Category Archives: Fiber Prep

First wool sale of the season

Valentine’s Day found Awana and I doing one of our favorite things – visiting a local farm to buy wool –

2015 Wool Sale FlyerI was under the impression that the sale would involve last year’s fleeces in order to clean out the barns for the new shearing, but most of the fleeces were fresh off the sheep, Bide-a-Wee having sheared the week before. The weather here in Oregon has been crazy mild – we’ve already got Spring flowers blooming and the trees are leafing out.

There are few things in life I like more than a freshly-shorn sheep’s fleece!

Navajo-Churro Ram

Navajo-Churro Ram Photo used by permission of Bide-a-Wee Farm

I met Karen from Bide-a-Wee Farm many years ago, in a muddy field outside Scio, Oregon, back when there were actually sheep at the Lamb & Wool Show. Up to that point I had not spun any Jacob wool and only one Navajo-Churro fleece, which was hairy and horrible and colored my opinion of NC fleece for a couple of years.

Jacob Ram

Jacob Ram Photo used by permission of Bide-a-Wee Farm

That year I bought three small Jacob fleeces and one shockingly soft Navajo-Churro. All four fleeces were amazingly soft and I enjoyed every minute working with them. Whenever someone asks me about Jacob or Navajo-Churro fleece I direct them to Bide-a-Wee Farm.

Baling twine wreath and Karen's cool dred-lock hat

Baling twine wreath and Karen’s cool dred-lock hat

This year we bought three Jacob fleeces and one Jacob/Border Leicester cross fleece. All are multi-colored and soft, soft, soft!

Awana introduced me to Brandy of Whistlestop Shetlands a couple of years ago. I had bought several of her fleeces over the years but never met her in person.Riding ShotgunWe bought six Shetland fleeces, four white, one shades of gray and one as black as sheep’s wool can possibly be –

20150215_131430“What,” you may ask, “are you going to do with all that wool?” Good question! This time we had a plan. Not that we don’t usually have a plan, but THIS time we had a Real Plan – to purchase enough fine wool from shepherds we know to combine with alpaca we already had to make large enough batches to take to our local mill for blending and carding into sliver for spinning.

We took about 25 pounds of wool to the Snow Peak Fiber Mill here in Lebanon back in September. The wool was nice, Romney and Romney crosses mostly, but it wasn’t fine wool and it was dirty, so dirty we feared Kathy wouldn’t take it unless we washed it first, but she said it was fine (for the record, it was dirty, not poopy – we skirted very well 🙂 ) and would be ready in a couple of months.

A couple of months went by and the call finally came in. Three huge boxes of the most fabulous sliver, one a lovely cream color and the other two the medium gray I love so much.

We’ve been spinning it up a bit at a time, loving every minute and decided we were never going to be able to process all the alpaca fleece laying around and the search for the perfect blend-able wool began. It’s not as easy as it sounds because the wool has to have similar staple length and crimp as the alpaca, and we wanted to match colors as much as possible so as not to end up with a muddy brown that nobody likes.

Most of the blends will be about 50/50 wool & alpaca, but one batch will have silk added and one very special batch will be mostly alpaca with only a bit of wool and bamboo. The black fleece is from a male called Blackjack and it is a True Black and it’s mine, all mine!

Updates as events unfold…

UPDATE: Finally tally for this shipment to the mill is 41.5 pounds! Pictures when it comes back in a month or two. We can’t wait to get spinning!


Carding wool with a drum carder

From September 2009

There are many methods for getting a job done, and this is my way of drum carding a wool fleece. The wool is Romney, a medium wool, with locks ~5″ long, shades of gray with reddened, sunburnt tips. The tips are sound (meaning they don’t crumble into mush when twisted between my fingers) so I won’t cut them off – I like the subtle shading they add to the finished yarn and keep weathered tips like these whenever I can.

Wool fleece, unless it is very clean, will be full of tiny flecks of stuff (VM, dirt, grit, powdered poo, etc.) so it’s a good idea to pick and card outside or at least in a well-ventilated room. A dust mask is a good idea, too – remember that many of our ancestors died from congested lungs from working with wool and other fibers.

First, gather your equipment –

My drumcarder is a Strauch Petite and the accessories are, from left to right: doffer, dabber brush, and a knuckle-saving batt picker. I don’t have the special brush attachment. Canine supervisor and MP3 player are optional.

Next gather your wool –

Laying on the carder is a handful that has been picked, which is just a fancy word for pulling the locks apart with your hands, letting any loose VM fall to the floor. To the left is a handful of washed locks. Some people drum card raw wool, but I find that it just gums up the carder and is gritty to spin so I prefer to wash first, card and then spin.

Continue to tease apart locks until the platform is full, and then start slowly turning the crank clockwise –

The wool will be caught by the smaller drum and fed onto the larger drum. Any fibers that get stuck in the smaller drum are garbage, so don’t worry if you get a bit of build-up there – it’s the job of that smaller drum to filter out short bits and large VM pieces that you missed while picking.

As the wool feeds onto the large drum you may notice bits of short fibers sticking out from the drum –

Pull these off and discard. The beauty of cranking slowly is that you can remove any imperfect strands and VM that the carder sorts out for you.

Periodically use the dabber to smooth the fibers down into the larger drum –

This will allow you to get more wool onto the drum, creating larger batts, as well as smoothing things along so you can get away with making fewer passes through the carder.

All smooth now –

Continue feeding picked fiber into the carder, moving it to the left or right to evenly fill up the larger drum. When the teeth are full –

It’s time to take the batt off for another pass through. Use the batt picker and pull up about an inch of wool at a time where the carding cloth has a gap –

Some people use an old metal knitting needle, but I find that I end up with skinned knuckles that way. Continue across until the whole gap has been exposed and the batt is loose to the right –

Grab the batt in one hand –

And slowly pull it free of the larger drum. It will fluff up amazingly –

It already looks pretty smooth, and maybe you like your yarn with a bit of “character” and can stop carding now. I prefer to run my wool through twice, and here’s how I do the next pass:

First, use the doffer to pull any fibers off the larger drum that didn’t peel off with the main batt –

This little bit of wool can be run through the carder again. Use the doffer to clean off the smaller drum, too, discarding that wool.

Now you’re ready to begin again.

Split the batt in half down the middle –

And then split one half into narrow strips, about 2″ wide –

Feed these strips into the carder, one by one, working from one side to the other as the cloth fills up –

Once all of the strips have been fed in (again, pull off any short fibers that show up and remove any VM that the larger drum picks out) it’s time to use the dabber one last time to smooth everything out and remove the finished batt. As before, pick the batt apart at the gap in the carding cloth and grasp the loose end in one hand –

But this time, keep the ends nice and neat, bunching them towards the center to roll off a compact batt –

Roll the batt tightly against the carding cloth, keeping it as compact as possible. Turn the handle as required to keep things moving along.

The finished batts store very nicely in a paper grocery sack –

Don’t forget to clean both drums before starting your next batt –

And that’s all there is to it!

To spin from a drum carded batt, simply unroll it, tear off a strip about 2″ wide and start spinning from one end. Some people like to pull the fibers through a diz to make a long strand of roving. Spinner’s choice!

Washing Wool – the Cold Water Method, Part Two

The almost-black fleece I spoke of at the end of the last cold water wash post deserves a bit more comment now that it’s clean and I’ve done some sampling. That fleece (it was free) is quite fine with lots of crimp and lots of tiny VM. It was left in the pot for a couple of weeks before the first rinse, with a small amount of original blue Dawn dish soap. It was rinsed twice, at one week intervals but otherwise left alone. When it came out of the pot it felt very clean, but there was still quite a bit of VM. It was laid out to dry for some days and then some samples were hand carded to see how sound the fleece was. Imagine my surprise to find a large number of tiny sprouts throughout the fleece! The little bits of VM had sprouted after being removed from the water. Kinda gross, but I carded anyway, figuring that the sprouts would be chewed up and spit out by the cards.

So. I was given two white Coopworth fleeces a few months ago and one of them was next into the pot. The fleece is quite dirty and I skirted heavily to get rid of as much hay and other VM as I could. Coopworth is not a wool that I’ve worked with much (Romney remains my favorite) and the fleeces were quite large so I skirted mercilessly. The locks are over 6″, with a loose crimp and shiny appearance. There is not much lanolin, but plenty of dirt.

The tips were a bit matted, but not felted – they pull apart without much trouble, just a shower of dirt. The locks are sound and quite uniform throughout the fleece.

About half a fleece was crammed into the pot, some Dawn added, the pot filled with water from the hose (the pot sits outside in an inconspicuous corner of the yard, away from the prying eyes of local dog walkers who I am sure think some strange things go on around here, what with the stray clumps of hair that always seem to litter the lawn – wool, dog hair, rabbit fleece…) the lid put on and I walked away.

The weather turned colder and rainy and the pot sat for at least a month with no disturbance from me. At that point I remembered my little experiment and went to see if anything was growing in the pot. I changed the water twice, rinsing the fleece in the cooker basket with the hose, but not doing anything special to get out more dirt. The water was quite smelly but I’m thinking the cooler weather kept any molds or whatever from taking hold. The wool did not appear to be rotting and no VM was sprouting.

The inner cooker basket was removed and a hose run over the fleece for a final rinse. It still surprises me that the wool doesn’t smell like the water does.

The end result didn’t look all that spectacular, to tell the truth – I was afraid there might be a yellow stain on the wool (it was free, and obviously not from a spinner’s flock) but as it dried I teased the locks apart and the resulting shiny cloud is perfectly white. The fibers are lustrous and sound and better than 6″ long – quite a nice fleece.

I don’t think this fleece will even need to be carded – I’m going to try to spin it from the cloud into a firm, tight yarn for weaving. I have no idea if it will work, so sampling is in order.

The color is a bit wonky in the pictures as there’s not much natural light at this time of year and I haven’t made a light box yet. The teased fleece really is a lustrous white with no traces of yellow or dirt.

Overall, I still think the Cold Water Wash is a great way to get a fleece clean if you aren’t pressed for time. I like the feel of a bit of lanolin in a washed fleece and that’s not easy to accomplish with hot water. The small amounts that fit in the crawfish cooker are easy to card and keep moving forward, which is nice as it means that there are fewer paper sacks of wool sitting around waiting to be spun up.

Another batch of Coopworth is now soaking in the pot. Hopefully I’ll get the first batch spun up before the next is finished. Or not. I have quite a bit of clean fiber to work on this Winter, but I plan on keeping up with the washing, too, so that maybe by Spring all of the wool will be washed at least. Anyone want to come over for a carding party? 😉

Have a fiber filled weekend!

Washing wool – the Cold Water Method, Part One

I first heard about the cold water method of washing wool on the Ravelry forums. The poster was referring to an article in Spin-Off Magazine by Judtith MacKenzie-McCuin that details a fermented suint wool bath.

I’ll admit that I didn’t attend to all of the instructions, figuring that it couldn’t be all that hard, could it? Seems logical – wash dirty fleece outside in a tub or somesuch with water from the hose, letting it sit for a number of days to dissolve the dirt, rinsing as needed. Sure, it would take more time than using the sink and hot water inside, but it was also a pretty hands-off method, and I had a lot of raw Romney fleece to get washed and we all know that soaking is the key to washing wool without felting and speed isn’t necessarily advisable. The instructions didn’t even call for soap!

I have a crawfish cooker that Mom picked up somewhere years ago that has a removable insert with drain holes that seemed perfect for the job. It holds 32 gallons and is black to help soak up the heat of the sun.

First, the fleece needed to be skirted –

This fleece comes from a herd of registered Romney sheep that was bred by a spinner who is sadly now gone. His son is keeping the flock genetics going but is not really interested in the “wool stuff.” Happily, this means he sells the fleece pretty cheap for the quality of the wool, but it also means that the fleeces have more than their fair share of VM, poop and tangled, dirty bits. The picture above shows the fleece after skirting – about 60% remains, but I’m not too worried about the high loss percentage – what’s left is really Good Stuff.

The fleece looks very brownish-yellow, but it will wash up to be a sparkling white.

Out to the back yard and into the cooker –

You can better see the much cleaner butt ends of the wool locks. I just stuffed it all into the pot and used the hose to add water.

The wool will float to the top, so push it down until it’s all under water –

Put the lid on and walk away for a few days. When I washed this particular fleece the daytime temps were in the 70’s and the pot got pretty warm sitting in the afternoon sun. I didn’t worry about the temperature changing from day-time warm to night-time cool as the change would be slow and there would be no agitation to felt the wool.

After 5 days, the pot was smelling pretty bad and I was becoming worried that something was wrong. I mean, it was really bad!

I lifted the insert out and set it on the lawn. This is what the water looked like in the pot –

Yikes! And the stench! The wool did look much cleaner and didn’t seem to smell – only the water had that awful odor. I dumped the water out…

::A word to the wise, if you’re doing this sort of thing in leather sandals, do mind where you dump the water – water flows downhill – and try to keep your feet dry. If you don’t, you will wonder, hours later, where that foul smell is coming from::

and rinsed the pot well with water from the hose. I also sprayed the fleece in the insert with water, then put the whole thing back together and filled with water. I let it sit for a few more days, rinsed again and put it all in for one more soak.

So, a total of three soaks and I was ready to be done with this experiment – I still had a lot of wool to wash and very little time to get it done.

The main problem with this method is that the wool is very wet right out of the pot. I couldn’t use my washing machine to spin out the excess water because it wasn’t working reliably, so I had to come up with something else. In the end The Beast and I set the wool on on old sheet which we then rolled up the long way into a tube with the fleece in the middle. We then began to twist in opposite directions and watched as the water was wrung out of the fleece. I would have liked to have been able to get more water out, but it was better than nothing.

The fleece sat on a dry sheet in the yard for a couple of days before it was dry. I noted with relief that there was no trace of that awful smell in the fleece.

Here’s the finished fleece –

Not as Bright White as I’d hoped, but the lanolin hasn’t been washed out and it should card up nicely. It doesn’t feel dirty, and the locks separate easily in preparation of drum carding it.

Here’s a closer look –

Generally speaking, white fleece that I’ve washed in the past has gotten cleaner using hot water and soap, but this isn’t bad. I don’t buy much white fleece because I prefer the natural colors, even for dye experiments, so maybe I’m not the best judge.

After this experiment I washed some natural gray fleece the same way and it came out cleaner feeling, but of course there couldn’t be a dramatic color change to show how much dirt might have remained in the fleece. When I start carding it I’ll report back.

My most recent experiment involves a nice black fleece with *lots* of tiny VM in it. I added a splash of blue Dawn to the water and will let it sit for at least a week to see if the VM truly dissolves as the fermented suint fans say it will.

Tune in for more adventures in Cold Water Wool Washing.