Processing Raw Fleece Part 1 - Felting Fridays

Today's post has to do more with my latest obsession in the fiber realm than it has to do with felting, but hear me out. Why? Because, like an AA group, there are stages to become a full-fledged fiber addict. Except unlike AA, we're going backwards here - more addicted, not less. At least this one is mostly harmless, maybe except for your bank account (initially: see stage 5). I think it's highly likely that at some point on your fiber journey you will at least consider processing your own fleece.

Stages of Fiber Addiction

Stage 1 - You've just completed your first kit/project/felting class - "This seems like a fun hobby!"
Stage 2 - You're fairly comfortable felting pretty much anything that comes to mind. You spend less time looking at tutorials/videos. You may even join a few fiber-addict support groups, er, I mean needle or wet felting groups and textile art groups.
Stage 3* - You start learning about different types of fiber and expanding your collection beyond core/top and start looking for excuses to use things like locks, silks, exotic fibers, etc. "Can I felt with this?" You start searching for fiber festivals within day-trip driving distance of your home and may even attend a few.
Stage 4* - You learn how to dye your own wool, while remaining in the comfort zone of buying already washed/processed fiber for your dyeing purposes.
Stage 5* - You really want to learn how to process your own fleece, for two reasons. One, it's ultimately cheaper to buy your own raw fleece, especially if sourced from a destash group, because you can't beat spending $45 on 8lbs of alpaca fleece. You just can't. Two, because your quest for learning everything there is to know about fiber is insatiable. Yet another reason to go to a fiber festival.
Stage 6 (not all reach this point) - You start your own fiber farm, including any animal that has long enough hair/fur to use for your felting addiction. Have you heard of mangalicas? If you start your fiber journey on a farm, the other stages still apply.

*Important to note: during any of these stages you will likely start expanding your collection of fiber tools beyond the standard needles and foam (or soap and bubble wrap). See my previous guide posts to blending boards and drum carders. Yes, it's happened to me.

Hello world, my name is Magi. I'm in stage 5 of my fiber addiction, and I have no intention of quitting.

Now, onto processing raw fleece. This is not a definitive guide to doing so. This is just my story, my first steps and what I did, so maybe you're a bit less afraid to progress from stage 4 to stage 5. Because... it is kind of scary. I mean, nothing would ruin your day faster than felting your newly acquired fleece into a giant matted ball... unless, of course, you make the best of it and turn it into a cushion. Or maybe you could stab at the amorphous blob of wool for a bit and make it into something, right? The good news is, it's near impossible to wash all the fleece at once, so if you accidentally felt some of it, all is not lost. Also, I've had to piece together information from all the different sources. One source on what detergent to use. Another on how to wash the fleece (by hand) since many recommend using a washing machine at some point in the process and, well, I have a front loader which is not recommended for washing fleece. Also, a lot of the information out there is for people who spin fiber and, for those purposes, the intention is not necessarily to maintain the lock shape. It's just to wash the fiber. So where they might break up the fleece prior to washing, I wanted to keep the locks intact as much as possible. Note: Someone commented on my IG photo about separating the locks prior to washing them. Now, the videos I'd seen prior showed spinners who were washing their fiber just haphazardly pulling apart the fleece, and that is not what I wanted to do. However, the idea of gently separating the locks and then washing it has me intrigued, so I will be trying that next and will then update this post. Update: here's the link on separating the locks prior to washing to preserve them. I'm definitely going to try this with some of my fleece, especially the alpaca. 

If you've been following my Facebook page (I hope), you would've seen me posting unbagging videos and updates on my progress. There are two: my alpaca unbagging video, and my rather candid video while attempting to skirt the clun forest fleece (because I bought one that hadn't been skirted. It is possible to skip this step depending on what you buy).

building a skirting table

Last week I "splurged" a bit and ordered two fleeces. Then over the weekend, my enabler, I mean husband, with the assistance of our 4 year old (possible future fiber addict) was kind enough to build me a skirting table top. As they were working on that, I ordered a gallon of Unicorn Beyond Clean off Amazon, as recommended by none other than Marie Spaulding of Living Felt. I'd been going back and forth on getting it since it is definitely NOT cheap, but if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it "right" the first time (not that there isn't more than one way to do it, but I wanted to get the best possible results). On Saturday, the alpaca fiber arrived. 

Clun Forest fleece

On Tuesday, the clun forest fleece and the gallon of Beyond Clean also arrived. I got straight to work on skirting it outside. Lucky for me, it was a gorgeous day to do so. I was too lazy/impatient to drag the sawhorses out to raise the skirting table, so I just worked on it right there on the deck. It felt a bit third world squatting over fleece like that, which I didn't mind. I just imagined myself somewhere in South America with picturesque views and sounds of a nearby fruit stand (especially when I was shaking the heck out of the Huacaya alpaca fleece). 

The result of shaking out my fleeces, both the clun forest and alpaca.

On Wednesday, I started the process of soaking the clun forest. While that was happening, I took the alpaca outside to shake it out because alpacas are like giant puppies who love dust baths. Since it is not greasy like sheep's wool, I did have fluff flying all over the place and stuck to my clothes. The rest of the day if I dried my hands against my clothes I'd end up with fiber stuck to my hands. I want to add one thing here. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the tutorials I saw included separating the fleece prior to washing. I wanted to keep as many locks intact as possible, so I did not separate my fleece. I washed the wool in clumps that were still attached. The clun fleece was dirty. Seriously. The last time I saw water as dirty as after the first soak was when I shampooed our carpets. Don't judge, with a husband, two kids, a dog, and a wood burning stove, it doesn't take long to get gross. Especially with a medium-high-pile carpet which seems to attract even more stuff... I wish I had hardwood floors everywhere.

The wool on the left is after the second soak, no detergent used yet.

My process for the clun fleece (a combination of sharing what I did and what I learned):
1. Get water as hot as possible from the tap, fill the tub first without the fleece in it, add fleece, soak for about 30 min to an hour. Do not feel tempted to agitate. If you're working entirely indoors: pull the fleece out into a mesh hamper (I got mine at Walmart, and it folds!), then dump the water out. The second option is to dump the whole thing out over a mesh screen outside. If you use this method, do it slowly so you can let any VM that floated to the surface pour out, then press gently on the fleece to help squeeze the rest of the dirty water out. Place it back in the tub. I would have my second tub filling with hot water as I did this to cut down on waiting time. The first batch I washed I did indoors. For the second I was able to use the mesh screen outside.

My "washing station." The fleece was not washed in bags, but the alpaca was (which is what's drying in the back). This was a wading pool for the kids last summer, and this year will be a veggie box, but for now it works to contain the mud.

2. Repeat step 1, especially if really dirty. No point in wasting detergent until you got most of the grime off.
3. Add Beyond Clean to the water after it's done filling the tub. You don't want sudsy water. I did not have to boil water for this step - the hottest water from the tap was more than sufficient. I believe with certain other detergents, especially with Dawn, you do need to get the water really hot (it's something I read/watched, not speaking from experience). You don't need a lot. I used an oz for just over a lb of fiber (eyeballed, not precise). 
NOTE: If you notice some of your locks have dirty tips on them, you are going to want to work those out. I noticed that simply soaking/washing will not make them go away. The way I did this was, very gently, grab the lock at about the base with one hand, and with the other, in the water, pinch the lock and slide my fingers towards the tip to get the grime off. You want to do this in between washes because, as you'll quickly learn, some of that grime will get on the rest of your fleece and you'll likely want at least another wash/rinse to get it all out.
4. If it's dirty, repeat step 3, but you can use less detergent this time. Again, you really don't want sudsy water. 
5. Fill the tub one last time, no detergent, to make sure you rinsed it out. It does not have to soak as long this time. You do not want to shock your fiber at any point in the process with temperature extremes. The method I found best for this (tried it the second time around) was to rinse out your wool in smaller batches. I would take some of the wool, gently swish it around, take it out, press gently to squeeze excess water out before tossing it on my towel. Doing it this way helped to get some of the VM out, allowed any remaining dirt or grime (of which there wasn't much left) to sink to the bottom, and gave me a chance for a final check over the tips to see if I missed any. You will probably miss a few. Once I implemented the method of working the grime out of the tips in step 3 and this last bit, my wool looked a LOT cleaner overall. 

Some of the pieces are stained, but it came out mostly white. Much whiter than the raw wool

I rolled the towel up, pressed on it to help get some of the moisture out, then moved it to a table where I rolled it back up to dry overnight. If you want to do a victory dance, feel free to dance on top of the towel roll. My kids saw me doing it and joined right in. It shouldn't felt since it's all spread out and you're not rolling, just pressing the water out.

Stained locks from the first batch - as you can see, some of those tips still have grime on them, so I'm going to wash those one more time and work the grime out.

Now, the final step. When it dries, I separate into several piles. There is a pile with the brightest, cleanest, whitest locks. The pile with stained locks to be dyed. The pile with the dirty tips that I missed during the wash - once I'm done washing the entire fleece I'll go back and work the tips out. This should only require one wash and rinse. Then the final pile has just the fluff and any locks that didn't stay together which will be dyed and/or carded into batts. I may actually end up separating that pile as well into the stained wool and the white wool - that way I can keep the white as is, and everything else will have color on it. As I go, I pick the vm out of the fiber, especially the locks I want to keep. I'm not as worried about the stuff that will be carded because the carder will help with some of it.

Yes, my process is a bit painstaking, but I guess that's the perfectionist in me. As far as I'm concerned, it's a labor of love and my way of being respectful toward the animal who kindly allowed me to use its fleece. Plus, aren't those locks just gorgeous? 

I'll also add that while some people will toss the skirted mess, I'm going to wash it all. I will find a use for all of it. Frankly, poo does not scare me. Having raised pets and children and cloth diapered the babies, I am no stranger to it and it does not bother me as much as it once did. Plus, I want to see if it's possible. I hate to see all that wool go to waste. If I end up with a bunch of nepps from the short bits and second cuts, so be it. I'll probably dye those too and include them in a wet felting project.

Speaking of which, I'm going to be doing a giveaway! I haven't done on of those in a while, and I'd like to start doing them more often. I love all the support I get from you all, and I want to return the favor! So, for this next giveaway, you will need to head on over to my Facebook page, give it a like, and then participate in the art share weekend April 29-30. That gives you a week to either make something if you haven't in a while, or think about what you want to share. There are no rules to it other than to share your art! The winner of this giveaway will receive 1 oz of my Clun Forest locks.

P.S. I asked Marie during this past last Wooly Wednesday live chat about washing locks, and not only did she give some insight, she also recommended two books (which of course now I have to buy) and was considering doing a video on how she washes her locks. I mentioned that I would LOVE to see how she does it, because the locks that come from Living Felt are just wonderful, and I will definitely pass that video on to you/post it here if she does it.