Getting More Out of Your Wool, part 1: Shearing and Processing


It’s April and some of us are preparing to shear our sheep while others have already conquered that task.  What will you do with your bags of wool?  Keep it for yourself?  Sell it as raw fleece?  Or process it and sell the finished product?

In the January 2010 newsletter, we talked about keeping your sheep’s wool in tip-top shape in preparation for shearing (see “Winter Care for a Cleaner Fleece”).  This spring I want to discuss shearing, washing and carding your wool.  After reading this you’ll be able to decide if processing wool is for you or if you’d rather send it to a mill.

One thing any handspinner can’t stand is 2nd cuts.  These are very short cuts of wool that occur when you go over the same area more than once with your shears.  Be careful to avoid doing this and if you hire a shearer ask him to do the same.  Any 2nd cuts you do find when skirting need to be removed from the fleece. 

Skirting your fleeces may be a little daunting for anyone new to sheep or wool, but once you do a few you’ll get the hang of it.  Basically, you want to remove the belly wool, and any matted or soiled wool, including the neck wool which can get lots of hay bits in it.  For a detailed guide to skirting see “OUR FIRST NTSRI TUNIS WOOL SHOW!!” in the January 2009 newsletter.  Shaking your fleece out will help remove some of the dust, dirt and vegetable matter (VM).

Now that you have a beautifully skirted fleece in your hands it’s time to wash it!  You can wash a whole fleece in your bathtub or another large container that can hold hot water, or if you’d rather, you can wash smaller batches in your sink.  Washing your wool in laundry bags keeps it together nicely.  Some people like to use very hot water (160F+) but most people just use hot tap water (120F).  Different people also have different views on what detergent is best.  Some will only use Dawn, but I’ve started to use laundry detergent after learning that some fiber mills use it.  The following are the steps for washing your wool:

  1. Fill your sink or tub with enough hot water to cover your fleece and add some detergent. 
  2. Stir the water a little to mix the detergent in but don’t make bubbles.  Lay the fleece gently in the water.  You can push it under the water, but don’t agitate it or you’ll felt the wool.
  3. Let the wool soak for 15-20 minutes then take the wool out of the water and drain the sink or tub.  Gently squeeze the water from the wool.
  4. Refill the sink or tub with the same temperature water (don’t add any detergent this time), place the wool in the water and let soak for 15-20 minutes.  Take the wool out of the water and drain the sink or tub.  Gently squeeze the water from the wool.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.  If the water isn’t quite clear you can rinse one more time.
  6. If you’re washing small batches of wool you can use a salad spinner to spin out all the excess water; or if you have a top loading washing machine you can use that by setting it to the spin cycle.

Once you have all the excess water out of your wool lay it flat on a drying rack, lawn chair or even a skirting table to dry.  Drying time will depend on air circulation and temperature.  If you’re drying wool indoors putting a fan near the wool will help it dry faster (don‘t point it directly at the wool).  A word of caution – cats and other animals do like to lie on or play with drying wool!  Remember to consider this when finding a drying spot for your wool.

Once you fleece is fully dry it’s time to pick and card it.  Picking is the process of “opening up the fleece.”  You can use a picking tool or simply use your hands.  Pull the wool apart and fluff it up – if any VM remains in the wool this step will help it fall out.  Carding can be done with hand carders, a drum carder or even an electric drum carder.  Hand carding is relatively easy, but it does take a little practice. 

  1. First, hold one carder in one hand with the handle pointed away from you. (I’m right-handed so I put this carder in my left hand.)
  2. Draw wool across the carder; take the other carder (the working carder) in your other hand and place over the 1st carder (the stationary carder). 
  3. Gently brush the working carder over the wool and towards you.  Repeat this several times until the fibers are evenly distributed across the carder.
  4. Place the toe end (the end without the handle) of the stationary carder on the heel end (the end with the handle) of the working carder.
  5. Push the stationary carder along the teeth of the working carder and transfer the wool to the working carder.
  6. Card the wool onto the stationary carder again.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 until the fibers are all well aligned.
  8. Roll the fiber up towards the heel end of the carder to make a rolag.  You can spin using a rolag or use it for felting.

Hand carding is confusing to explain but there are many resources online that have photos or videos.  Here are some of my favorites (you can also google “hand carding” or “drum carding” for additional resources):

Once you’ve carded your fiber you’re ready to spin it or felt it.  As you can see, a beginner fiber enthusiast can do any of this.  It can be time consuming (washing, for example) but it’s not difficult.  And, as with anything, practice makes perfect.  We’ll discuss spinning and felting in the next newsletter!  I hope you’ll join me.

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