The Quick & Dirty Guide to Starting to Process Fleece
Updated: Aug 7, 2021
One of the reasons I love sharing the work that I do is because it encourages and empowers others to join in supporting the very things I’m passionate about, which at the heart of it, benefits everyone. I’m specifically talking about fibercraeft through the ecological and economic lens here--in supporting local farms and using natural, regenerative resources, while also lending purpose to the creative work we do. And while general awareness about how and why something is made is great, the knowledge and understanding that comes with ACTUALLY doing the work with your hands is a WHOLE ‘nother thing, which is why I’m writing this post about how to process a fleece. My hope is that with this quick and dirty guide, you will feel confident making a connection with a local farmer, acquiring your first fleece, and diving into the wooly goodness that comes with starting to process a raw material into something truly amazing and building a life-long relationship with your local fibershed. I have intentionally chosen to present this with as minimal tools as possible so that you can get started right away, but I have also included some extra items at the bottom of this post that are helpful in speeding up the process (but are definitely not necessary!). As always, if you have any questions feel free to contact me, and if you give it a try let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear from you!
**Note: if you are extra nervous about starting this, I might suggest trying your hand at processing an alpaca blanket. Alpaca fiber does not contain lanolin, so you can use lukewarm water to clean it relatively easy, and is much less scaly than wool, so the likelihood of it felting during the process is low. Plus there's been a boom in alpaca farms across the US (in fact, there's more alpaca farms than sheep farms in my fibershed), and I personally think alpaca is softer than cashmere!
Fleece to process
Long rubber gloves
Old towel or window screen
1. Acquiring a Fleece
Getting a good fleece to start with will make your first-time experience with processing wool a much more enjoyable experience. I recommend NOT buying online, but instead try finding a local fiber farm and visiting in person. This is an opportunity to make a friend with a local supplier and learn directly from the source and even meet the animal that created the fiber for you! Inspect the fleece to make sure the fiber isn’t matted/felted together, and it’s relatively clean. Note that there will be vegetable matter (VM) in it, which is okay (that’s part of the work of processing a fleece!) but if it’s terribly matted into the fiber, or if there are a bunch of short cuts or second cuts and uneven fiber lengths then that fleece won’t be very good for spinning. Need more info on this? Check out this article about canary stain, cotting, and other issues.
2. Skirt the Fleece
This is the process of removing the un-spinnable kemps of the fleece from “good” fleece. What determines the good quality fleece? Here’s a great article to learn about it. Essentially you want to have a pretty even length for all of the fiber you keep, so that when you’re spinning, the spin per rate of drafting of fiber is pretty even. Having a mix of short and long fibers together can often spin in lumps, which might be fine if you’re looking to spin an art yarn, but isn’t something you’d want if you’re looking to spin a hank of fine fingering or worsted weight yarn. Keep in mind that you WILL NOT be using every last bit of the fiber in your project (I know, as someone who wants to use everything to the fullest, this can be hard to stomach). You need to skirt the fleece for a reason, but there still is a use for the remaining wool--COMPOST! Wool is great for your garden soil, so if you have a composter, throw it in!
3. Wash the Fleece
This is where you will take out your two tubs. Fill one with super hot water (as hot as you can stand it while wearing your rubber gloves) and adding dish soap, and the other with lukewarm water (no soap). I like using Dawn dish soap, but you can also get specialty soaps like Unicorn Scour if you’d like. This helps clean the lanolin from the wool, and the dirt that clings to the lanolin in the water. If you’d like, you can let the water cool down and have the lanolin float to the top, and then skim off, OR if you’re impatient like me, you can just sit for 15 min before removing in handful size clumps (wearing your gloves) and gently squeezing out the water, before tossing into the second tub of lukewarm water (essentially your rinse cycle). Let soak for another 15 minutes before again removing handful-sized clumps, gently squeezing out excess water and moving to the drying step. While doing this, make sure not to agitate too much so as not to felt the wool, also be careful that you aren't moving from super hot to super cold water, which will also encourage felting of the fiber. *This soap/rinse cycle can be repeated as many times as needed to get fiber clean, you'll be able to tell because the rinse cycle of water will be relatively clear after use.
4. Dry the Fleece
You’ll want to lay your fleece out in a single layer on a towel, or as I prefer, a window screen suspended between two tables. Letting it dry outside in the sun is always nice, but it will dry just fine inside as long as there is good air circulation. Try turning on a fan if you have one. I recommend periodically flipping the wool over so that it dries quicker, but it will likely be 12 hours before you can move onto the next step in the process.
5. Pick the Fleece
Picking the fleece requires separating the fibers in order for any VM to be removed. The easiest and most minimal (but also slowest) way of going about this is to simply pull the fleece apart with your hands and remove any VM with your fingers. Other equipment that can be used are hackles or a wool picker, which will speed up the process, I’ve included my faves at the bottom of the post.
6. Card the Fleece
Carding the fleece is more or less the final step in processing your fleece, this time using finer-tooth combs like hand-carders or a drum carder to remove any of the tiny remaining bits of matter in the fleece, and lining up the fibers so that they lay parallel to each other. While you can certainly use dog grooming brushes from the pet store, I highly recommend getting yourself a good set of quality handcarders--they will last you a lifetime if you take care of them. There are also some light-weight, specialty curved ones that help if you get sore wrists like me. I personally like to make rolags with my handcarders so that I can immediately start spinning!
A set of long combs used to pick the fleece. You can sometimes find these at antique stores, but here’s a set of new ones you might want to try.
I LOVE my wool picker. What would take me a month to pick with hackles, I can do in a couple of hours. The reason why I like the specific one I've linked to is because I like the compact size, it’s handmade with care, and it has safety locks on it so you don’t accidentally hurt yourself with it.
They are pretty expensive, but worth it if you’re processing a lot of wool. I’ve seen them as hand-powered, electrically-powered, and even bicycle-powered! Use these with care, we have a problem of people over-filling them at our guild house to where wool pieces get wound up around the bearing of the drum, and it’s really hard to get un-stuck once the wool gets wound up in there!