Summer is a great time for washing and dyeing wool. Our technique evolves every year as the fleeces change, the weather changes, and learning occurs.
Before washing, there is skirting and picking the fleece. If we were careful at shearing when we put the fleece into a bag, we can toss it out onto the big wire “table” for this process, and it will hang together more or less. The outside edges of the fleece will have the belly wool, the lower legs, the neck and the hind end. Ideally, one simply removes the outer edges of the fleece because all of these parts are undesirable. Of course it doesn’t always work out–some of our Romney fleeces are so open that they don’t stay together. Sometimes, we just grab handfuls of wool and stuff them in the bag, only to regret it later. Once the undesirable wool is removed, then it’s a matter of pulling out all the straw and hay and burrs and twigs that have attached themselves to the wool. Skirting and picking can take minutes to hours, depending on the sheep, shearing conditions, and the mental and physical condition of the shearers at the time of shearing.
The current washing strategy involves soaking the fleece for 2-7 days in cold water. We have two 15-gallon animal water tubs for the purpose. Half a fleece will swirl around nicely in each of these. I push the wool into the water, cover it with some plastic, and leave it until I have time to wash it. I use my “Laundry Bot” (Costco hand washer for college students) to spin out the soak water, then fill the tubs with hot water and the scouring detergent. My favorite is an Aussie product called Kookaburra Scour, but when that runs out I can use good old blue Dawn dish-washing detergent. Push wool into hot water, don’t agitate, let it sit for an hour, and then lift the wool out, spin the detergent out with my Bot, then a hot rinse for half an hour, and successive warm rinses until I am satisfied or sick of it, whichever comes first.
This weekend I washed Clarissa’s lovely bright white fleece and Raven’s beautiful silver fleece.Then I dyed three one-pound batches of Robert’s fleece from 2013. Dyeing fleece is a little different from dyeing yarn, because of the quantity you are dealing with and the desirability of having variation in color rather than the uniform color one needs when working with yarn. To start with, the wool must be wet, requiring at least 30 minutes in a bucket of cool water. Meanwhile the huge dye-pot is filled with water and slowly heated on the stove. The dye granules are weighed out (packaging says use a 1:10 ratio of dye to fiber, but we find half that is better). Once weighed, the dye is mixed thoroughly in boiling water, and added to the dye pot. The wool goes in when the water is 120-140 degrees, then the kettle is heated to simmering and held at the simmer for half an hour or more. Ideally, you let it cool naturally overnight before pouring the water out. I rarely have time for that. Once out of the dye-pot the wool needs several rinses at a temperature that is within 15 degrees of its current temperature. The dyes we use are easy, no additives required. No matter what, it seems whenever I do a dyeing project, I am still working on it at 11:00 pm. But the results are always exciting.