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Preparing the Fleece

Sorting and Washing the Fleece

All of the fleece on Cottonwood Farm is donated by an old friend. There are three matriarchs in the flock who offer direction and leadership for the rest. Mabel, who is the boss sheep provides a lovely soft brown fleece while Audrey and Daphne’s fleece is grey. When processed, all three of these fleece spin into a lovely lopi or worsted weight. When I first plunged my hands into newly washed fleece from Audrey, I knew I had come home. Nothing prepared me for the warmth, softness and comfort of that feeling.

Shorn fleece is usually very dirty and contains lots of debris. It takes some courage to plunge in with both hands and tear off the soiled skirt and separate the parts of the fleece that will offer the best wool. When I started sorting fleece, I washed everything. I could not bring myself to throw any of it away. The more I experimented with the resulting washed wool, the more I realized everything I was reading was right. Some parts of the fleece were better than others for spinning. Some parts made good stuffing and some previously considered as waste (those dirty skirts) now protect the roots of my rose bushed and fruit trees offering their own fertilizer and insulation against winter snow and summer drought. Each part of the fleece has its place and purpose.

So Audrey and the girls serve me well. Each year they generously provide me with wool for clothing for the family, stuffing for furnishings, felting materials and insulation for my garden and even the chicken coop.


Raw wool is full of lanolin and is usually very dirty and contains debris picked up from daily life in the field. Debris includes all types of vegetation such as thistles, grass, seeds, thorns and brambles, wood chips and even bugs.

It is time now to be brave and plunge in with both hands. The softest wool comes from the back and shoulders of the fleece. The fleece is laid out on a table or the floor and first skirted to remove the mud and other soiling from around the back and sides. If it has not already been removed, pull off the brisket or discoloured, coarse wool from around the sheep’s back end. This wool will be discoloured and extremely course from urine and also often quite soiled. (Some shearers remove it before they actually shear the sheep so it may be gone.) Running your hand along the sides of the fleece will help you to feel the difference in texture or coarseness of the back and shoulder fleece. Don’t worry if you cannot feel it at first. Experience will teach you the difference and one day you will run your hand along a fleece and know immediately the various changes in texture. All fleece is generally good so if you don’t feel those texture changes at first, wash it all. I separate my fleece into two bundles to wash; the soft, shoulder fleece and all the rest. Next, turn the fleece over and inspect it. You are looking for three things. First, look for little nibs of wool that are not attached to anything and are left over from shearing. Secondly, you are looking for kemping; little patched of bristly dark coloured hairs that look as if they were left in there by the dog. You need to pull them out Thirdly, you are looking for short cuts; those ends of wool that are much shorter (less than 3 inches or of a different staple length) and were left during shearing when the shearer ran his blade over the sheep to clean her up and remove any last minute tufts. (If you have your own sheep this a good idea to ask your shearer not to do this. It will save you time even if it makes him or her fell less satisfied that (s)he is leaving your sheep with a neat trim.) There, your fleece is sorted and your hands are covered in wonderful lanolin – too bad you have to wash it off!

drying wool

Drying wool.


Freshly dyed wool.


Washing or scouring is the first step in removing some of this debris. There are three things to remember in carrying out this process to prevent felting. First, do not let the temperature of the water change too much; secondly, do not agitate the wool. Finally, make sure you do not let any wool escape down your drain or you will plug it and really tick off the plumber in the house.

Sorted wool is first soaked in hot, soapy water. I use my laundry tub to wash wool as it can be very messy. The water should be very hot – hotter than you can stand to the touch. Mix in about one third cup of soap (I use sunlight) until it is fully dissolved. Remove any suds. Drop the fleece into the hot water and gently poke it down to ensure it is all fully immersed. I use an old broom handle to do this. DO NOT AGGITATE the wool as it may felt. Leave to soak for 20 minutes and then drain, any longer and the temperature of the water will drop and your next hot bath may shock your wool and make it felt. I actually use a piece of plastic deer netting in the tub under the fleece and when I drain the water, I lift the fleece up in the netting and squeeze the water out. It is easier to handle since the water is still very hot and it will prevent wool escaping and blocking your drain. A plastic clothes basket will also do the trick and is easy to lift out and to drain so you do not burn your hands in the hot water.

Set the washed wool aside and fill the tub again with hot water without soap. Drop the wool in again and fully immerse in this rinse bath and leave for 20 minutes. Drain again. Repeat until the water runs clear and the wool appears clean. ½ cup of vinegar may be used to cut any remaining soap or grease if you cannot get rid of any suds.


The spinning wheel and knitted sweaters.


On my covered porch, I spread chicken wire between two work horses and stretch it taunt between nails. I use enough wire to be able to flip it back over the wool so it is ‘caged’ and will not blow away. Spread the wool over the wire and let it drain and dry away from direct sunlight. Keep it turning and break the fibres apart to allow air to circulate. It takes 3 or 4 days to dry a fleece well.


Removing debris is accomplished by picking the fleece. This can be done by hand as you break apart clean fleece and remove any foreign materials. I love picking fleece. It is wonderful to feel the clean wool in your hands and anticipate how it will spin or felt. If a fleece had a lot of debris and you have access to a mechanical picker, you can clean the fleece more quickly, but is not as satisfying to use this method. In truth, picking fleece starts from the moment you unroll your wool for sorting as you remove larger debris, then by picking ‘bits’ out of your fleece as you card it and prepare it for spinning and even as you spin.


Wool can be hand carded with carding combs or put through a drum carder. Carding aligns the fibres and helps to remove any short fibres and fuzzy bits. The resulting bats can be taken apart and made into rollage for spinning or the bats can be used for felting or stuffing or can be stored until you determine how they will fit into your next project. While I have both carding combs and a drum carder, I do send lots of wool to the mill to be turned into roving or to be machine spun.


Some wool might be yellowed (buttering) or discoloured and more suitable for dying. You might want to use it to try your hand at dying and creating special colours for a new project. The joy of wool is that it loves to be dyed and dying is fun and easy. While synthetic or chemical dyes produce the most vivid colours, natural dies offer a range of earth colours and more subtle and muted shades. Some of my favourite colours come from using Kool-aid. Check your local thrift store for used books about dying or look for web-sites that give you instructions on dying your wool. All you need are two or more big pots and some wooden spoons (also available from the thrift store), rubber gloves and an apron and a good laundry tub and you are in business. Remember, ‘dying in the fleece’ produces a more even distribution of colour in your final product.


Whether spinning directly from raw fleece (some purists think the is the best way to go) or from prepared fleece that has been washed and carded, Salt Spring wool spins into fine worsted yarn suitable for country wear. The wool is strong and yet soft enough to offer comfort and warmth. If I want a finer yarn I use my Ashford wheel and ply the yarn to the weight of the project in mind. Because I have LOTS of fleece, I can also get out my Indian head spinner and spin a thicker, lopi weight yarn.


Our Salt Spring wool does not felt well in the traditional sense, an added bonus if you are a knitter. However, it can be used for needle felting and we do have kits available if you want to try your hand. While a knitted garment still requires some care in the washing process and will shrink a little, the shrinkage is minimal and can be used to some advantage if you are clever enough to gauge your sizing to accommodate to that slightly fuzzy look, quite popular with the younger set. If your garment is washed on the gentle cycle in cold water and laid out to dry it will dry with minimal care.

Needle felting is great fun and uses up your fleece scraps that may not be suitable for spinning. Just dye them and use them to create wonderful embellishments on your garments or to create toys and other sculptures. Check the internet for patterns and inspiration.

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