Monday, 3 August 2009

My first encounter with raw fleece

After spending last weekend camped out at work, I had a great deal to get through this weekend, mostly in the form of chores. Saturday we did most of the housework that had been waiting for attention and took rubble from when the fireplace was enlarged to the tip. It had been sitting in rubble sacks in the shed since early June but this is really the first opportunity I've had to get rid of it.

While we were out, we stopped by Hobbycraft in Coventry because I was looking for some ribbon for a costume I have in mind.

I drifted around the ribbon aisle for a while inspecting many spools before finally settling on one red and gold ribbon which I'm hoping will compliment the cherry red linen I intend to match it to. Then I stepped around the corner into the next aisle to discover that Hobbycraft have a yarn sale on. Lots of yarns were reduced to half price and some had been reduced again to a third of their original price... These were wools we're talking about and ones I'd admired before - so naturally I picked up, er, eighteen assorted balls at 95p each.

My wool acquisition did not stop there.

Last Friday, just before the upgrade work that meant I had to stay in the office most of the weekend, a colleague gave me two bags of freshly shorn fleece. The lady in question has a smallholding and had offered me fleece from her small flock of Shetlands in the past and holding to her promise, brought in two of the best of this years sheering.

As she explained, unfortunately the heatwave at the beginning of June followed by the wet weather in July hadn't been kind to her sheeps' fleece, with some of them starting to lose it naturally. These were the ones that had looked most promising when they came off the sheep.

Unable to do anything with them last weekend, I took them home and put them in the shed, determined to have a go at cleaning a small sample as soon as possible.

Saturday afternoon, with the household chores and errands out of the way and heavy monsoon like rain pouring out of the sky, I decided to have a go. I'd googled and consulted my book (Start Spinning by Maggie Casey) which agreed with what I'd read on the interweb, so I was ready to go. Armed with rubber gloves and a laundry bag (the kind you use to protect delicates in the washing machine) I braved the torrential downpour and headed for the shed.

When I unwrapped the first fleece, I was in for a shock. I've seen how sheep live of course and I've seen raw fleece before, but this wasn't trimmed or skirted. It was raw in the truest sense of the word. The side that had been cut away from the sheep all soft and silky, but the locks were densely packed and full of grease, so that the outside looked squished and discoloured. The smell was the worst thing I think; coming from gentle odour of dirty sheep, huge amounts of lanolin and the liberal amount of dung attached to the wool that would have been around the sheep's hind quarters. I just hadn't realised how disgustingly filthy sheep are!

Suffice it to say that I waded in with gloved hands and pulled off the worse of the soiled fleece and discarded it. Then I pulled a small amount of wool off the fleece - which wasn't easy, the stuff didn't want to come away - and put it in the laundry bag before taking it up to the house where hot water awaited.

Having googled and read, I'd decided to use very, very hot water to scour the fleece and I think I made the right decision. By hot, I mean three boiled kettles worth hot with just a splash of cold. I added a liberal amount of normal dishwashing detergent so the water was green and greasy looking, then lay the bag of fleece on the top. I used an old wooden spoon to push it gently into the water and then left it alone for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, I repeated this wash stage, waiting another 20 minutes before throwing the water away. Next I began a rinse cycle, again with boiled water, a little cold and this time a dash of vinegar, which according to the book and interweb is supposed to counteract the alkaline detergent and bring the fleece back to life. 20 minutes later and I rinsed in clean water, same temperature as before...

Here it is during the final rinse, looking very much cleaner than it started out!

For the final stage, given that it was pouring with rain I decided to spin the fleece in the washing machine, setting it for a relatively gentle 700rpm. As I laid it out to dry, I was half expecting felt but although it did look compressed as it came out of the bag, it didn't have the compactness of felt. I left it alone to dry.

Next morning, with the sun out, I put the fleece out on the step to dry...

I also got the second fleece out of the shed and trimmed off the worst of the soiled wool as I'd done for the first. I got the first fleece out to compare it in its raw state to the stuff sitting on the back step and the comparison was stark. Even Dave commented how different it looked.

A close up of the fibres...

Washed, it smells slightly of washing up liquid and wool (as it should), but no dirty sheep smell. It isn't sticky and it will pull apart easily (unlike the original) and I am happy to handle it. There is still some dirt in there but compared to before, it is pristine. I can see some bits of grease or something in the fibre and I'm hoping they'll comb out when I come to carding it.

Having washed my first bit of raw fleece, I'm stunned by the suggestion in the book that I could spin it straight from the sheep (spinning in the grease). I just don't see how anyone could draft raw fleece easily, apart from the smell, the grease and the dirt, it was matted and sticky, meaning it wouldn't pull apart as the fibres just wouldn't slide past each other. If it had somehow been draftable, I hate to think what state my wheel would have been in after spinning it!

1 comment:

  1. It very much depends on the fleece,i have spun it straight but that was a very good fleece that had been properly trimmed and the worst bits removed.. probably helped that my fleece supplier was my aunt who also spun so knew what was wanted out of the fleece and how to treat it straight off the sheep.. no rolling the mucky bits up with it for ages first for instance. Different breeds have different levels of lanalin and stickyness and so forth.