Washed and dyed wool–in Tropical Punch Kool-Aid.
One of the great benefits of having sheep, other than watching them dot (or clump, in the case of my sheep), is having all that lovely wool at your disposal. Unfortunately, sheep are dirty, so you have to clean it. If you’ve never washed a fleece before, it can seem a bit daunting, but it’s actually an easy process. You can wash a whole fleece at once, or wash it in batches.
Washed Cotswold wool, left natural (undyed).
Methods for Washing Wool at Home:
To wash an entire fleece, a common method is to use a washing machine for the soaker tub. Personally, I’m not into this method. I don’t wanna put a dirty fleece in my washer. I’m just too finicky for that. If I had a spare washer that I could dedicate to fleece-washing, I’d do that, but since I don’t, I prefer batch-washing.
Detergent and Vinegar:
Most commercial laundry detergents are too harsh for washing wool, but you can use Era. You can also use specially prepared detergents such as Orvus. (Look for it at feed stores.) Pure soap is not recommended as it may stick to the wool and be impossible to remove.
To wash a full fleece in the washing machine, I use Era with 1 3/4 cups detergent for the detergent bath and about a cup of white vinegar for the vinegar bath.
For the batch process, I use 1/4 cup detergent (Era) for the detergent bath and a couple of tablespoons of vinegar for the vinegar bath.
How to Wash Wool:
However you choose to wash your wool–by the fleece or by the batch–you’ll follow the same general steps, washing the wool in detergent followed by a couple of vinegar baths then a rinse bath.
To remove batches from your fleece, carefully separate a piece that will fit in your pot. Remember that the better skirted your wool is to begin with, the easier your wash will be. Take the time to do a pre-wash final skirting even if the wool has been through an initial skirting.
1) Soak the wool in a detergent bath for about 10 minutes. Use hot water, anywhere between about 110 and 140 degrees. The melting point of wool grease is between 95 and 104 degrees–you want your water above that melting point, but not higher than 140 degrees as that could damage the fibers. Take the temp of the hottest water out of your tap. If it’s not hot enough, simply heat the water briefly on the stovetop.
Important: Never scrub or agitate the wool, and do not apply or pour water directly onto it. Fill your pot with hot water first then add the wool and soak only.
2) Drain (using a colander) if washing in a batch on your stovetop, or spin out if using your washer.
Important: Skip over the first stage of the spin cycle! Water still runs into the washer at the start of the spin cycle and you can’t pour water directly over your fleece. Place your spin knob at the very end of the spin cycle.
3) Fill your pot or washer with water again. Add vinegar then add your wool. Let soak for about 10 minutes. Vinegar helps cut the detergent.
4) Drain as in Step 2.
5) Repeat the vinegar bath as in Step 3.
6) Drain again as in Steps 2 and 4.
7) Soak the wool one more time in plain water for a rinse bath, for about 5 minutes.
If you’re not satisfied with the cleanliness of your wool at this point, repeat the entire process.
Washing in batches, I still do a final spin-out of the clean wool in the washer to completely remove all the bath water before moving on to dyeing the wool. I also go over the wool one more time to remove any pieces that didn’t wash out well.
Important: Never take wool from hot water to cold water. Only transfer it from like temperature to like temperature or to a warmer temperature.
TIP: For the first (detergent) bath, you can leave the wool soaking overnight to dissolve stubborn dirt. Continue on with the steps to washing wool from there.
How to Dye Wool:
Use any specially prepared dyes or use unsweetened Kool-Aid, which is cheap and fun!
Place your wool back in a pot of hot water out of your tap. Use at least two or three packets of Kool-Aid to dye a pot of wool. You can use more if you want deeper color, and you can also use multiple colors to get a variegated effect in the wool. Dyeing wool is a creative process, so have fun! You can also leave your wool natural for a homespun look.
Let the wool sit in the dye bath for about 10 minutes–more for deeper color. Drain and move to a dry towel. After the towel has soaked up a good bit more of the water, you can either place your wool outside on a nice day–hang it on a chair or whatever is available–or allow it to dry on a rack inside (which will take longer). A nice breeze outdoors can dry a fleece in a few hours.
Now your wool is ready! Card it, spin it, felt it, or use it for other craft purposes. Look at this pretty wool! (Dyed in Grape and Black Cherry Kool-Aid.)
My sheep and I made that!