The Prelude (in conversation form):

Part One…
"Huh, I wish the shearer would hurry up and get here.  It rained yesterday and the sheep are cleaner than they've been in weeks."

Part Two…(nine months later)
"Huh, I'm glad we took those shearing classes.  Let's wait until after the next rain and then shear them as soon as they're dry so the wool will be cleaner."

Part Three…(nine months even later)
"Huh, wait a minute…rain is nothing more than a lot of cold water…hmmmmm."


Ok...so we were slow learners.
You'll want some infrastructure for your wool washing career to run smoothly. 
We're serious about washing wool!
You will need:
A wool washing table. 
Our original table used rabbit wire for the top (about 1/4" wire mesh).  The new table uses rat wire (1/2 inch wire mesh).  We recommend rabbit wire and we'll be replacing the top of this table.  Note the handy hook for your hose...you need a hose too.  (Or if you're really green and have a way to do it, collect rainwater.) 

Also - note the concrete blocks used with the original table for wash stands.
If you're going to wash a lot of wool, use these.  You'll thank us later.
 
Set your table up where a lot of water hitting the ground won't matter.  Or...re-use the water for your garden, etc.  It's yucky, but the plants won't mind.  Depending on when you schedule your shearing you can use less water. 
Let the rain do the first washing.
And you'll need:
A wash tub (relatively heavy duty plastic - it'll be holding a lot of water). 

And a dirty fleece. 
This one is natural charcoal colored Romney.  Wait til you see it when we're done.  Gorgeous!
And you'll need:
Uh...gloves.  You need rubber gloves.  And maybe just a bit of white wine.
Ok...let's get down to business.
Fill your wash tub about 2/3 full of cold water from your hose. 

The wooden board is under our tub because we don't have the concrete block wash stands set up in the middle of the back yard.
As your wash tub is filling, unroll your fleece and take a good look.  If your fleece has not been skirted, do it now.  Tear away any belly, neck, britch and generally yucky stuff.  Don't throw this away though.  Use it for long lasting weed barrier under mulch.

Use the washing table as a trampoline for your remaining fleece. 
All kinds of stuff will bounce out of there and through the wire while the fleece is still dry.  Give it a good hard couple of throws on the top of the table. 
Depending on the size of your fleece, divide it into manageable sections.
We separated this one into 2 pieces. 
Some of our own sheep have enormous fleeces and we divide them into thirds.  You can wash a substantial amount at one time, but don't crowd it too much.  You'll develop a feel for how much is a good amount.
Here is 1/2 of the sticky fleece (it's been in storage for 2 years!).  It was well skirted before storage so everything is ok.  Don't store unskirted fleeces.  You'll be sorry.

Into the cold water we go...
Push your wool down into the water gently until it's saturated. 
You can walk away from it for a while if you want to.  10 minutes or 10 hours...we've done both.
See?  Look at all of that dirt floating its way out of the fleece.
Now we're going to work the wool. 
Don't be afraid to move it around...but you don't need to be too aggressive about it either.

We want to let the wool swish through the water...so grasp it and bring it up...
and down.  You only need to do it a few times and very gently.
When the water is fully saturated with sheep dirt...
SWOOSH!
You'll be amazed at the difference in your fleece already.
As a side note:
If you see bubbles on the ground at this point it's because the fleece is holding sheep sweat
(aka - suint) and lanolin.  Since a lot of this is water soluble, combined with water this makes
(sort of, kind of) its own natural soap.  Hence the bubbles.  Sheep bubbles!
Gather it up...
and squeeze...then squeeze again.
 

ROUND 2
You can already see quite an improvement in your fleece, can't you?

Refill your wash tub and get ready for more of the same exercise.

Let your fleece drape back into the water...no need to bunch it.

Let it float for a bit and then a little more up, down, up, down. 
Let the water swish through the fleece.

There is a difference between allowing the wool to swish and agitating.  Don't agitate...swish.
Notice the water...murky but not disgusting.  We're making progress.
When you think that this round of water has done the best it can do...
SWOOSH!
And squeeze it like you really mean it.
 
Now we have a fork in the road.  What did your second wash look like?  It could be enough.
But for this particular fleece we're going for...
ROUND 3
If you're doing another round, you know what to do by now.

Refill your wash tub and lay in your squeezed out fleece.

Let it sit...or not.  And then a little more up, down, up, down.  Light swishing gets the job done - and you don't have to do it a lot.
Now, check out the clarity of the water still in the wash tub.  That works for us. 

Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.

Our work outside is done and this fleece is well on the road to being clean.  Let's go inside...

Now that the majority of gross dirt is out of your fleece, it won't hurt your washer to give it a hot soak.  Yes, the wool is still damp from squeezing out the cold water. 
No, it won't instantly felt in the hot water. 
And you're going to be turning OFF the washer so NO AGITATION will be happening.
Right?  RIGHT???  More on this soon.

We're using Orvus Paste, which is a livestock soap used by 4H kids on their show animals.  You can get it/order it from farm and garden supply stores, or check online.  It's concentrated.  It comes in the white container on the right, but the label is long since gone.  We use about 1/3 of a cup for a full washer of water.

In the past we have used Dawn (dishwashing liquid).  Think about it...it's a concentrated degreaser.  You can use Dawn if you'd like.  We'd use about 1/3 of a cup of that too if that's the soap we were using.
With your fleece OUTSIDE of the washer in a bucket or other container...
fill 'er up and make it HOT.
When the washer is full put your Orvus or Dawn in.  Let the water agitate for a few seconds to incorporate the soap throughout the water.  Putting the soap in before the washer is full will make for too many bubbles.  They'll be harder to rinse out.

THEN:

PAY ATTENTION!
TURN THE WASHER OFF!
Seriously.

In all of our years of fleece washing we have ruined only 1/3 of a fleece.  It was one of Shackle's.  And the washer was only accidentally agitating for about 5 seconds.  Don't do that!
Now that your washer's water looks like this and
YOU HAVE MADE SURE THAT IT IS OFF...
Lay your damp fleece into the water...no need to bunch it up.
Doesn't that look nice?
Now, since you've made sure that the washer is off, go ahead and shut the lid.
Relax for about a half hour or so.  That hot water will help to melt the remaining lanolin.
Now...with the washer still off, set it to the spin cycle.

(Here's where we have a small disclaimer.  Some spin cycles will throw cold water on the clothes from time to time for the first part of the cycle.  You DON'T want the washer to spray your wool with cold water!  Some washers don't do this.  Our current wool washer - yes, we have one just for washing wool - doesn't throw any cold water.  Our old washer did.  So here's how we worked around that.  When you're doing a load of laundry, camp out for the spin cycle.  Listen to your washer.  You'll hear when - or if - it's throwing water.  When we found where the spin cycle stopped the water throwing, we marked it with a small dot using a Sharpie pen.  Then we would always set the washer to the Sharpie pen dot instead of the beginning of the cycle.  Got it?)

Go ahead and start your washer and let the water spin out.  It won't hurt your wool because it isn't agitating it.  When the cycle is done this is what you'll see:
Ok, now depending on the breed of sheep that you're working with, 1 wash may or may not be enough.  You'll know.  It may need another soap session, or it may not.

Either way...

Take your fleece OUT of the washer and put it back in the bucket or whatever you were using to hold it. 
DON'T LEAVE IT IN THE WASHER.

Refill your washer with hot water.
Now you've got another fork in the road...

If you need another soap session, redo your previous steps...PAYING ATTENTION TO WHEN THE WASHER NEEDS TO BE ON OR OFF.

If you don't need another soap session your fleece is ready for the rinse water.  To our rinses we add about a cup or so of white vinegar.  This cuts the soap residue and restores the pH.  Also, we usually add in a bit of patchouli essential oil...or clove essential oil.  Yummy.  We can't prove it but it's our theory that the essential oil is somewhat of a natural moth repellent.  We have never had any moth problems to date.

The rinse is identical in procedure to the wash - but without the soap.  Let it sit in the rinse water for a while with the lid down.  Then spin it out, just like before.

When you're all done, your wool washing table becomes your drying rack.  Take your wonderfully clean and soft fleece back outside, open it up onto the top of your washing table and let the air dry it perfectly.  Watch out for too brisk of a breeze...your wool will travel with it.
Ready for your reward?  You've worked hard for it...so enjoy!
Soft, fragrant (in a good way), lofty, ready to pick, card and spin. 
And MUCH better than if a commercial woolen mill had done it for you.

We know...we've done it both ways.
So what's next?
If you're like us, you start all over again.
** One final disclaimer** 
Our sheep are Romney/Columbia cross.  We know that this method works perfectly for our sheep and for similar breeds.  The finest fleece we have washed this way is Hog Island.  This is a rare breed sheep that was most notably from (wait for it) Hog Island.  This is one of the barrier islands off the coast of Virginia.  We have not washed merino, targhee, etc with this method.  Mostly because we have not had the opportunity to try it out.  This method *may not* be ideal for fine/super fine wool.  But being the wool renegades we are, we would at least give it a try on a small scale and make modifications if necessary.

It's our guess that beginners who would benefit from this tutorial would not necessarily be using low micron count raw fleeces.  If you are a beginner using low micron count wool and you feel adventurous, try our method out on a small scale and let us know your findings. 

It's our bet that the wool from any sheep benefits from being shorn after a good solid rain...so why not try?  The cleaner they are on the hoof, the less water you use after shearing.
Best of luck on your wool washing adventures! 
Please do leave us a comment at mail@TenGoodSheep.com
...we'd appreciate your thoughts.
Copyright 2001 - 2013                                       email: mail@TenGoodSheep.com
We are about to share with you how we wash wool.

It is a somewhat different method than most any other method we've seen described, but after close to 100 fleeces washed over the years, it works for us…and it works every time.

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