Wool Washing 101

Eino's raw fiber 2010

Raw wool from Finnsheep ram Eino

I am often asked how I wash (scour) my fleece; I decided to document the process and put it on the Fiber page.  Following are photos taken as I washed Finn ram Eino’s 2010 fleece.  But first a disclaimer: this is the way I wash fleece.  One just has to do a quick google search and you will find the methods other fiber folks use to clean their wool.  There are a few basic concepts which remain the same no matter what technique: I will put those concepts in bold lettering.

1.  Place skirted wool into a mesh laundry bag.  I have washed from several ounces to several pounds at a time.  This fleece weighed just over three pounds after skirting so I divided it into two washes.  You will need detergent, hot water and vinegar.

Mixing in the dishwashing liquid

2.  Fill the sink/basin/tub with the hottest water from the tap.  I have read you can warm water on the stove if you need to but I have never done so.  Hot water is needed to help cut the grease. My fiber mill told me my wool was clean (free of grease) so I assume our water is hot enough.  I have a deep but smallish double kitchen sink.  I have also washed a larger batch in a plastic bin.

After the basin is filled, squirt Dawn dishwashing liquid into the water and then gently stir the water so the soap dissolves into the water without making bubbles.  If there are bubbles, it makes for more rinsing of the wool!  I use Dawn because it is a great at cutting grease and it works for me.  I have also successfully used Orvis paste.  Some folks use laundry detergent.  Whatever you use, it needs to be a good grease cutter.  How much soap to use?  I can’t say except to find an amount that works for you.  I make “swirls” in the water with the soap, placing 5-6 lines in horizontally and 4-5 lines vertically and then I gently stir.  I suppose it is about 1-2 tablespoons of liquid.  (I apologize for that OCD moment!)

Soaking wool

3.  Once the water has finished swirling around, place the mesh bag with fiber into the water/detergent solution.  Remember that water, soap, agitation (and temperature change) can, and most likely will, cause felting. So while submerging the fiber, I like the water to be fairly still.  As I gently push the fiber into the water, I sometimes remove my gloves (hot! hot!) just so I can feel the grease come out of the wool.  It is a lovely sensation – difficult to describe – the water feels “soft” with the grease (lanolin) coming out of the fleece.  In the photo you can see the water immediately turns brown from the dirty fiber.  I then set my timer for 20 minutes or so.  Disclaimer: I have left the fiber in longer but as the water cools, the grease sets back into the wool.  You also have to make the next wash cooler because you run the risk of felting the wool if you put cooled wool back into a hot wash.

Dirty water after the first soak.

4.  When the timer is done, I pull the stopper from the sink and let the dirty water drain.  I usually lift the wool bag, holding it above the sink, allowing the water to run out.  I have also placed the bag of wool into a colander to let it drain while I fill the other sink.  I then repeat the wash process (steps 2-4) once or twice depending on the color of water.

Use a good grease cutting detergent to wash and vinegar to restore pH.

5.  After the washes are complete, I fill the basin again for a rinse – still using hot water.  I usually rinse twice because I may still see grease or dirt after the first rinse.  Once the basin is filled, I pour a few “glugs” of white vinegar into the water, again stirring gently.  This is to restore the pH balance of the wool which has just spent some time in an alkaline detergent solution.

The water is clear in the last rinse.

Lovely, clear water after the final rinse!  A few thoughts: I continue to use the same temperature hot water throughout this process as it seems that my sink keeps the water very hot and it really doesn’t cool much in 20 minutes.  Please match your next wash/rinse temperature to what the water temperature felt like before you let it drain! Again, temperature changes can cause felting!


Spin cycle ONLY - NO RINSE WATER

6.  After the final rinse, I place the bag/s of wool into the washing machine which is set to spin only.  (I have read to turn off the water supply also just to be sure that there is no rinse water.)  The spin cycle will remove the excess water.  Another way to remove excess water is to roll it in a towel or shammy cloth.  I take the fiber out of the mesh bag, lay it out on the towel, and roll it up to soak up the water.  This technique makes me nervous that I will felt the fiber by the rolling; also, it is more effective with small amounts of fiber.

Freshly washed wool drying in a laundry basket.

7.  And then the final step!  Place the wonderful, clean, freshly washed fiber in a basket to dry.  I have also left it in the mesh bag, especially if it is windy out.  I tie the bag strings to the deck railing so my fiber doesn’t go flying away in the wind!  (It gets windy here.)  I have also laid in out on towels on the floor, set it on the washing machine, hung it over a clothes rack, etc.  Just be sure to check on it occasionally and fluff or turn it so it will dry faster.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tammy on 06/13/2010 at 7:01 PM

    Great tutorial with photos. I think these posts are always helpful to those who want to give it a try but are a little hesitant. Thanks!
    Tammy

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    Reply

  2. Thanks for the lessons, There are a few tips I did not know and will use (the mesh bag and the vinegar).

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