Subtitled: A backyard full of sheep can't be far behind...
My spinning instructor Pat showed us how to wash a fleece in class, and then sent each of us home with a 1/2 lb of fleece to wash ourselves. I took some pics of my homework assignment in progress so I could create a little tutorial on washing fleece, for those of you who, like me, just want to keep getting closer and closer to the source. So buy a raw fleece from your local shepherd or at the next fiber festival you go to, take it home, and then do this!
Step one...cut a hole in the box.
Okay, really...step one is to fill 2 basins with water as hot as you can stand. You're going to put your hands into this water for a few seconds -- don't be a martyr, just make sure it's hot to the touch. It's hard to be a fiber fiend with 3rd degree burns. Add a little bit of Dawn dishwashing detergent to one of the basins only (the other one is going to be for rinsing), just enough until the water feels a bit slimy (you don't need frothy bubbles). (NOTE: You can use some fancy fleece washing soap if you want, but Dawn is cheap and cuts through the grease quite well!)
Next, take out just enough fleece to fit comfortably into whatever sized basin you are using. You can't wash the whole 4 - 8 lbs at once, unless you have a REALLY big basin. You want the fleece to be able to fit loosely in the basin, not be jammed in tightly.
Put the fleece into the Dawn-tainted basin, and push it down with some authority. Make sure all the fleece is completely submerged, but DON'T agitate it -- that can result in a singularly un-useful felted fleece! Let it soak for about 20 minutes. Then you'll have some really gross-looking water.Now gently, gently gather the wet fleece up against the back of your basin and tilt the basin so that the sheepy water pours out. You can gently squeeze your fleece to get out some more water, and then submerge it into the rinsing basin full of clean water (no soap). Now here is the reason you filled both basins at once -- the rinsing water should have cooled at the same rate as the washing water, and they will both be approximately the same temperature. Significant differences in temperature can result in fleece felting, so if you let the basins cool at the same time, you're golden when it comes time to rinse.Let the fleece soak in the clean water for just a few minutes, and then again gather it up against the back side of the basin and tilt to let the water pour out the other side -- target is minimal agitation of the fleece. Gently squeeze again, to release more water.
Repeat from step 1, re-filling both basins (one soapy, one clean), trying to make the water in the 2 basins the same temperature as the water you just removed the fleece from. In other words, this water will be a little cooler than what you started with on the first wash.
After the 2nd wash and rinse, lay the fleece out flat on a large towel.Gently (do you notice a trend here?) roll the fleece up in the towel and squeeze the towel. If it's big enough, you can even step on it to get the towel to absorb more excess water.
Lastly, lay the fleece out flat on some sort of breezy table-like structure. I used this mini slatted bamboo table, but your best bet is a sweater rack, so that the air can dry the fleece on all sides. Leave the fleece laying out for 24 hours, then flip it over for another 24 hours so that the other side can dry. You might have to let it dry a bit longer, depending on the fleece.Now you're ready to card and spin! But that post will have to wait until I save up to splurge on some wool cards. Right now I'm just using the ones in my class, and it is so relaxing to card. I even spun about half of this self-washed, hand-carded fleece already. Rolags! I love you!
I didn't include any advice on actually choosing your fleece at a Fiber Fest or farm, and that's because I don't have any expertise to share on this. I'm just learning! At the Greencastle fest, I just stuck my hands into every bag of fleece I came across, and finally settled on one that felt great and was affordable. At the very least, your hands will be silky soft from all the lanolin at the end of the day, even if you don't walk away with a fleece. Make sure that whatever fleece you buy is skirted, which means most of the Vegetable Matter has been picked out.