There’s no denying buying wool in the form of combed top is easy and convenient. The really hard work of scouring raw wool has been done for you, and even if you choose to wash it one more time before dyeing, it’s not too much of an effort. And there are good suppliers (such as the World of Wool) that provide wool of lots of different breeds for you to try. And if the fiber is short enough, you can still card it and spin it long draw for warmth and fluffiness.
Yet, there’s something wonderful about seeing and feeling wool exactly as it comes from the sheep. At this stage, you really sense the essence of that particular breed. You see the locks, you see the crimp – all of this will already be gone by the time the wool reaches the combed top phase.
For this reason alone, I would always prefer to buy my wool as raw fleece, if only there wasn’t that one big drawback – the time, effort, energy and water it takes to get it clean. It is a big question if all that effort is justified and the best use of your limited time, energy and resources.
In July, at the Fibre East festival, I had my first ever opportunity to buy a whole fleece. I normally have to rely on the internet to buy my wool, but online shopping is not ideal if you want to buy raw fleece, you just need to be able to see it and feel it to see what you are getting. So I was incredibly excited when DH kindly agreed to take me to Fibre East, a couple of hours of drive away from us.
And given that it is not often that I get this fleece buying opportunity, I couldn’t just stop at buying one, I bought five: 4 Shetland fleeces and one Manx Loaghtan (as well as a few other smaller lots). The Shetland fleeces came from the Shetland Sheep Society‘s stall, so the sheep will have been raised on the mainland UK, not actually in Shetland.
You might think buying five fleeces in one go is a bit excessive and I can’t say you would be entirely wrong. But there was a good reason for it. You see Shetland sheep are small, and each fleece only weights about 1-1.2kg, and after washing, you will be left with 700-900g of wool per fleece (which is still a lot of spinning, I do admit). But it comes in lots of different colours, so buying just one fleece wasn’t going to be enough for me, as I wanted several different colours, black, white, brown, grey…
So there I was, a proud owner of several bags worth of raw wool. As you can imagine washing so many fleeces has been quite a big project in itself. It took me several weeks over the end of the summer (and I still have some to do). And like anything, it has been a big learning experience too.
So what did I learn?
Whenever I’ve read an article or a blog post about washing fleece, it sounds so easy: soak it cold water overnight, wash it with a bit of washing up detergent, rinse it and if the water doesn’t run clear yet, repeat the process.
Well, my experience has been that is never quite that easy – I don’t think I’ve ever got away with just two rounds of washing, it always takes at least three, most often four rounds. I even bought specialist fleece washing detergent (Power Scour) to make it easier. It is pretty good stuff, I do like it as it leaves the wool wonderfully soft, but it still takes several rounds of washing.
It has taken me quite a bit of experimentation to find the washing method that has worked best for me.
Inside or outside? Raw fleece is typically very dirty, so washing it outside might be your preferred method. And if you wash your fleece outside, you can reuse the water by watering the flower beds with it afterwards. And if you have a water butt, you can save water by doing the initial soaking in the rain water from the butt (if the water in your water butt is clean enough, you can of course do the whole process with it).
But washing fleece outside makes the process physically more strenuous as you will be carrying lots of water around. Washing it inside would give you easier access to hot water, but it will be less easy to recycle the water in the garden. My own compromise on this is to wash the first couple of rounds outside, when the wool is most dirty, and then bring it in and wash it in the bathroom for the last two rounds, to save a bit of effort.
What water temperature? Recommendations for water temperature vary between 30-60 degrees C. There are several factors here that determine which you should choose. Higher temperatures obviously consumer more energy. On the other hand, at least 60 degrees is the temperature that is best for making sure germs get killed in the process. And crucially for spinners, lanolin in the wool (the grease) melts at higher water temperature, so if you want grease in our wool, you need to wash it in cold water.
When I spin I prefer my wool relatively grease-free, so I heat the wool in a large pot to 60 degrees once, but the subsequent rounds I wash with hot water from the tap (which tends to be cooler, between 40-50 degrees), saving a bit of time and energy.
With or without a net bag? Initially I washed my wool without a netbag, which worked pretty well until I managed to felt some of my fleece, so I started using netbags. This makes it easy and convenient, but I find the wool forms a big ball within the bag, and the outside gets washed well but some sand remains trapped on the inside. So the best way would be to keep the wool really flat, and then turn it around during washing so that all the sand can fall out. From this point of view a bucket is not so convenient, you’d need something with a larger surface area. Netbags at the bottom of a bath tub can work, but I am now thinking buying a few perforated crates or similar as they’d give more support than netbags.
So is it all worth it?
I haven’t actually saved any money by washing wool by myself, the end price has been about the same as combed top. But to me quality is more important than trying to save money. I have struggled to get some very cheap wool clean (a beginner’s mistake), and better quality wool is of course always nicer to work with, an important consideration when you put so much manual effort into it.
While I am washing the wool, I tend to think I must be mad to be doing it, my time and energy would be better used on more fun things. But once the wool is washed, I forget all that effort and I just love working with the washed fluffy wool. It is just so lovely!
Home washed wool is reasonably easy to pick (=tease the locks open) before carding. I have worked with industrially scoured wool that is all tangled up and really hard work to open, whereas my home washed wool is never like that, it is just a pleasure to work with. Picking wool is surprisingly time consuming – it’s one of those stages in the process people don’t much talk about, but it takes at least as long as the carding itself. But I don’t mind, I actually like doing it.
An important factor is of course that you can buy wool from breeds that are not common enough to come as combed top. And with multi-coloured breeds like Shetland, you will get shades that are not available as top, which tend to be standard mixes of the most common colours. It was only once I bought a Shetland fleece that I realised each fleece is in fact a unique colour (not just your standard moorit, fawn, or whatever). Moreover, some of them are multi-coloured, so contain lots of different shades within them. One of my grey fleeces, for example, will give me at least four different yarn colours from just one fleece.
So my own conclusion is that it is definitely worth the effort to buy raw fleece and wash it yourself, but only as long as you buy a fleece that is good enough quality to justify the effort. For most of my dyeing work I will still be buying white top, I just don’t have enough time and energy to do everything from scratch. But for all those special breeds and lovely natural shades, I will definitely be buying (and washing) more raw fleece in the future.