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Details About Washing Fleece

This is certainly a topic where there is no one correct answer. Besides all fleeces being different in dirt, grease and felting properties, each individual or mill clearly has their own method of washing fleeces. This web page explains how we wash here at the Morro Fleece Works mill, then offers some tips on washing your own fibers at home and last, some other general washing information.

MFW wash methods – extreme details:
To me, this seems like boring reading. However, many people ask me exactly how we wash the fleeces here. So here you go:

We have a row of several used, standard, top load home washing machines here at the mill. We use these only for soaking and spinning out. In used machines, we prefer super capacity, white interior and no water emitting during the spin out stage. We have two 50 gallon gas hot water heaters set up right behind the washers so the hot water is almost instantaneous. These two heaters are turned all the way up so the hot water is 150 degrees. This can’t-touch-it hot water fills all but one machine in the row of washers before the tanks are emptied of the extremely hot water. The last washer fills with cooler water; about 110 degrees and we use this machine for washing alpaca or llama each day.

On our huge skirting table on the back patio, we bag the fleeces into large mesh wash (laundry) bags. When prepping the fleeces for wash, we are noting characteristics of the particular fleece and will bag it accordingly. These notes are written on the workorder during this initial hands-on look at the fleece. The notes assist us in tracking and handling the fleece as it moves thru the mill. With all fleeces, we pull the locks apart and quickly open up the clumps by hand so the soap and water can penetrate the fiber. The only exception to this is if a client is requesting a “wash only – in the lock” which most likely will be used for lash spinning or tail spinning a non carded yarn. In pulling apart the locks for wash we are feeling for anything in the fleece that would damage our machines. These would include sticks, bark, hoof trimmings, matted or felted pieces and any foreign objects. We are also checking for problems that might cause us to reject the order; such as fleeces with a too long or too short staple, excessive vegetable matter (VM), tender or break, scurf, dander and lice nits. Super fine and greasy wools such as Cormo or Bond are bagged lighter than downy wools such as Cheviot, Oxford or Dorset to ensure better washing success. Two evenly filled wash bags per washer keep the machines balanced during spin out.

We fill each washer first, without the wool inside and one washer at a time. Water running directly onto the fiber can cause felting. Generally, we do 3 washes and 2 rinses. This is an all day process simply because after filling all of the washers it takes about 45 minutes for the hot water heaters to heat the water back up to 150 degrees. Spinning out and refilling all of the washers also takes about 30 minutes so with each cycle being about 80 minutes these 5 cycles take most of the work day. After filling a washer, we press the two wash bags of fiber down into the hot water with big wooden ladles. These ladles enable us to avoid touching the super hot water and they float if you drop them. The notes on the workorder from the person who bagged the fiber and also the type of fiber will determine the soap that we use. We use Orvus wa-paste for open fleeces such as the down wools and it also works well on Romney and Jacob. I like citrus orange based Citra Solv laundry soap for long wools, alpaca, llama and mohair. We use Dawn for all of the fine wools and we usually use Dawn for the third wash on all of the wools. Each washer has between 5 and 10 lbs. of fiber in it and I use 6 oz. of Dawn per cycle/washer. I do not like using Orvus or Dawn on alpaca since it is snotty/slimy and tends to want to felt it. It is also hard to rinse out. We wash approximately 50 lbs. of raw fiber each day which computes to about 40 lbs. of clean fiber.

The water in the second rinse must be clear and clean with no suds, no discolored water and no milky appearance. We do a third rinse if we see any of this. After the final spin out rinse the fiber is removed from the wash bag and pulled apart while still warm to avoid any felting from the wash. Then it goes onto our drying racks and into the drying closet. The fleeces are air dried with no heaters.

 

Tips for washing your fiber at home:
• Check first to see if your washing machine adds water during the spin cycle – this feature is to balance the clothes for the spin out but it can cause felting.
• Vegetable matter (VM) doesn’t usually wash out. It can be removed by hand picking before or after washing.
• No agitation during wash or rinse!
• All soaks should be at least 20 minutes to give the fiber scales time to relax. But don’t wait too long to spin it out or the water will start to cool; redepositing the lanolin and dirt.
• Water should be clear on that last rinse – no soap, no lanolin, not “grey”
• Down type wools are more resistant to felting than others.
• Double coats, fine wools and alpaca do felt easily.
• Avoid the dish or laundry soaps with “oxy” or “stain lifter” features.
• You will need to work to remove all of the lanolin; especially with fine wools or the carding will create noils.

 

Some things we have learned along the way:
• Many uncovered raw fleeces appear to be one color but are dramatically different after washing. We can tell when this is happening by the color of the water during the first wash soak. That water might be red, black, tan or brown depending on the color of the dirt where the fiber animal lives. A fleece labeled as fawn or moorit might actually be a pure white!
• We have tried many different soaps here including the high priced, advertised, specialty wool washing brands and I have had the best results with the soaps we are currently using. But there are many methods and applications so use what works for you and your fiber.
• We buy the Dawn in one gallon jugs at a local Smart and Final restaurant supply store. The orange Citra Solv Laundry soap is ordered in cases thru our local natural foods co-op. We obtain Orvus in cases thru a farm vet supply company.
• Sometimes prewashed fine wool fleeces come in to the shop with a hard waxy feel to the fleece. They feel like wool encased in candle wax. Basically the customers home wash attempt has removed all of the liquid and the dirt from the fleece but left the hard grease in the wool. I am assuming this was due to the water not being hot enough or perhaps not using enough grease cutting soap. Fine wools in this condition are actually harder to get clean then the original raw fleece. These fleeces will feel stiff from the waxy lanolin and it is difficulty to pull apart the locks for rewashing. These will almost always incur the higher wash price.
• There is a distinct smell to certain raw fine wool fleeces that alert me to them being extremely difficult to remove the lanolin. This is a somewhat unpleasant odor and hard to describe. It is different than that “barn yard smell”. For years I assumed these were intact male ram fleeces but I have seen some with female names or labeled ewes so that theory is wrong. Wools with that odor have excessive stubborn grease.
• Internet research suggests that soaking wool in ammonia will dissolve or remove scurf and dander. I have not found this to work. I have yet to find anything that will easily, safely and economically remove dander and skin flakes from the fiber.
• Have you ever looked at how clean the water is during a rinse cycle in your home clothes washing machine? Since opening the mill in 2002 and finding myself immersed in wool washing techniques, I now do two rinses for my clothes washing at home. I had always assumed that the rinse water was clean. But I find it is usually still dirty and has soap suds in it. I now do a second rinse on all of my home laundry. Try it yourself and see.