Choosing and cleaning fleece for spinning

Working with fleece needn't be a daunting task. These basic guidelines will show you how to choose and clean fleece for spinning.

Choosing and cleaning fleece for spinning

Choosing your fleece

It is important to start with a good fleece. A dirty, matted fleece makes poor yarn, whatever the spinner's skill, and can be frustrating for a beginner.

Also make sure the fleece does not have a "break" in it. Take a staple (one lock of wool) and give it a sharp tug between your hands. If it pulls apart easily it means there is a weakness caused by sickness in the sheep, drought or some other factor which has affected the fibre during growth. To avoid this problem, it is best to buy wool from suppliers who are specialists in wool for hand spinners.

There are two main types of wool used by spinners — raw fleece and wool which is already carded.

  1. Carding is a process of combing wool which removes waste and separates the fibres. This wool is more expensive than non-carded wool, but there is no wastage. It is easier for a beginner to use wool that has been carded. It can be bought in a rope-like form called a sliver or roving, and in various colours, from natural white, grey and brown to a range of dyed shades. If you raise sheep, some carding suppliers will card your own fleeces. Check if they want the wool washed before you send them your fleece.
  2. If you buy raw wool, there are some basic points which will make your first spinning an enjoyable experience. Of the many different breeds of sheep, some are more suited to spinning than others. The staple of the merino sheep is fine with many crimps (waves); it is short, not too shiny and the tip of the staple is flat. A staple from a Romney sheep is coarser, has fewer crimps and is longer, with a more pointed tip and higher lustre. Staples such as the Romney are more suitable for spinning because the length makes it easier to spin. A staple with five to eight crimps per 2.5 centimetres (one inch) is a good range to aim for. You will need 1.5 to two kilograms (3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds) of wool to spin enough yarn for a jumper.

Cleaning the fleece

  1. Start by spreading the fleece outdoors, with the tips uppermost, and check for any dirty or matted parts. Remove these unwanted parts before you go any further. If the remaining fleece is otherwise clean, it should be ready to use.
  2. If the fleece is dirty it will need washing first. Wash about one kilogram (about two pounds) at a time. Take care not to agitate the wool while washing as this will cause it to mat; a series of soakings and rinsings is the simplest way to clean it.
  3. If the wool is very dirty, pre-soak it in hand-hot water for at least two hours. Remove it from the bath, press out any excess water and place it in a second bath of warm, soapy water for about half an hour.
  4. Rinse it well several times in warm water and then place it in a mesh bag or pillowcase and put it through the spin cycle of the washing machine.
  5. Spread the wool outside to dry. If you are dyeing wool, it must be well washed beforehand, as any grease left behind will make for uneven dyeing.
  6. Store the wool, whether washed or unwashed, in muslin or calico bags but not in plastic as this encourages condensation. Moth-proofing agents can be added while washing or when the wool is bagged.
  7. Remember that the longer unwashed fleece is kept, the harder and smellier the grease it contains will become.
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