How to Wash Fleece

Chardonel's fleece sample

Why is it that many people find themselves resisting the act of washing fleece?  Perhaps they see lovely fleeces at a fiber show where they feel the lovely soft quality of the wool, and they can envision the fiber made up into that special project they’ve been dreaming of.  They’d love to use the pattern they bought so long ago to create, from “scratch”, that perfect sweater, or vest (or fill in the blank).  Yet they are intimidated by the idea of actually washing the fleece.  Where do they start?  What if they do something wrong and ruin the fiber?

Can we ruin the fiber?  Sure, but we can also ruin good sweaters, and that doesn’t stop us from washing them.  We just pay attention to how we can do it safely.  So let’s look at how we can do the same thing with a fleece, and open the door to all kinds of opportunities for ourselves.

First off, washing fleece can be safe and relatively easy.  It can actually be the kind of experience we can enjoy!  Keeping in mind that Icelandic fleece has less lanolin in it than many other kinds of fleece, this makes it easier for us to scour.  There are three things that we should keep in mind if we want to be successful, and a few others that can make the job.

The three most important things to remember are:

  1. Proper washing agent
  2. HOT water—at least 160 degrees 
  3. NO agitation—and we mean NONE WHATSOEVER!

Keeping in mind those three, let’s take this process step by step.

Choosing a washing agent

The general rule of thumb here is that any good detergent will work well.  For many years, soap was the agent of choice, simply because detergents hadn’t been developed yet.  But soap is highly alkaline, and the alkali in soap opens up the scales on wool fibers, aiding in the felting process.  Since we definitely don’t want our washed fiber to felt if we are going to spin it (ever try spinning felt?), we want to stay far, far away from soap.  Detergent, on the other hand, is not as alkaline and contains a cleaning agent known as a surfactant, which means that it makes water “wetter”, breaks down the grease particles of lanolin and thereby aids in getting rid of dirt.  It is important, though, if you are going to use detergent, NOT to get a detergent containing bleach, as the bleach can make wool fibers brittle and rough.  

An excellent washing agent is a product made by Shaklee, called Basic H.  It is all natural product, is biodegradable, contains no harmful chemicals, and does a beautiful job.  It is not a cheap solution—however, for most fleece and certainly Icelandic, one wash will be enough, whereas with other detergents, often two or three washes are necessary to do a good washing and scouring job.  About ¼ cup of Basic H to a washer load of fleece is sufficient, which means that in the long run, you will be using much less and therefore not paying more to get the same jobs done.  The Shaklee products are advertised as being good for the earth—actually some farmers use the product as a natural wormer (clean the inside of the sheep and also the outside?)  For those of us who are ecologically sensitive, this is an excellent solution.

Another popular choice is Dawn dishwashing detergent, which has a good pH level, and seems to do a excellent job.  Most of the references I have found refer to using the original blue product.  I’ve read that this product has even been used on birds caught in oil slicks, which says something about not only its effectiveness, but its gentleness.  To get the heavy awful oil out it has to have strength, but if it’s used on the delicate feathers of birds without rendering them useless, it also has to be mild and nontoxic. 

Getting the Fleece Wet!

There are a number of places where our washing can take place:  a bathtub, a large washtub, or a washing machine are several.  If we choose the washing machine, we must remember our third most important item above—NO AGITATION, EVER.  Wool, especially Icelandic wool, has a tendency to felt.  In Icelandic wool, it approaches a compulsion!  Agitation, or rubbing the wool fibers against each other, causes felting.  Each individual fiber in a fleece has very small, microscopic scales that normally lie flat against the fiber, allowing it to be an individual.  When the combination of heat, washing agent  and agitation are combined, those same scales “bloom”, opening up so that they catch hold of other fibers and hold them irrevocably together as a bound group, the “community” of felt.  

Now that we have the washing agent, let’s move on to the next step.  We can either just wash our fiber to remove dirt, or we can do what is called scouring, which is removing dirt AND lanolin.  Why should we want to remove the lanolin, which we’ve all heard is a wonderful, moisturizing element popular in the lotions we put on our hands, faces and bodies?  It would seem that this would be a positive thing, not a negative.  After all, doesn’t that contribute to the wonderful waterproofing of a sheep?  Well, all the above points are true.  However, lanolin as it ages also undergoes a change and becomes sticky and hard, a substance that would definitely have a negative impact on most of our projects.  Given that, we will probably want to scour the wool, which means using very, very HOT water, up to 160 degrees if we can get it there.  We need the heat of the water to help soften the lanolin, so that it can be dissolved and rinsed out of the fleece.  In a washing machine, we’ll want to use the hottest setting we can to fill the washtub.  If we are using one of the other options, we may need to boil some water to add to the water coming from the faucet, since we don’t have the insulating factor of the washing machine body.  For simplicity, this article will focus on the use of a washing machine.

So let’s fill the empty washtub now.  DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT PUT THE FLEECE INTO THE TUB WHILE FILLING IT!  The very act of the water pouring over the fleece can felt it!  We start with the washtub empty and fill it with the HOT water discussed above.  After the tub is filled, stop the wash cycle, and pour your washing agent in the water, stirring gently. For Basic H, use ¼ cup.  For Dawn, use ½ cup.  Use a paddle or durable instrument to stir gently to distribute the washing agent evenly in the water—the water will be too hot for your bare hands, or it won’t be hot enough.  At this time, move your dial to the final spin part of your wash cycle.  Do this before you put the fiber in.  It’s too easy for someone, even you, to accidentally start up the wash cycle without remembering to change the dial, and then your fiber will start to felt, eliminating this fiber from being spun.  Now that the machine is stopped and your washing agent is in the water, carefully lay small amounts of your fiber into the water, pushing it gently down, being careful not to move it back and forth at all.  Do not put too much fiber in, or the water and washing agent can’t circulate around it enough to clean it.  Some people really want to spin from the lock structure, and if you’re one of those, you may want to put your fiber in mesh bags so that you’re sure not to disturb that lock structure.

Let the fiber sit in the water for about 15-20 minutes, and then use your spin cycle to extract the water from the fleece.  Do not let the fleece stand in the water for much longer than this, because that very lanolin and dirt which the hot water and detergent has been working on suspending in the water will settle back on the fiber, causing more washes to be necessary.  

Also, be sure to use the final spin cycle, so that the machine doesn’t go right into the rinse cycle, energetically pouring water over your fiber and felting it into a lovely felt bagel!  Also, be VERY careful that there is no water coming into the washer during the spin cycle—remember the lovely felted bagel?  If necessary, turn off the water coming into the washer while spinning, but don’t forget to turn it back on when you’re finished!

After spinning, gently remove the fleece and place it in a wash basket or other container, while you refill the washer for the rinse/soak phase.  Use the same temperature of hot water for the rinse cycle so that you don’t shock the wool and felt it, and follow the directions above without the washing agent.  If you want, you can add a little vinegar to the rinse water; some people swear by this as a finishing step to restore the natural pH of the fiber and release all the detergent, thereby giving a softer feel to the fleece.  Now check the state of the water: is it cloudy?  If so, that indicates either residual detergent or dirt, and the fleece needs to be rerinsed.  For Icelandic fleece, one soaking/washing should be sufficient, with one rinsing.   Check this out by taking a handful of your fibers in your hand, squeezing them gently.  Now pat your hand dry with a hand towel.  When you open and close your hand into a fist, does it feel tacky?  If so, repeat the washing/rinsing process.  If not, we’re a go for drying

Drying the fleece

Your fiber can be dried many ways; the important thing is to not spread it too thickly, to check it occasionally, and turn it if needed.  Some folks have made screens that are three feet square and fit in a drying rack, so that the fiber lies on shelves about 6 inches apart.  This is a good use of space.  Others put the fiber on sweater dryers.  Some individuals prefer to dry their fiber outdoors on nice days—if you do this, you may want to cover the fiber with a thin netting to keep it from blowing away should a wind come up.  Whatever method you choose, be sure the fiber is dry before storing it in anticipation of the exciting job of spinning!

© HeartsEase Farm, Dansville, NY 14437 --  2012