From Sheep to Yarn: Part I

Marissa     Animal Husbandry     , ,     1    

This is a project that is so long in the making, it’s a bit embarrassing.  We got sheep back in 2009.  The females were supposed to be a good milk breed (East Fresians) and the males a good wool breed (Navajo Churros).  Milking teeny sheep teats never made it on our serious to-do list and we have since sold the females, but not before shearing everybody twice.  And the wool has sat in bags for months and months and months.  It’s nearing shearing time again and I hated the thought of more wool just sitting around rotting (does it rot?  probably not where we were storing it, but anyway…).

It also just so happens that the beginning of February is an ancient Celtic holiday called Oimelc or Imbolc.  The names are now used by Wiccan and Neopagan groups and it’s a bit hard to find historical information on the celebrations, but there is some connection to sheep.  ‘Oimelc’ is said to either mean ewe’s milk or in the belly, referring to pregnant sheep. When Christianity came to Ireland, the holiday was associated with St. Brigid, who may be a sainted version of an ancient pagan goddess named Brigit. February 2nd is now dedicated to St. Brigid in Ireland and is celebrated as Candlemas by Catholics. The sheep connection seems to have died out with the original names but has been reborn in the Neopagan religions.  Anyway, long story short, while reading about this history, I thought it was an appropriate time to get to work on the sheep fleece!

I’ve heard many horror stories about ruining a fleece by amateur processing, so it was always something that I said I would study up on and do later.  Later finally turned into “this weekend”. In about 5 minutes, I did a google search, came up with a recipe and just went with it. Glad I did! For all those fleece aficionados that might be reading this, better to just avert your eyes.  I did a lot of “bad” things this time around. I’ll be better next time I promise!

I laid out Linden’s fleece on the back deck. I did sweep the deck and I figured it would stay clean enough. But of course, every little bit of gunk in between the deck boards stuck to the fleece. Ah well, now I know why people put it down on cloth!  And I had no idea that a stinking pile of fleece was so attractive to animals.  I will keep the critters locked away for the next round!

Sheep ‘sweat’ a substance called lanolin, which is very greasy (in fact, used to grease things – lips, metal parts, etc).  Lanolin isn’t all that great for processing the wool though.  Some people spin “in the grease” but the lanolin also traps all sorts of dirt and grit.  Our sheep are particularly dirty, so the fleece was not going to be any good without getting rid of the lanolin.  Good things it’s soluble in hot water! Having never done this before, I tried a small batch in a plastic tub. Many directions suggested using your bath tub but after smelling the fleece, I wasn’t sure I wanted that anywhere near the place where I get my own body clean. So small tub it was.

When washing wool in hot water, you have to be very careful.  Wool will mat together – called felting – when agitated in hot water. Wool fibers have little scales on them that are loosened in high temperature. Rubbing them together causes them to lock with each other and you end up with felt. It can be a desired outcome if you want to make a fabric-like material, but I wanted to spin this stuff. So I carefully placed the wool in the hot water and simply let it soak. I used water from my tap – as hot as it would get, which is just uncomfortable for me to put my hand in.

The first soak also had regular laundry detergent in it. I’ve since received the advice that this strips the wool unnecessarily and to use something gentler like ordinary shampoo. I will be doing that next time! After 45 minutes in the hot soapy water, I gently pulled the wool out…and was shocked at how clean it already was! There’s a piece of unwashed wool nearby for comparison.

The second soak was just plain hot water for 30 minutes. Getting cleaner!

And finally a third soak in hot water with white vinegar (to help neutralize any remaining laundry detergent). The water is finally pretty clear!

The final step is to simply spread the wool out to dry. It was a beautiful sunny day so it didn’t take long before the damp mass was a white fluffy heap threatening to blow all over the yard.

I’m pretty happy with my first batch of cleaned wool. There is still plenty of “VM” (vegetable matter) stuck in the fibers but most of that will be removed during picking and carding…which will be included in Part II!

1 comment

  • Ruth Roesler said:

    Feb 12, 2012 10:55 am

    Interesting, can’t wait to see what comes next!