Friday, March 21, 2014

What's the best way to wash a fleece?

Last october I bought a piece of a Cormo fleece at the Shenandoah Fiber Festival, hoping to get it prepped in time to spin it up during Spinzilla.  Well, I washed it (I thought), but never got any farther along with it.  I was hoping that I would be able to card it with the only cards I own, which are really fine, because it is such a fine wool.  I've been learning a lot the hard way since.

Beautiful Cormo crimp.

In early February, I tried picking some of the fiber.  I found that all the bits of grass and dirt just stuck to the fiber.  In fact, the fiber felt greasy still, and kind of sticky itself.  I tried carding and spinning up a tiny bit, and it was pretty frustrating.  Carding wasn't too bad, but didn't get rid of the foreign material.  Spinning was hard because the fibers were sticking together.  I decided that if this was "spinning in the grease" it is not for me.

Washing the sample.  See how dirty it still is?  

Washed sample looks cleaner, but is uneven because of the stickiness, and still has particulate matter in it.

I decided to read up some more on washing fleece, and a little more on cormo in particular.  What I found is that cormo, along with some other fine fleeces, is really greasy.  Also, it is best to wash the grease out right away; if you don't, it can get old and "sticky".

So, I knew I was in for another wash job, but didn't know for sure what to try next.  There are so many opinions and styles of washing fleece, and I was so afraid of ruining my fleece by felting it up.  I decided to do some experimenting on small portions before I washed my whole fleece again.

The raw fleece before any washing.  It didn't look quite this dirty in person.
First, a description of my fleece.  I didn't really know much of anything when I bought it.  The lovely people who sold it to me had it in a bag and were selling it by the ounce.  They said, "Just pick what you want."  I didn't know what I was doing, and was a bit embarrassed, so I just pulled off a chunk of what was on top.  When I first washed it, I did it in a mesh laundry bag.  The fleece didn't have a very clear lock structure even then, so I just spread it out in the bag and laid that flat in my sink.  After drying in the bag and sitting for a few months, it was a bit of a jumbled mess.  Most of the fleece looked white, but the tips were still very orangy/yellow.  The longest locks are 2.5 inches.  Some are shorter.  There is a beautiful fine crimp to the fleece.

First washing in a mesh bag. 
I pulled off seven little pieces of the fleece, and set up my experiment.  The soaps I've seen suggested most often are dish soap, laundry detergent, and even shampoo.  One site had suggested baking soda to change the alkalinity of the wash water.  Warnings abound against too much agitation and shocking the fleece with cold water.  I decided to try both of these too.

For all samples, the initial wash (well, this is really the second, as the whole fleece was washed in dish soap in October) was in 140 degree water.  This was reported a few places as best for Cormo fleeces and their greasiness.  I let each soak long enough to cool some, drained it, then added the hottest water that came out of the tap as rinse water (except for Sample 6).  I ended up rinsing 4 times.  I varied the samples as follows:

Sample 1:  Dish Detergent (Dawn Pure Essentials)
Sample 2:  Shampoo (Herbal Essences)


First Wash
First Rinse

Sample 3:  Laundry Detergent (All Free Clear)
Sample 4:  Laundry Detergent + Baking Soda


First Wash

First Rinse

Sample 5:  Laundry Detergent + Agitation
Sample 6:  Laundry Detergent + Cold Water Shock


First Wash

First Rinse

My results were not all as I expected!  I would not assume that these results would all be the same with a different type of wool, especially the agitation and cold water shock, but it was comforting to know that at least in this case, I didn't need to panic about either one.  After washing and drying, I picked each sample, carded it, spun it as a singles, and then navajo-plied all six samples into a tiny skein. Here are the notes I made during the process:

Sample 1: Dish Detergent

This fleece is so much better after an additional washing, it is hard to criticize.  There was still quite a bit of vegetable matter, but it mostly shook free in the picking.  The fleece is much fluffier, and felt clean, not greasy.  The fleece combed ok, but had little dense areas (almost neps).  The vegetable matter that still remained didn't fall out in the combing, and was still hard to pick out.  When I spun this little bit, I was disappointed that the fiber didn't spin out smooth.  There were little bumps and neps that made an even draw difficult.

Dish Detergent Sample after drying

Dish Detergent Sample after carding

Sample 2: Shampoo

Picking this bit of fleece right after the one washed in dish detergent, it was clear that it was softer and smoother.  It didn't feel greasy in any way, just softer to the touch (like conditioned hair would).  It picked easily and released a lot more grit.  Combing went well, and the fleece was cleaner than the bit I washed in dish detergent.  It spun more easily than the first sample, but still had a bit of grit and tiny neps of fiber.

Shampoo Sample after drying

Shampoo Sample after carding

Sample 3: Laundry Detergent

The first benefit to the laundry detergent is that it doesn't suds up like dish detergent.  The sample felt about the same as the shampoo sample to the touch--soft and smooth.  As I picked though, there was a big difference.  This sample came apart much more easily as I picked.  It is my clear favorite so far.  The locks seemed to fall apart and fluff up, dropping remaining grit and dirt as I went.  Combing was a dream: easy, with no sign of neps, just an even beautiful batt.  It spun up smoothly too.

Laundry Detergent Sample after drying

Laundry Detergent Sample after carding

Sample 4: Laundry Detergent with Baking Soda

I didn't notice an appreciable difference when adding the baking soda.  I expected the fleece to look or feel a little cleaner, but it didn't.  I think it feels a little less soft, and was a bit harder to pick than the sample washed in laundry detergent alone.  It felt pretty much like the dish detergent sample.  When combing, it was a little stiffer than the sample without the soda.  Spinning was not quite as smooth as without the soda.

Laundry Detergent and Soda after drying

Laundry Detergent and Soda after carding

Sample 5: Laundry Detergent with active washing and agitation

I've been so careful about all of my washing because I'm so afraid of felting my fleece.  I decided to treat this one sample roughly and see what happens.  I actively swished this sample in the hot water many times, turned it, picked the tips apart, and rubbed any parts that looked dirty.  I'm amazed by how good this sample looks in the end.  There might be a couple little spots that are tighter looking.  It was a little harder to pull apart in picking.  When combing, the fiber stayed uneven longer, with areas that looked like neps, similar to the sample washed in dish detergent.  My take-home from this is that at least with this fleece, I can do some gentle swishing of my fleece while washing and not worry at all.

Sample with plenty of agitation (not much cleaner)

Agitated sample after carding (you can see it's still has debris)

Sample 6: Laundry Detergent wash shocked with ice water

Everyone says not to shock your wool with cold water, as the scales will suddenly close up and cause felting.  I decided to go all the way and went from the hot soak water to ice water dumped on the sample.  I then repeated the hot wash and cold rinse.  There is no striking amount of felting in this sample, though like with the agitation, I could tell in the picking that it was a tiny bit harder to pull apart.  The combing went well, with the fiber just a little more resistant than my ideal sample washed in laundry detergent.  The most interesting thing to me about this sample is how clean it is.  It is noticeably whiter than all the other samples.  It's hard to see why this would be true. Perhaps the cold water closed the scales on the fiber shafts and allowed the wool to rinse cleaner?

Cold Shocked Sample after drying

Cold Shocked Sample after carding

The right-hand sample is the cold-water shocked one.  Can you tell in the photo that it's whiter?
Spun Product:

You can tell in the final yarn that some of the samples were cleaner than others.  It's hard to show in the picture which is which, but the cold shocked sample is the really white one on the right-hand side of the bobbin.

Singles in order: 1-6 go sect to right.

Navajo Plyed

You can see the samples that were easier to spin, and the one that's whiter.

Final Results:  

Laundry Detergent all the way!

I will always wash in laundry detergent in the future.  I believe I will also try a 24-48 hour cold water soak as my first step, and hope that I get some of the benefits that I got in my cold water shocked sample.  I also think I'll take a small sample and wash and agitate it before I wash the rest so that I know how worried I need to be about my treatment of the fleece.

I took these results and washed the entire fleece again, did several rinses and then dried it.  This time, I let the fiber float freely in my sink, but I had the mesh bag floating below it, so I could pick it up to drain.  After drying, I found the fleece STILL felt greasy, so I went through the whole process again.  I think part of my problem was that I only used the hottest water the tap would produce, instead of heating the water to 140 deg F.

Now that the fleece is clean and I've done some picking, I really think that lots of my problem with neps is the fleece itself.  It has little bits of short fiber (don't know if they'd qualify as second cuts, but probably), and I don't think I got the best part of the fleece.   I also don't know if the neps and bumps in the carded fleece were caused by my inexperience with carders.  At least it was an inexpensive investment for me to learn on!



  1. This is such a fabulous post! Can I ask which brands of dish and laundry detergent you used? I've been working on my first fleece and wish I had done some experimenting like this. Some of the permanently yellowed spots could be from canary staining (people have told me) but your fleece really looks lovely.

    1. I'm also working with a short-stapled, crimpy fleece (Southdown) and people suggested I just flick the locks open and spin from there, or flick them first before carding. When you say 'pick' what do you mean? And did you comb them as well or just card? (Just curious!)

    2. I'm so glad you like the post! On the hello, I considered canary staining, but I really don't think so. It doesn't have that bright yellow color, and it's just the tips. I think it is more "tippy wool" where the ends are just too weathered.

  2. Whoops! I didn't meant to publish without finishing my answer! You have a Southdown fleece? Sounds really fun! If you have really well preserved locks, I can see just flicking them and spinning from there. I don't know if it would be worth the work if it wasn't a pretty long staple too. Mine was pretty messy. You asked what I mean when I say "pick". I mean the step after washing, before carding, where you take a handful of wool and pick it apart with your fingers, loosening any tight parts, picking out any remaining vegetable matter, and removing any bad bits. I have to admit I find it very tedious, but the carding doesn't go well without this step. There are lots of videos, and it seems (like with carding) that everyone does it a bit differently!

    You asked which brands of dish and laundry detergent I used: I think I'll add that to the post, because I should have said! I used Dawn Pure Essentials for Dish Detergent, and All Free Clear for the Laundry detergent. Neither have added dyes and the All Laundry Detergent also has no added scents. We have some sensitive skin in our family, so I've used it for years. Thanks for asking, and let me know how the Southdown turns out!