CNCHnet . . . The Textile Arts Webzine of the Conference of Northern California Handweavers

Washing Fleece in a Drought Year


We turn on the tap and fill our glass. We stand in a hot shower, wash our cars, water our lawns, fill our pools and wash dishes with the tap running.  Water has been a given, it was just there.  We could turn on the tap and do what we needed to without thought.  Now, however, after four years of drought, the use of water can not be so unconscious.

Now we stand in our showers with buckets to catch the cold water which we use to flush our toilets.  Our cars remain dirty and our lawns are now brown.  Taps are turned off when we brush our teeth and wash our dishes.  Water is no longer a given and we fear we will have empty wells if we are not careful.

I remember visiting my grandmother on her farm in Illinois in the early 60’s.  She had an outhouse out back and a hand pump in the kitchen. Water was heated on the stove and sparingly used. Water was a precious commodity and used very consciously. How far we have come since then.

Washing a fleece takes a great deal of water.  I used to just fill the washing machine.  I would soak in cold water and spin and then soak in hot water and spin using about forty gallons of water in the process.  Then two things happened.  My well stopped producing as much water and I read an article in Spin Off  by Judith Mackenzie about her method of washing fleece.  I must say, I was inspired.

In her article, Judith describes using water over and over, pumping the water into a container and then back into the washing machine to be used again.  The water washes out the dirt and the suint (for the uninitiated suint is dried sheep perspiration deposited in the wool) from the fleece.  The suint becomes the soap.  It is high in potassium and, combined with the water, makes a soapy solution.  As the water is reused it becomes very strong (and smelly).

I tend to wash the ‘skirt’ which is the sweepings from the shearing shed floor.  The fleece I produce is from a flock of coated sheep.  The ‘skirt’ is from the wool fore and aft of the coat that picks up the dirt and debris and some dung, too.  My flock of Romney/Wensleydale/Cormo sheep produce beautiful fleece and I hate to see the ‘skirt’ go to the landfill.  I don’t re-sort the skirt wool except to remove the largest pieces of dung.  I simply shake it to remove some of the alfalfa and into the washing machine it goes.

I have a machine dedicated to washing fleece, sheep coats and other dirty items.  I have also used 5 gallon buckets and large plastic bins for this process but a discarded washing machine simplified the process for me.  Only use a top loader and never allow it to agitate.

Once the machine is full of wool I fill it with cold water and let it sit for seven days.  After sitting in a machine I spin the water into a 50 gallon drum.  The fleece, now rinsed but not washed, is taken out of the machine, given a shake and spread on sheets in the sun to dry.  Some wools can be used at this point.  My Romney wool contains little lanolin and this rinsing method is all it needs.  Wools with heavier lanolin will need a hot water wash.

The water in the drum is now pumped back into the washing machine using a small sump pump and is used again ( saving about 30 gallons of water each time).  The more often this water is used, the stronger it gets.  In fact a friend of mine tried this method by soaking the fleece in a bathtub and found that it ate away the porcelain!

I find that this soaking in the ‘strong’ water eats up a lot of the alfalfa.  Once the fleece is dry I can pick it for debris and then send it to be processed—or wash and spin it myself.

I don’t imagine we will go back to outhouses and hand pumps at the kitchen sink, but it is time for us all to look at the amount of water we use unnecessarily and find other ways of doing things.  Collect rainwater to wash your fleeces in, hang the fleece itself on the fence and let the rain wash it clean, or give this method a try.

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