 1 to 2 days. In winter it takes about 4 or more if you accidentally leave it out at night. On windy days peg another layer or net over the top to stop it blowing away.
And that’s it! Lovely cost effective fluff to play with! You can now dye it, card it, spin it or felt it. Whatever your heart desires! It feels so good to process a fleece from raw to finished garment too. Even if you only do it once. Be proud!
Given it a go? Have any tips? We'd love to know! Comment below or over on our community page:
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Hand made tastes best, using the finest ingredients we have a few sugar free treats to inspire you this Easter. xx Aunt Jenny