Washing Raw Wool
Holly Shaltz, Fiberist
Many spinners today prefer to buy their wools already processed and ready to spin. Part of that is undoubtedly because it's fast and easy--"instant gratification". But partly it's because washing wool has a bad reputation: It's difficult, smelly, messy, hard to avoid felting, etc.
When I started spinning, there were very few prepared fibers available to spinners, and I knew of no custom carding mills. So I had to learn, through experimentation, good methods of washing wool. Fortunately, one of the first full fleeces I bought was a very fine wool. So I had early experience in washing fine wools effectively and learned to not be afraid of it.
Washing your own wool can make sense today. Even if you don't raise the sheep your wool comes from, it can be hard to resist the beautiful, if greasy, fleeces for sale at fiber shows, for example. Then you get that lovely wool home, look at it lurking in its bag or box, and wonder how to get it to spinning condition! Or you wonder how best to wash it, so you can save on shipping and processing charges if you decide to have it commercially processed.
Hopefully this article will answer all your questions. Washing wool isn't nearly as hard as it may seem. Really!
Potential Problems During Washing
The biggest fear most spinners have is the possibility of felting the wool. Felting occurs when the wool is exposed to some combination of the following factors: The wool is wet, is agitated, is exposed to heat, or is exposed to an alkali pH. Obviously wool must be exposed to water to wash it, and equally obviously the water must be hot to dissolve all the grease. But if agitation is held to a minimum and detergent is used rather than soap, which is often alkali, felting will be minimal if it occurs at all.
To be extra safe when washing very fine wools, or to minimize waste when you're planning to handcomb the washed wool, sausages work very well.
Another problem many spinners are not aware of is the possibility of the water not being hot enough, or there isn't enough detergent, to fully remove the grease in the wool. A fleece can feel quite clean when dry, only to become more and more sticky and stiff to the touch over the days or weeks after washing. This stickiness can make the wool hard to spin, and it attracts dirt which is then difficult to wash out. And cottage carding mills typically must charge to rewash sticky wool. This problem is readily solved by using enough detergent and water that is really hot the first time it's washed.
Preparing the Wool for Washing
The first step in washing wool is to prepare it for washing by skirting. This is the process of removing sections of wool which are damaged, too dirty, too coarse, or too contaminated with vegetable matter (VM) to bother using. Spread the fleece over a flat surface, look it over carefully, and remove:
Ideally, the wool will have been fully skirted before you buy it, but it's well to look it over carefully so you don't waste your time washing poor quality wool.
If you skirt a lot of wool, building a skirting table is a good idea. At its simplest, it is just a framework with screening of some sort attached, placed on a stand, upon which the fleece is laid for skirting. Much of the debris will fall right through the table.
The next step, and the most important in avoiding felting, is to place the wool in some sort of mesh bag--before it hits the water. This could be a bag used to ship potatoes or onions, for example. Small bags work for small quantities of wool, such as a pound. To wash an entire fleece, use several medium bags rather than one huge one which will hold 8 or 9 pounds of wool. It takes time for the wash water to penetrate to the center of the wool. If the wool is too compressed or simply too thick because it's all shoved in one bag, the water may not penetrate enough to get the center of the mass really clean.
Another concern is that there is space enough in your wash tub, bucket, sink, washing machine, or other receptacle for the washing process. One large bag may not fit, while several smaller ones can be washed in batches suitable to the size of the container.
If the wool is particularly encrusted with mud, don't give up on it. Give this wool a cold water soak (in its bag, of course) for a day before washing it--no detergent is needed in this presoak. Much of the mud will soften and rinse away.
You will have noticed that space is an issue when washing wool. If the water and detergent can't move through the wool, the wool won't get clean. At the same time, if the water moves too much through the wool, felt may result. The bags can be fairly full, but not crammed, to prevent felting and allow good cleaning.
Preparing the Wash Water
Now it's time to start your wash water. First, check the temperature of your hottest tap water. It should be at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit for coarse wools, and at least 160 degrees for fine wools. Lower temperatures are very likely to result in some of the grease being left behind in the wool. I wash a lot of wool, so I keep my water heater set higher than most people. I then augment it with kettles of boiling water, if needed, for fine wool washing.
Don't understimate the importance of really hot water when washing wool. Many authorities state temperatures as low as 110 degrees F will work. Maybe, in some situations where the fleece is not very greasy and is just shorn. But if the wool sits around for a time before washing, the grease begins to harden and is resistant to melting in the water. Also, fine wools have a waxy substance in addition to the lanolin, which needs a higher temperature. It's not possible to have the water be too hot in a home situation, as long as you don't use a pressure cooker on your wool! When you remember that the more times wool is handled in hot water, the more likely it is to felt, it makes good sense to use the hottest possible water right from the start.
A variety of containers can be used for washing wool. Dyepots, sinks, tubs including bathtubs, buckets, and even your washing machine can all be used. The washing machine is certainly the easiest when washing wool, but also must be watched more carefully to make sure that water doesn't pour onto the wool while the machine fills, and that it doesn't agitate while your wool is soaking.
Note: Some people warn against washing wool where the dirty water will go into a septic system. They say that the lanolin will redeposit in the septic tank and clog up the tank. My personal feeling is that the amount of detergent added to the water is crucial in keeping the grease in suspension. If it works for greasy dishes, why shouldn't it work for greasy wool? I first moved into a house with a septic system in October of 1997. We have not had any problems in our system due to washing wool and allowing the waste water to go down the drain and into the system. Only time will tell if this is OK. If you feel uncertain, you may want to find a different way to deal with the waste water from washing wool. Please be aware there are laws concerning the disposal of waste, or gray, water, and check with your local Health Department before proceeding.
Another problem mentioned by some is the possibility of the septic system or drains or both being clogged with loose bits of wool. I haven't seen this happen, but I bag my wool for washing, and never wash it after carding (wool tends to stay in the lock formation even when wet). If you don't bag your wool, you might want to look over your drains to see if some sort of mesh can protect them from wool clogs.
So, you've filled your container with hot water. Now it's time to add something to the water to bond with the dirt and grease. We wait to add the cleanser after the container is filled with water so we don't raise a lot of suds, which are hard to rinse out of wool.
Traditionally, soap has been used and recommended in older spinning books. Unfortunately, soap usually has an alkali pH, and alkalis can damage wool, making it more prone to felting and harsher to the touch. A vinegar rinse, widely suggested as a sort of antidote to soap, may 'cut' the soap residue on the wool, but will not reverse any damage done by soap.
Although our foremothers had no alternatives to soap, today we have a tremendous selection of detergents, which are neutral or slightly acidic in pH--both are fine for wool. They also have the advantage of not combining with minerals in the water to make soap scum on your wool or wash container--no vinegar rinse necessary.
There are still some pitfalls, however. Laundry detergents are a logical choice, but not necessarily a good one. Most laundry detergents contain "whiteners and brighteners" which can permanently affect the color of your wool, even if later it's dyed. In my experience, too, laundry detergents don't cut the grease very well--most clothes aren't very greasy, after all--and also harshens the feel of the wool compared to other detergents. I recommend against laundry detergents.
There are a variety of shampoo-like detergents some spinners use, formulated for washing wool, or for washing animals--even human shampoos have been used in washing wool. I find these products to be expensive and not terribly effective. There's a product called EcoScour that's being used in quite a few commercial carding milles. I have no personal experience with this cleanser, but hear good things about it. Contact your favorite carding mill to see about how to find this product if you want to give it a try.
Finally, my recommendation! I use liquid dish detergent exclusively. It's very readily available, relatively inexpensive, and if enough is used, in hot enough water, it's very effective at getting all the grease out of the fleece. I've tried a variety of brands. I personally have come to prefer Dawn, but have also found local 'no-name' brands almost as effective, so you can choose what you like best.
How much detergent do I add? This is a difficult question to answer with a hard and fast rule, so I won't try. In general, I put enough detergent in the water so that it feels slick to my fingers and changes color somewhat--becomes slightly cloudy or the color of the detergent added. This can vary from 1/4 cup to a couple of cups, depending on how much wool will be washed, how greasy it is, and how much water is being used. I would say at least one full measurnig cup of detergent for every four pounds of fine wool. It's better to put in too much than not enough! Experience will tell you how much is enough.
Washing the Wool
We are finally ready to add the wool to the wash water! With your wool in some kind of mesh bag, lay it on top of the hot water and detergent, and gently, slowly, immerse in the water by pushing down on it with a stick or something similar--don't use your hands unless you're wearing rubber household gloves, the water will burn you! If you were careful not to raise suds when you added the detergent, the wool should immerse quickly and easily. If the water is very sudsy, you may have to hold the wool down with your stick or a weight until it's wet through. Remember to be gentle, agitation is how good felt is made!
Let the wool soak in the water for a time. How long? Long enough for the water to thoroughly penetrate every part of the mass of wool, but not long enough for the water to cool. If the water goes below 160 degrees for fine wools, 140 for coarser wool, the grease may begin to redeposit on the wool, more likely if you didn't use enough detergent. Probably 15 minutes will suffice for coarser wools in quantities of a couple pounds or so. A bit longer for finer wools, or larger quantities. I seldom need more than half an hour.
If you want to wash several batches of wool without having to dump out your wash water, add a good amount of additional detergent each time, and some boiling water, to keep the temperature up and the detergent sufficient to latch onto dirt and grease. I've even wrapped a bucket in a wool blanket, to help keep it hot!
If you are using a washing machine, you probably can wash an entire fleece at one time, depending on the size of your machine and the size of the fleece. You will need a lot of detergent, and do check the temperature of the wash water. Some washing machines mix cold tap water with hot tap water when filling, even when set to 'hot'. Be
Draining and Rinsing
Your wool has soaked for a time, and you want to take it out. It will be hot and heavy, so be careful. It's a good idea to wear rubber household gloves at this point, to protect your hands. If you fold up their cuffs slightly, you can also keep water from running down your arms as you work.
Have ready a place you can set the wool to drain. Either in an empty bucket, tub, or sink, or on a draining rack of some sort. Draining allows much of the dirty wash water to leave your wool before beginning to rinse it. I like to let my wool sit for at least 10 minutes, but if I'm in a hurry and I have the rinse water already prepared, I do sometimes place the wool, still in its bag, in the rinse water without draining first, but this guarantees more suds to rinse out.
Spinners are commonly warned to not change the temperature of the wool too abruptly, for fear it will cause felting. I find this to not be a big concern. While I don't take wool from 160 degrees to 60 degrees, I don't worry about taking it to 100 degrees. Yes, even Merino and other very fine wools can handle that change of temperature, provided they are protected from agitation. If the wool is still bagged, it will be fine.
If I must use the same container to rinse my wool as I used to wash it, I first dump it out and rinse it well. I then fill it with warm water, 100-120 degrees. I put the wool in the water as before, but it can be quite a struggle to submerge the wool this time, as it's full of suds, no matter how careful I was to avoid the problem earlier. Basically, I end up just dunking the wool, slowly and gently of course, several times, then I let it sit on the surface of the water to cool for 15 minutes or longer. Since, at least in theory, all the grease has been washed out of the wool, the cooling of the wool is more important than heat at this point.
I do give my wool at least one more, often two more rinses after this, each one a little cooler until the final rinse is cold tap water. The wool should submerge reasonably well on the second rinse, and very easily on the third. If not, you may have either raised too many suds in the wash water, or may have actually used too much detergent.
The washing machine is very handy during all the drain and rinse phases, as you can spin out the wash and rinse waters while the wool is in the machine. Yes, you can, and it won't felt even fine wools. After spinning out the water, remove the wool before refilling the machine. You can also use other methods to wash the wool, saving the machine for spinning out, or for final rinsing of several batches of wool. I often do than on dyeing days--I rinse all batches of dyed wool at one time at the end of the day, having washed the batches individually as soon as they were dyed.
Drying the Wool
Drying wet wool is another task which has a bad reputation. One 'rule' I've heard is "Don't dry your wool in direct sunlight!" Well, where were the sheep for the year before they were shorn? As with many endeavors, drying wool yields to an exercise of common sense.
The fastest way to dry wool is set it outside, in the sun, on a surface of netting or something else 'holey', on a warm and breezy (but not too windy!) day. If I turn it once or twice, I can get an entire fleece dry in a couple hours. The only concern I have is to not place the wool where birds might 'drop in'--a much greater hazard than sunlight.
A drying rack, similar to a skirting table, greatly speeds wool drying whether indoors or out. Fish netting, nylon netting (illusion or tulle), those potato or onion bags, nylon window screening, chicken wire, etc, can be attached to some sort of lightweight framework, and then given legs or set on top of supports. If you make something of this sort, consider where you are most likely to dry wool in the wintertime, too. Over a bathtub, for example? Then make sure you build it to fit that area, and make it small enough to be portable indoors.
If you don't have a rack, wool will dry, indoors or out, draped over whatever reasonably clean surface is handy. Porch railings, deck chairs, picnic tables, fences when outside; looms, chairs, card tables, drying racks inside. Another no-no I've been told is to not place wool on or near heating vents and radiators, but I've dried wool successfully--and very quickly--in both places. Just don't use your clothes dryer's interior! Wet wool, tumbling in the dryer, will most likely felt. But if you're washing and drying clothes, and the top of the dryer is warm and not too dusty, that's another good place to dry your wool. When the wool no longer feels cool to the touch, it's dry enough to work with or store.
Storing Your Wool
Your wool is now dry--what comes next? If you don't plan to use your clean wool right away, it's a good idea to store it in a closed, but breathable, container, away from direct sunlight, heating/cooling vents, or areas that are subjected to extremes of temperature. Attics and garages are not great choices, and basements can be a problem due to humidity and bugs or both.
Sometimes the ideal can't be found, though, in which case I recommend you not store wool for long periods, but try to keep it moving through your studio. Just make sure you don't use plastic bags for long-term storage. They trap the moisture naturally present even in 'dry' wool, causing it to sweat on the insides of the bag, which can in turn lead to mildewing, felting, and even spontaneous combustion.
I make muslin bags to store my wool, both greasy fleeces and clean wool. A yard of muslin, very inexpensive at fabric stores, will make a large bag suitable for at least 5 pounds of clean wool. Old sheets may be used, too. Patch any holes, to help keep bugs out. Fold the cloth in half, sew up two sides, make a casing on the third edge, pass through a cord, and you have a drawstring bag that will last for years. I mark a large number on my bags--I'm up to 23 now!--using a wide-tip permanent marker, on both sides, so it's easier to identify the particular fleece I'm looking for.
In my studio, I keep a card file box filled with index cards to catalog my collection of wool. Each card has a sample lock of washed wool, along with information including which bag holds the wool, whether it's washed or grease, who I got it from, at what price and on what date, and its breed. I also note details about the quality of the wool that might not be noticeable from a small sample--for example, that the fleece is quite soft or a bit harsh. Even after I've used up all of a given bag of wool, I keep the card in a different location as a growing record of different types of wool, and the shepherds I bought the wool from.
Keeping bugs away is another concern when storing wool. I've been lucky, or else my muslin bags are a good barrier against insects. I've had skeins of yarn in baskets attacked, but never my bags of wool. I do use lavender in my stored wools, now, because I like the scent. I don't know if that has a deterrent effect on insects or not. I've heard bugs prefer dirty wools to clean, but since I've stored grease fleeces for as long as 10 years, in my muslin bags, with no insect damage, I'm not sure of the truth of that 'fact' either. It's a mystery to me!
It's taken me about two hours to write this article. In that amount of time, I could have washed an entire fleece and had time left over! It takes much longer to explain washing wool than to do it. I hope this article encourages you to buy greasy wool and wash it yourself. You'll save a lot of money over the cost of having that wool commercially washed and prepared, and you have total control over the process. You will know exactly what was used on your wool, and exactly how it was handled. Quality is an attainable goal when you wash your own wool.