Processing Wool Fibers By Hand - from raw wool to pre-carding
This page gives a brief description of the process of washing raw wool, up to the point where it is ready to card. I am an animal lover and have had pets of all kinds all my life, however, I have never owned sheep or llamas or alpacas. When I first started buying raw wool, I didn't know what to expect. Wool rovings are fully prepared for spinning, and as such are "fairly" expensive to buy. Being frugal, I decided to look into buying wool as a fleece. This is the most economical way to buy wool, right after it has been sheared from the animal. This is also the way to learn how dirty a sheep can get. :)
Below is a photo of a bag of raw wool. This is from the sheep breed Texel, not yet a dominant breed in the U.S., but it is one in Europe, specifically Ireland, and being of Irish descent, I thought it would be a great wool to try. The bag holds about 3 pounds of raw wool. Texel is similar to Merino in that the lanolin in the wool turns its color to an orange-beige while on the sheep. The tips of raw wool get the dirtiest, even with the best-kept sheep. The lighter areas of the wool are the fibers that are the most newly-grown on the animal.
Not everyone keeps their sheep the same - some are kept on pastures, some in barnyards, and some sheep are free-range, meaning they wander over larger areas. This also applies to other animals such as llamas, alpacas, and Angora goats. So, when buying a fleece or raw wool, it is wise to check out the animal's home conditions if possible, because it will affect how dirty a job you have ahead of you in preparing the wool. The Texel below was what I would call "very clean" by sheep standards. There was vegetable matter and dried dirt and other barnyard soil, :), but it was in a moderate amount compared to the amount of wool. The amount of these materials determines how difficult the task of washing is. The actions needed aren't difficult, but the dirtier the wool, the longer it takes to get it to the condition required prior to carding it. If your first soaking of the wool yields black water, there are manure "tags" in with the wool. These will dissolve in the very-warm to almost-hot water, but an additional soaking may be required.
Three pounds of fairly clean Texel wool fiber
Below is a photo of the first step in washing the wool, letting it soak. This particular photo is of Rambouillet sheep wool.
Dirt and other contaminates will either dissolve or rinse out, but it usually takes at least two or three soakings.
Wearing rubber gloves, I place the wool in a container filled with very warm (almost hot) water and Ivory liquid dish soap. Any gentle liquid soap will do. Again, depending on the amount of soil, this first soaking can be from 2 hours to an overnight soak. You can judge by how dirty the water gets when the next soaking should start.
The first two soakings generally produce fairly dirty water. In between these two, I continue to wear rubber gloves and use a stick (or two) to gently move the wool around in shallow water to loosen up the soil. Too much agitation of the wool at any stage is harmful to the fibers. I also spray the wool with clean water at this stage. Only the first soaking is very warm water for fairly clean wool- after that I use lukewarm to cool water. If manure tags are present, there are at least two soakings of very-warm to hot water. In my opinion, it is better to put the wool through additional hot-water baths, than it is to take a chance on not removing all traces of manure tags. After rinsing at the end of each soak, I fill the container again for a longer soak, and repeat the process. By the third soaking, the wool is white or its lighter color, and the only foreign matter that remains is hay or sticks or other vegetable matter that is clinging to the wool and will need to be carded out, unless, as mentioned above, additional soaking was needed.
Rambouillet wool in a second soaking
Below is a photo of the Texel wool after the second soaking. Although it looks very clean, there is still dirt trapped under the weight of the wool, and it will get another soaking. The yellowish areas are little pockets of lanolin still in the wool.
Texel after the second soaking
After all of the soaking is complete, I gently squeeze the wool to remove any excess water. Below is a photo of the washed Texel wool at this stage. I then lay it out evenly on a towel or blanket to dry naturally. In other words, I treat it like my favorite sweater, using little agitation in the washing, and gentle care in the drying.
Clean Texel wool, ready to be carded
A basketful of Merino, waiting to be carded.
Wool can be stored with a dried lavender sachet - to naturally repel moths and other insects:
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To see the yarn yields from a pound of wool - see these links:
The Yarn Count - http://www.knitting-and.com/spinning/ycount.htm
Spinning Count - http://www.rockysheep.com/spincount.htm
Wool Grades - http://cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_b/B-409.pdf
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