The last time I tried to wash a fleece, I didn’t exactly meet with disaster per se, but it ended up being rather complicated for a proper explanation. Luckily, I’ve gotten a second chance!
This dorset is ten pounds of greasy white glory, and because I know you are so interested, I will show you step by step how it lost its lanolin and became a much lighter, cleaner fleece.
Let me preface that pretty much everything I learned about cleaning a fleece in a washing machine came from this article, which is very clear and detailed. But it doesn’t have pictures, so here’s what it looks like!
Step 1 is skirting.
I laid the whole fleece on the floor (do not do this if you vacuumed recently), trying to keep it one piece. The icelandic fleece I cleaned a few weeks ago was still all in one piece, but this time I wasn’t so lucky. Of course, the icelandic was completely fused together on one side with burrs, so I’m not complaining. Whether your fleece comes out of your bag in one piece affects only the convenience of skirting, but it’s not a big deal.
Skirting is taking the yucky parts out of the fleece. If the fleece was in one piece, the outer parts would be the parts that were closer to the ground while on the fleece, so you can see that in that case you’d be taking off an outer ring or “skirt” from the fleece. Since I didn’t have a one-piece fleece, I just went through the whole thing by hand. Note: this would be a good time to put on rubber gloves unless you are really okay with the idea of getting sheep poop under your nails. You see how much I cared about this.
This first step in the process is also when you will start picking undesireables out of the wool. Your main goal in skirting is to get rid of poopy bits (called “tags” by the polite) and the bits with lots of dark dirt that isn’t going to come out in the washing. But while you’re at it, you can start picking out second cuts and VM. What I’m holding in the picture above is not a white poop, but a “second cut” – when the shearer missed a spot the first time and had to come back and clip again. These little bits are useless for handspinning, and will in fact make ugly little nupps if you try to include them at the end, so pick them out when you see them. I also started picking out hay and stuff (called VM – vegetable matter – by the fiber in-crowd). This is not the time to be exhaustive with the VM and second cuts – you will drive yourself crazy if you try. But during each step in this process, pick out what presents itself to you. Depending on how dirty your fleece is, you may still be picking those bits out as you spin the yarn! Or as with the icelandic, you may give up and end up spinning some VM into the yarn. That is not a yarn I will be wearing against my neck.
After I was done skirting, I still had a very substantial amount of fleece ready for the washing machine in step 2.
Step 2 is what I call the hot soak.
Here’s the thing to know before you wash fleece in your washing machine: The ingredients for removing grease from wool are hot water + soap. The same as washing your hands, or really anything else. The tricky thing is that the ingredients for making felt are hot water + soap + agitation. So, if you don’t want to end up with a giant felt tire swing, you have to watch your washing machinelike a hawk to not let it agitate at all while there is fleece in it. With that in mind, here’s how I did it.
First I filled the washing machine with HOT water on the highest water setting. I added a large load’s worth of detergent and let it agitate for a minute or so to dissolve the stuff. Then I turned the machine OFF.
Being gentle and careful, I put the fleece into the machine. I pushed it under water with a broom handle, as that water is really hot. You don’t want to totally stuff your machine, but this machine handled one skirted fleece just fine. I poked it gently a few more times to get the air out and make sure the whole thing was soaking.
Next is the easy part: walk away. I left the fleece for about an hour; the idea is to wait until the water is more or less lukewarm.
Step 3 is rinsing.
Once the water was lukewarm, after poking the fleece a little more, I put the machine on spin only, so it would drain. Don’t worry; this will not agitate the fleece near enough to felt it.
One of the perks of my new apartment, which I do not think I could have anticipated in any way whatsoever, is that right next to my washing machine is a linen sink (in itself a big perk) into which the washing machine empties when it drains. You might not think this is a perk, but if you care about what your wash water looks like when it drains, it’s pretty great.
That’s all grease that used to be in the fleece. It’s SO GROSS. Isn’t it AWESOME?
But this sucker ain’t clean yet. Next I set my washer to WARM, and filled it again. Here’s where the hawk-watching comes in: Don’t let it agitate. (No, I don’t think I’ve repeated that point enough.) Let it fill with water, poke it a bit more, and drain it again with the spin only cycle.
Still gross, but getting better. Depending on how dirty a fleece is, it may only need one warm rinse, but it may need up to 3.
I was happy with the rinse water after two warm rinses. No need to overdo it; it’s ok if some natural lanolin stays in the wool. The dirt is more or less taken care of. I put it through an extra spin cycle at the end, just to get out all the moisture possible.
Step 4 is drying! Outside is best, in the sun if you want. Drying racks are useful, but a Star Wars sheet will do just as well.
I will warn you, though, that if you choose to leave your fleece out to dry overnight, if you wake up and the fleece is wet and the ground is dry, or vice versa, you may be forced to go to war against some Amalekites. In my case, it rained, so all I was forced to do was bring the wet fleece back inside and wait longer for it to dry.
That’s it! It’s really not so bad, and quite effective as far as I can tell. If any more experienced fibery folks are reading, I hope you’ll weigh in with your experiences and suggestions.