One Way to Wash a Sheep's Fleece
I was very excited to find a North Ronaldsay fleece at the Royal Norfolk Show. It's from a 4 year old ewe called Dianthe. They're an interesting ancient breed originating from North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys where they have been fenced off the land and confined to the beach. You can find out more about the breed here, from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust's. It's one of the breeds that I first fell in love with when researching ancient European textile tools back in the 1980's. The following is how I wash a fleece, ready for spinning or whatever else you want to do with it. I was shown this method by some Shetland spinners in about 1977 when I visited. It's simple although it may look long-winded here. The fleece will come rolled up rather like a sleeping bag. The shearer will have extended the neck part out, twisted it around and tucked it in. So it's best if you can find this end and unroll it carefully. You can then examine the fleece and decide how you would like to divide it as you will want to wash it in smallish batches. How you split it rather depends on what you want to do with it, I think. The fleece along the back is always drier than elsewhere, and at the rear you may well get dag ends which may be best on the compost heap. (I love that term, dag ends - bit of a slang expression in Australia) I'm not too fussy how I sort the fleece as I no longer spin the fleece, but use it in my work where it's the colour I want. This particular fleece is small so I simply split it in half along the back. Like pasta, fleece needs lots of space in the water. Fill the sink (bucket, basin, whatever) with as hot water as you can get. If the fleece is really dirty, simply immerse the fleece into the hot water, push it under with a rod or wooden spoon, and leave it completely alone until the water cools off a bit. Let the water drain away - this is why I prefer a sink, where you can pull the plug and let the water drain. You want to handle the fleece as little as possible. Re-fill the sink with more hot water - just slightly hotter than the water you've drained away. Add detergent - the spinners in the Shetland islands told me they always use quality washing up liquid, so I do the same. You'll need more than if you were going to wash the dishes. Immerse your fleece again. Push it under the water. Leave it alone! When slightly cooler, drain the dirty water. Fill the basin with new hot water, no detergent. Immerse fleece again to rinse. Drain the water. Re-fill again with hot water, plus detergent. Two washes is usually enough. End with 2 or 3 rinses. This may sound long-winded and complicated, but this is what you need to remember: Handle the wet fleece as little as possible Leave it to soak in the water Don't use extreme changes of heat when transferring from one bath to another. Hot water + agitation + detergent = felt. Once felted, you can no longer spin it! Once rinsed, squeeze out as much water as you can. Lay it on a towel, and gently ring it out. Lay it out somewhere to dry Enjoy the results of your hard work and patience Here is my before and after washed fleece from Dianthe - lots of lovely tones of greys which I shall really enjoy using in my art and greeting cards. If you're a textile artist, I'd love to hear how you wash your fleece, and what you do with them afterwards. Do please feel free to add your comments below.