bundle of fleece to sort and wash
So, you’ve got some sheep fleece and you're wondering what to do with it to spin it?
fleece laid out to skirt and sort
The first thing to do as soon as you can after acquiring the fleece is to lay it our somewhere dry – preferably your garden (I lay mine on an old shower curtain I kept for this job) and skirt the fleece. Skirting a fleece basically means to cut or tear away anything really dirty (yes, we’re talking sheeps poo) and anything that is coarse, hairy or matted. Use this in your garden, on the compost, as mulch or line your bean trenches or hanging baskets.
Onto the washing, you need to decide where you are going to wash the fleece and how much you can get into whatever you use. You could use your bath, sink or buckets/trugs outside. There is of course the other option of spinning the wool as it is, unwashed and in the grease and just washing it when the yarn is made. If the fleece isn't too dirty this is an option, or you could soak it to get the dirt out of it but retain all the lanolin.
Mesh wash bags are very useful for washing fleece, keeping the fibres together but allowing the dirt to come out. I have a few of these and actually made some larger ones to enable me to wash more in one go, purchasing some fishnet fabric, a bit of sewing and a draw cord.
fleece washed in mesh bag
You can wash fleece in either hot or cold water but whatever you choose you must stick to throughout the washing and rinsing. Any changes will increase the chances of the wool felting. Hot washing will lift more of the lanolin out of the wool. You’ve probably been advised not to wash wool on hot temperatures because of felting but hot water alone will not felt your wool. Hot water + soap + agitation may felt your wool, or a change in temperature of the washing/rinsing + soap + agitation may felt your wool.
Cold water washing is okay for less lanolin rich fleece, but if the fleece has a lot of lanolin in it the hot water method is preferred. The cold water method just involves soaking the fibre in cold water overnight and then rinsing until clean, some lanolin will remain. This probably works better for fleeces that aren’t too dirty.
Fleece ready to go in the wash
Select an amount of the fleece you wish to wash and place in the mesh bag if you are using them. Almost fill your bucket or sink with hot water – it should be hot enough that you don’t want to put your hand in it for too long. Add some detergent and swish it around without making it too bubbly. There are various recommendations here – many people just use cheap washing up liquid, Fairy liquid, Eco washing up liquid (e.g. Ecover) or wool wash detergents like Ecover Delicate (or similar). This comes down to choice and you will find what you prefer. It needs to be detergent rather than soaps as soaps aids felting. There are commercial cleaners on the market too but they are expensive, I have no experience of using these personally.
adding the fleece to the sink of hot water
Pop the wool in gently and push down gently with your fingers (use gloves if it’s too hot). Once it is all in the water leave it alone for 10-15 minutes. Don’t be tempted to prod it or swish it around. You will notice already how dirty the water gets.
soaking the fleece
See how dirty the water is from the first wash?
After the allotted time, and before the water has cooled too much, gently lift the fleece out and very gently squeeze out excess water. Discard the water and refill with clean water and some detergent again. Gently add the wool to the water and leave again for about 10-15 minutes. (Note: you don’t want the water to cool as the grease that has come out of the fleece will start to harden and set again in your fleece). If there are dirty tips you could gently rub these between your fingers to clean them.
Tips can be cleaned by gently rubbing between the fingertips
Lift the wool out again after 10-15 minutes and drain the water, squeezing the wool gently to remove excess water. You shouldn’t need to wash with detergent again, unless it is really filthy or you want to remove all the lanolin. I prefer to leave some lanolin in as it helps it to card and spin more smoothly; it will come out when you wash your yarn later.
Washed and ready to rinse
Next step is to rinse the wool. Rinse the sink or bucket so there is no detergent remaining and fill with the same temperature water again and pop the fleece in, leave for 10-15 minutes, remove and drain. Repeat until you are happy with how clean it is.
ready to spin (if you do) and dry
Your fleece is then ready to dry – you could just hang it over a washing line and leave it to dry or across a drying rack if you have one. Try to gently squeeze some of the excess water to reduce drying time, or you could squeeze gently in an old towel. Every now and then turn it and open it up to allow it to dry properly.
Fleece spun and ready to dry
There is another method that some spinners use on fine fleeces where the locks are washed separately. This is a preferred method with fine fleeces where they want to spin it laceweight. This was a method of washing that Margaret Stove developed. The method of cleaning is the same - using hot water and detergent but washing the fleece lock by lock. Often a flick carder can be helpful in opening up the fibres in the lock and the tips. The mesh bags can also be used for this method - laying the locks in rows and gently washing in the sink or bath ensuring the locks stay separate.
Once dry it is ready to card or comb and spin. If you are not going to spin it immediately, store it safely where moths can’t get in (although they do prefer raw fleece). My preferred method is in old pillow cases picked up cheaply at charity shops. Duvet covers could also be used. Plastic bags (like bin bags) aren’t recommended for long term storage as the wool can sweat. Vacuum seal bags are good too and have the added advantage of reducing the storage space required.
Enjoy spinning your lovely washed fibre.
dry and clean fleece
Alternative instructions are available on the internet, or maybe you'd like to share with us how you clean your fleece? Like a lot of things in spinning (and in life!) there is no right or wrong way, just the way you want to do things and what works for you.
There is a good downloadable leaflet here on the Yarnmaker website -
There is also this useful leaflet on the same website about sorting a fleece -