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Or rather, fleece and dirty, because I am so not going down the path of down… yet. Being a teacher (ish), I had Veterans’ Day off, which meant extra time to write my book and wash my newly acquired grease fleece. I won’t tell you about my writing: that’s my other blog. You folks want to know about the wool. I am a fiber n00b, so this “how to” is the result of research, trial, and some damn fine luck.

The Goal

To remove the lanolin and dirt from my fleece without felting or destroying its beautiful, crimpy lock formation. I deliberately chose an innocent looking bag of fiber that looked like it had been carefully skirted and well cared for. I found no tags (save the myriad and useless bits of paper the seller tossed into the bag) and only minimal VM.

The Materials

Surfactant: Dish detergent seems to be the closest, readily available substitute for commercial wool cleaning products and is ideal for helping remove lanolin and dirt.

Pillow Cases: For moving the wool out of the water easily and with minimum agitation.

Homer Bucket: For washing the wool. (I don’t own the washing machine in my apartment, so I’m not willing to risk experimenting on it.)

Flat Sheet: For laying out the clean fleece to dry.

Gloves: For easily moving between handling my icky fleece and my husband’s fancy camera without having to wash my hands every thirty seconds.

Cats: (Optional) For practicing your varmint shooing skills on.

The Process

The first rule of not felting wet wool is DON’T AGITATE IT. Running water is agitation. Sloshing it around in the bucket is agitation. Whatever your space is like, you need to be able to move the wool between wash and rinse cycles without a lot of motion. My solution was to pour the hottest water my bathtub tap produces (which will burn me) into my empty Homer bucket, filling it just over halfway.

After I stopped the water, I added about half a cup of dish detergent to the water, avoiding suds, which all the other blogs seem to preach as essential. I put about a quarter of my fleece into one of the pillow cases and placed it carefully on top of the water, just barely using my hand to weigh it down into the water. Even this much motion is slightly risk and not entirely necessary, but I’m impatient.

I set a timer for one hour and walked away. No stirring. No prodding. Just leave it alone. Coming back after the hour is important, however, as allowing the fleece to sit in cooling water could lead to the lanolin setting back into the wool. Rumor has it that this makes the wool stiff and hard to work with. When I came back, my water was still pretty hot, but I pulled the pillow case out gently, holding it with one hand so I could dump the bucket into the bathtub with the other.

This is what my water looked like after the first wash. From other pictures I’ve seen, I think this was a very clean fleece. And for the record, yes, I was holding my fleece in one hand and taking the picture with the other while balancing the bucket with my foot so I could catch the water color in the white tub instead of the orange bucket. Danger? I eat danger for breakfast.

I refilled the empty bucket with hot, clean water (no soap) and added the wool in the same gentle manner and left it for the same amount of time. The first rinse came out a little cloudy, so I repeated the process. The second rinse was almost completely clear, so I decided to see how it fares. I have heard two tips that interest me. The first is that leaving a tiny bit of lanolin in the wool is good for spinning and makes for more comfortable wearing. The second is that adding a splash of vinegar to the final rinse will soften the wool. This being my first attempt at working with fleece, I can’t attest to either, so take that advice with a grain of salt.

The Result

I have spent the entire weekend chasing my cats off the loosely covered pile of damp fleece as it dries. My space and equipment is not well-suited for air circulation around the wool, so it’s taking its time. Two days and counting, but it’s almost there.

My light settings were off, but you can still see the difference between washed (right) and unwashed (left). Hopefully the washed sample is clean enough to make easy carding and spinning.  Hopefully my cats don’t turn the entire fleece into hairballs before it dries…