Fleece Preparation 3 Ways - and some Skirting

At our picnic last month Nicola, Madeline and Inge spoke about ways of dealing with raw fleece. We found that we had worked very differently with our recent fleeces, and we thought it might be interesting to compare these ways in a blog post.

There can be many reasons for choosing a particular way of preparing a fleece for spinning. Some reasons for scouring (washing) the fleece that came up were: the quantity of fleece that needs to be prepared within a particular time frame, the space available for washing (a whole fleece as described by Nicola, or small parts of a fleece as described by Madeline and Inge), the quality of the fleece and how clean it is, and the personal preference for one or other way of working. We may also have a particular way of spinning in mind which can guide us in the final steps before spinning.

Madeline

I have been asked by Inge to describe how I sort a fleece. I did tell her I didn't think anyone would do it like I do, but after a lot of arm twisting I gave in so, here goes.

The first thing to do is to unroll the fleece and give it a good shake which will release any loose rubbish. Then lay it skin side down and remove any unpleasant back end bits and any coarse bits that would spoil the end product.

Then get a cardboard box and put newspaper in the bottom. Next pull a lock off the fleece and with a dog  comb, comb the lock towards the tip, teasing out the weathering. Then turn it round and comb towards the butt end, getting rid of any second cuts etc. This is then placed in the box and others are treated the same and placed in rows. When the box is full it is time for washing.

Alpaca, sorted, ready for washing.

I fill a sink with hot water and add washing up liquid, take a lock, swiddle and squeeze it in the water, turn it round and do the other end, lay it on the draining board in rows. When that's full I rinse them all in hot water in the same manner and then lay them on a towel and squeeze most of the water out. I am fortunate to have a Rayburn on which I then throw a dry towel and line up my locks on top to dry. When dry they are put in another cardboard box with newspaper, in rows all the same way up. This makes it easier to put them on the hand carders. After carding another box is brought into play for the rolags.

Romney, sorted, washed and ready for carding.

Romney, sorted, washed, carded and ready for spinning.

The boxes don't have to be big, a shoe box can hold quite a lot of fleece and processing a box full at a time makes the work less tedious.

Fleece, at any stage, if kept in completely sealed boxes, lined with newspaper, will keep in good condition for many years.

Yes, it's time consuming but the more care taken in preparation the better the end result.

I was taught to sort fleece by the lady who taught me to spin, a perfectionist. Old Archers fans will know what I mean when I say she was a 'Mrs Antrobus' figure.

PS: Left to my own devices I would prefer to spin in the grease, keeping a closer connection with the sheep, in which case I would do the same but miss out the washing.

Inge

After consulting many books and internet sites in order to learn about ways of preparing and washing raw fleece I found a way that suited me and this specific fleece. This Romney fleece was quite sticky and didn't release much dirt when shaking. It had quite a lot of staples that needed discarding, and there was a lot of vegetation matter and second cuts present. There were also many little white flecks present at the cut ends.

As a newbie to fleece washing I decided to do a little experiment with the staples from different parts of my fleece, including the very mucky ones.

A selection of the staples of my Romney fleece.

The same staples in lukewarm water - the water does not easily penetrate the tips, especially not the very mucky tips, the little white flecks are visible at the cut ends.

I discarded the very worst parts of the fleece, with regard to both muck and vegetation matter.

A small part of the fleece that I kept for further processing.

Having just placed parts of the fleece in hot water with our normal light-weight detergent for my first couple of batches, it seemed that I needed to do further preparation before washing.

My final preferred method was to loosely open the tips, then place a large amount in a basket that would fit into an old cat tray. Using a basket or other open mesh container helps to not agitate the wool, which might lead to felting. The cat tray was filled with hot water (about 60ÂșC or slightly hotter) and detergent added - I had read that the water needed to feel slippery with the detergent (Fairy liquid seemed to clean very well and much better than our usual detergent), and one should be careful not to make suds. The basket with the fleece was lowered into the hot water and left for 20 minutes. It was then lifted out of the detergent bath, drained slightly and lowered into a clean water bath.

The staples of this portion of fleece has been loosely opened in order for better penetration of the water, resulting in more dirt coming out.

The same amount of fleece having been submerged in hot soapy water, with a second tray for the rinsing bath.

After a couple of clean water baths - same temperature and same length of time - I drained the wool and pressed the water out, placed it on a dry towel, rolled this up and stamped on it to dry the wool as much as possible. Finally, the cleaned wool was spread out on a herb dryer, where several layers of wool can be dried at the same time.

Processing the washed wool

The dried wool is quite matted together, I decided to pull out the individual staples.

Staples have been pulled out of the washed fleece, with the resultant waste shown to the right.

There is still a lot of vegetable matter and white flecks in the staples, and the fine tips are still closed.

To open up the staple tips and remove anything unwanted I decided to use a flick carder.

This produced some lovely soft pieces of wool as well as a further lot of waste material.

Remaining wool to flick. I wish to process all this fleece before spinning, so still a way to go.

Nicola

After reading Inge's and Madeline's very careful and expert methods of fleece preparation I am a little hesitant to offer my somewhat more gung-ho method for consideration, however, I do plead pressure of fleeces! I now have half of last year's shearing (Covid having prevented me getting to Wales for shearing and sorting, and getting there over last summer to start washing and further preparation was impossible) plus all of this year's - and my daughter bought five more Shetlands this year so I have rather a heap of them!! I should add that most of the flock are feral and live in quite an acreage of rough grazing/woodland/heathland and are experts at collecting every piece of bracken, bramble and sundry other items including, weirdly, quite a quantity of beetles, that they can find!

As soon after shearing as possible, I go through all the fleeces, shaking out as much of the debris as I can - everything they have collected themselves during the year, plus what gets added while they are being sheared, and from the ground where they are thrown by the shearer. (He usually does this small flock at the end of the day, this year having already sheared 500 elsewhere, so speed is paramount for him!). This also helps to dislodge some of the second cut bits. I then pack them into tonne builders' bags, roughly according to type. Olivia has a very mixed flock with multiple breeds and varying qualities of fleece.

When I have time and the weather is good, I dig into one of the bags and extract what I want. I lay the fleece on a large table and skirt it, taking away all the daggy/muddy bits from the edges. Some of the breeds have very coarse areas of wool which I remove along with any large pieces of vegetation. These nasty bits and the coarse bits are excellent in the garden for mulch although the Pembrokeshire slugs are hardcore and still manage to get to the vegetables unless the weather is very dry like this year.

I wash the fleeces in large feed tubs as they will hold a whole fleece, even the very large Zwartble ones. I fill the tub with very hot water and a squirt of washing up liquid (which, according to Sandy Hilly of the East Sussex Guild who taught me this method, should be of the cheap variety and definitely the green stuff and not anything fancy) and gently sink the fleece into it. If it is really dirty I might VERY GENTLY move it around a bit. This then stands for about 15 minutes by which time the water is the colour of a rather nasty gravy. I then fill a second tub with the same temperature hot water and just a small squirt of washing up liquid, remove the fleece from the dirty water, squeezing it out VERY GENTLY and put it into the second tub. This is then left to soak overnight.

The next morning I fill the first tub with cold water, squeeze the fleece out VERY GENTLY and rinse it. It usually requires several rinses to get rid of as much of the little bits of debris as possible. If it is lovely and hot and dry like this year I lay the fleeces out on lengths of fencing, netting wire or a couple of the wonderful wire mesh trolleys that my son-in-law acquired from a garden centre that was closing - perfect for the job and I can wheel them into the polytunnel if it looks like rain! In our discussion at the picnic Inge raised the question of the lanolin which may rise to the top while the water cools overnight - this does happen a bit, but since I am no expert when it comes to spinning it doesn't really affect my end result! On the odd occasion, if I have brought a fleece home to wash, I will put it in the washing machine in a tied-up pillowcase and spin it to speed up the drying process, particularly if the weather isn't helping.

I try to wash as many of the fleeces as I can, or at least as many as I hope to spin in the year, during the summer - they seem to store perfectly well in pillowcases in a dry place, and the unwashed fleeces don't seem to deteriorate in the builders' bags, well covered, in an outbuilding.

Just washed.

When I want a new fleece to spin, I first use the wonderful picker that I got from Phyllis.  This has changed my life as it separates the fibres brilliantly and dislodges vastly more of the dried bits of plant matter, thorns, beetles, etc. than washing and shaking does. It also cuts down the number of times I have to feed the wool through my drumcarder.

Picking.

After Picking.

My drumcarder is the coarse type and does a pretty good job if I put the wool through a couple of times but the less brilliant fleeces can still be a bit "nubble" although I am getting better at removing them as I spin.

Carding.

Finished batts - still a bit lumpy!

I am very much in awe of the beautiful yarn that Inge and Madeline produce, but being a realist, I realise that I haven't the patience (nor probably, the right kind of sheep!) to aspire to the same quality and so far, none of the recipients of the jumpers I have made have complained!

This time I have brought back from Wales four of the new Shetland fleeces, all washed and ready to pick and card, and I can't wait to see how they come out. They are the most wonderful colours - various tones of grey, one or two mixed with white, cream and fawn. Now if we could please have several days of warm dry weather so I can set up the picker and carder outdoors ...

Kate Skirting a Fleece

And finally a little treat - watch Kate skirting a fleece.



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