How to Prepare Wool for Spinning

by Ragtimelil

If you have your own sheep, or were given a fleece, now you need to know how to get it ready to spin.

If you've ever wondered how the fleece from the sheep gets turned into yarn, here's a brief description of the process.

Once the fleece is shorn off the sheep it goes through several steps to become ready to spin into yarn. There are several methods of preparing the fleece for the spinner. Some spinners do nothing much at all and spin it pretty much as is. Other methods involve skirting, scouring, washing, dyeing carding and pulling into batts or roving.

All photos by Lana Pettey

First, Get Some Fleece

Some professional shearers won't trouble themselves to come out if you only have a few sheep. Sometimes you can take your sheep to another farm and combine the flock so it's worth it for the shearer to come out.I learned to shear my own sheep, but I was by no means an expert at it.

If you don't have sheep, look for people who have sheep but don't use the fleece. Check local farms, Craigslist or other sources for raw fleece. Sometimes you can get it cheap or even free.

Shearing a Sheep

Here's someone who knows what he's doing.

Spinning In the Grease

One method of using the fleece is to spin it just as it comes off the sheep with just a light flicking with a brush. This is called spinning in the grease because the wool has not been washed.  It’s great for the spinners hands since the lanolin from the wool will keep them soft and it makes a water repellant garment if it’s not scoured, but washed gently. It does make it more difficult to dye, however.

Skirt Your Fleece

I don’t feel that the yarn spun in the grease really gets clean when it’s washed and I like to dye my wool, so I prefer to wash my fleece before spinning. The first step is to skirt and separate the fleece. This means pulling out any matted or dirty fibers, and picking out as much of any hay or seeds that have found their way into the fleece. This can be very time consuming if the fleece is very dirty or full of hay.

 

A raw fleece from my sheep

Playing Dodgeball with your Sheep

Of course sheep like to stand right in front of you when you throw hay to them so they get the maximum amount of hay on their backs. I’ve actually run up and down the fence trying to dodge the sheep on the other side so I could throw the hay over without dumping it on the sheep.

 

 

A few sheep eating hay

 

I might add that any fleece that is too dirty or matted to use is wonderful in your compost bin or as mulch. It never need be wasted. Just one word of caution; if you pile it up around a plant, it might look like a dead animal to a casual visitor.

Washing the Fleece

Washing the fleece requires buckets of hot water. The water should be about 120 degrees but the quick way to judge is if it is too hot to put your hands in it without gloves, it’s hot enough. You don’t want it much over 120 as the wool will start to cook.

 

 I have heard of several opinions on soap, but one mill owner told me to use the cheapest of laundry detergent and about 3 times the amount called for. This is mixed in one bucket and the wool gently pressed into the water. Then it’s allowed to soak for no more than 20 minutes. Agitating the fleece in hot water will cause it to felt, so handled gently and wear gloves.  When you remove the fleece, squeeze it gently and place it in the next bucket or sink.

 

If the fleece is dirty, you can wash it two or even three times. Always try to match the temperature of the water so that the fleece doesn’t become felted. When you’re ready to rinse, just use clear hot water and soak again. Repeat until the water runs clear. You can spin the fleece in a laundry bag, spin in a washing machine (Don’t let it agitate) or roll in a towel and squeeze to remove excess water. Spread on something like a screen to let it dry. 

Picking Your Fleece

Not what you think.

After drying, the fleece is picked. This is not the same picking done in the skirting step, but this refers to pulling and separating the fibers so that it's fluffy and can be carded easily. It may be run through a picking machine or picked by hand. If big clumps of fleece are carded without picking, they may jam the carder or not card well. Some fleeces are so nice and even, they can skip this step, but most benefit from picking.

I've found a video showing a swinging arm type of carder. Notice the big, sharp teeth. I wouldn't be doing it on the grass since the wool is going to pick up bits of grass, twigs, and what have you. And one big gust of wind and all that nice, fluffy wool will be in your neighbor's yard. Still, it's a clear demonstration of how this works.

Wool Picker

Carding and Combing

My Carding tools

Carding is done either with hand cards or with a drum carding machine. Both are available on the market for home use. The cards and the drums both have bent, metal teeth that tease and straighten the fleece. Hand cards produce a “rolag” and drum carders produce a batt or roving, depending on how the wool is removed. Batts are taken off in one piece. Roving is pulled into strips Rolags are curled off the hand cards.

 

There are also combs that have long, wicked looking teeth that are used especially for wool that is too long for a carding machine or carders.

 

Carding Wool

Dyed Roving
Dyed Roving
Lana Pettey
Dyed Batts
Dyed Batts
Lana Pettey

Dyeing

Now the fleece is ready for spinning. It could be dyed at this stage or it could have been dyed after washing, called “dyed in the wool.” It could also be dyed as yarn, or even as fabric. Each method would produce a different result. Batts also are excellent for wet felting projects.

 

Dyed Yarns

Dyed Yarn
Dyed Yarn
L Pettey
Kntting with dyed yarn
Kntting with dyed yarn
L Pettey
weaving with dyed yarn
weaving with dyed yarn
L Pettey

About Sheep and Wool

The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More Than 200 Fibers, from Animal to Spun Yarn

This one-of-a-kind photographic encyclopedia features more than 200 animals and the fibers they produce. It covers almost every sheep breed in the world — from the longwool bree...

$35.00  $17.74
Living with Sheep: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Flock

A unique guide to sheep, for would-be farmers and people who simply love animals and the outdoors.

$16.95  $14.68
Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet

What do you do when you love your farm . . . but it doesn’t love you? After fifteen years of farming, Catherine Friend is tired. After all, while shepherding is one of the oldes...

$16.00  $3.95
Updated: on 07/04/2012, Ragtimelil
 
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Questions, or things I forgot..


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Ragtimelil on 12/29/2012

Ha ha.....:-))

HollieT on 12/29/2012

Ah. Yes, I'm saying Duh, to myself! :)

Ragtimelil on 12/29/2012

Because they are greedy beasts and try to get there first.

HollieT on 12/29/2012

I agree with 2uesday, the colours of the wool are beautiful. But can I ask Lana (this will probably prove to be a really stupid question on my part) but why do sheep like to have the hay on their backs?

Ragtimelil on 07/21/2012

Why thank you.

2uesday on 07/21/2012

The colors of the wool in the photos here are beautiful and would be a joy to use for anyone who likes making textiles.

Ragtimelil on 06/27/2012

Yeah, not so much in Texas. I'll have to get back to rug making...

dustytoes on 06/27/2012

There are quite a few wool arts farms around these parts of New Hampshire and it was all new to me. I think it's wonderful that people put all the work into it and make such unique and lovely products and yarn for us to enjoy.

Ragtimelil on 06/23/2012

I'd thought about milking sheep. I had one that would have tolerated it. But I never really did. I had the sheep for training my Border collies and It was easier to have goats and keep them separate.

sheilamarie on 06/22/2012

We raised sheep years ago when our kids were little. We had about 70. My husband did the shearing himself. We also milked them. Have you tried that? Sheep's milk is so rich and creamy -- makes great cheese.




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