A while ago, I had a fortunate encounter with a sheep herder in the City of London. Yes, he had sheep with him. The answer to the question I can almost hear you asking is, because he was showing us poor uneducated non-rural people what sheep were, what they were for, and how to shear them. He did this for a living, in fact (and, I expect, took great pleasure in seeing city folk looking at his flock like 18th century people might look at the Tattooed Bearded Lady of the circus.)
But, I digress. The reason I am writing this is because I wish to educate some of you non (fibre) addicts on the process of wool processing. I bet a lot of you just thought wool magically appeared all lovely and pretty in yarn form, huh? Ok, maybe not, but humour me.
I got a big bag of raw wool from the above mentioned sheep herder/showman for a very fair price (it pays to be cheeky and just ask for it, it seems!) I reckon it might have been at least 4 pounds in total. This is half the full amount.
First thing I did to wash this wool was fill a plastic tub with very hot water and dishwashing detergent, then soak some of the raw wool in it. You have to first add the water, and only after the wool, as agitation and heat can felt the wool. We want lovely, unfelted wool, not a clumpy mess.
On a side note, I have to say I’ve now changed my method to first soaking the wool in plain water for 12-24h first, as this helps with the cleaning process and I get to use less detergent. I learned this method from Jennifer Beamer from Expertly Dyed, and you can hear all about it here if you like.
If you have small children who refuse to bathe/shower, you can show them the above image and tell them this is how the water will be if they get really dirty. If they reply “awesome!” then you have a cool child and I wish you good luck for the next few years.
Sheep have lanolin, which is a sort of grease/sweat they exude from their skin and ends up on the wool. It helps protect them from rain and cold, it’s even wonderful for our skin… just not when it’s in this “pure” dirty form. I did however end up with lovely smooth hands, my consolation for all the soaking-hands-in-sheep-yuckiness (not all of it is lanolin, mind you, there’s mud, there’s – gasp! – poop, and vegetal matter. Oh joy.)
I kept the water hot, meaning I had to do 20-minute soaks to prevent the temperature from dropping. When time was up, I took the wool out carefully, got rid of the dirty water and this is what I got – not-so-dirty wool. I went through this process three or four more times, and the last two soaks were just in plain hot water to get rid of the detergent.
Since changing my method, I’d recommend not using as much detergent to keep some of the lanolin on the wool, since it protects it a little. This is actually not a big issue if you’re needle or wet felting with it, but if you’re spinning it’s best to have a bit of lanolin left on the fibre.
As you can see above, the water on the second soak doesn’t look as bad as the first. It still might remind some mums of their child’s bath water though.
After all the washes, my wool was nice and white.. sort of. There are bits which aren’t the cleanest but it’s not important, since you’ll be carding it later and this will all disappear. In the above photo, the wool is still quite wet.
I ran the wool through the gentle spin cycle on the washing machine and this is what it looked like when it came out. Look, it’s a fluffy cloud! I placed it on a drying rack for a couple of days, turning it once in a while.
Finally, I hand carded it a bit, just to keep it nice and airy. If you have a drum carder, this is where you put the wool through it and make a lovely batt!
So there. I hope I’ve helped dispel some of the mystery behind the whole dirty-sheep-to-clean-wool thing. You’re welcome.