How to wash big batches of fleece
Washing entire fleeces efficiently has been a must for me because I love to start my projects from the ground up—washing, picking, dyeing and carding before I go ahead and spin. I have long used the washing machine method—this is where you soak and then spin the fleece using a top loading washing machine. The important thing is you never, ever let it agitate. So you need to have the kind of top loading machine that gives you some control over the wash function. Mine is an older machine—about 20 years old, and it has a fairly basic mechanism. I know that when I go to replace it, I will be looking for something similarly basic and not so digital that it won’t let me just soak and spin.
I have heard of people who have had problems with fiber somehow getting into the mechanism and gumming up their washing machine, requiring expensive repairs. Though I have not experience this, you can make or purchase a mesh bag to keep the fleece contained. I recommend this if you have any concerns about hurting your machine.
Before washing, I like to spread the fleece out on a sheet to look it over. This provides an opportunity to pick out anything missed at skirting such as the odd second cut or blade of grass--even fleece from the most fastidious shepherd will have one or two things to find. Plus it is a nice opportunity to become better acquainted with the fleece, which is my main purpose for doing this.
My Whirlpool washing machine holds from two to three pounds of fleece per load. If I have a large fleece of over three pounds, I divide it in two. I fill the basin with hot water. (The water from my tap is not very hot as we set our water heater low for energy conservation--though some people recommend really hot water, I haven't found it necessary. Some spinners believe if the water cools, the dirt will redeposit on the fleece. I have not seen this happen--the soap should prevent this. Also, you can do a hot water presoak for about one hour, then spin the fleece out and then prepare the soapy wash water. Just plain water removes a lot of dirt.)
I then add about 5-8 loads worth of my favorite laundry detergent, which happens to be not animal tested, lavender scented and ph balanced stuff I get at Trader Joes. Any ph balanced laundry detergent is fine (though for awhile I had good luck with a cheapo brand until I learned that ph balanced was a better choice. The cheapo brand didn’t say if it was ph balanced). Another favorite among spinners is Dawn dish detergent and I have found Dawn to be the best thing for fine wools which tend to be greasy, or if you need to rewash a fleece grown tacky in storage. I blend the detergent in the water and add my 2 to 3 pounds of dirty fleece to soak.
Warning! Never run water on the fleece, just as you should never let it agitate. Both of these actions can cause the wool to felt. I know from experience that letting it agitate will definitely felt it.
After soaking for a few hours, I set the machine to spin. Sometimes a machine will squirt water while spinning. So far, this has not caused me any problems. Remove the fleece. There may be some dirt at the bottom of your tub, so you’ll want to wipe that out.
Next, you will want to refill the tub with either hot or warm water—try to get it somewhat close to the temperature at the end of the last soak. Add another 5 to 8 loads worth of soap and then add your fleece. Let this soak for a few more hours (this load usually ends out soaking overnight with me). Spin and then remove the fleece etc.
Now it is time to rinse. It is basically the same procedure as washing without the soap. You put the fleece in clean warm or cold water (again, you are aiming to approximate the temperature of the last soak.) I find I need to rinse at least twice, but usually rinse three times.
I follow my loads of fleece with a load of towels or sheets before I start doing the general laundry. Though truly, fleece is no worse than the muddy dog towels I have to wash from time to time.
I set up a rack contraption to dry my fleece because I tend to wash a lot of fleece in spring. It is pictured above and is made up of two wooden drying racks and some plastic puppy gates. The whole thing cost me about $5 to make because I purchased the components at tag sales. Not only is it great for drying, but it will come in handy the next time we get a puppy! You can also perch a puppy gate or old window screen on a wood rack for drying one fleece. The key is to have good air circulation. Years ago, my drying contraption was chicken wire stretched over a wood frame and held up by two sawhorses. Once it is on the rack, I turn the fleece from time to time to speed drying, though it will also dry quite nicely on its own without this extra help.
The instructions above are for washing uncovered fleeces—that is fleece from sheep who have not had to wear coats all summer. Covered fleeces will be much greasier and will need much more soap to come clean. I no longer purchase fleeces from sheep who have been coated during the summer months as I have encountered numerous problems with this kind of fleece—and believe, contrary to popular opinion, that covered fleece is an inferior choice for handspinners.