Last fall at the Fall Fiber Festival in Montpelier, Virginia, I bought my first raw fleece. For a new spinner, it had begun to seem irresistible to take some wool essentially just as it falls from the sheep's back during shearing, and take it all the way through cleaning, and carding, and spinning. I could knit something I had carried from beginning to finished product.
Looking through the bags of wool in the fleece sale, I had no particular idea what to look for. Each different type looked like a wonderful adventure. The one I chose was from a Jacob sheep, from a local Virginia shepherd. These sheep are immensely appealing little fellows, both because they have parti-colored black-and-white coats, like a spotted dog, and because some of the rams are graced with rather strange-looking double horns.
Aside from admiring the breed itself, I was attracted to the chance to work with wool in more than one color and to the small quantity in this particular bag. It's only 1.6 pounds, which certainly isn't a whole fleece. But it was perfectly adequate to my purpose of just getting my feet wet at working with raw fiber. And isn't it beautiful?
Jacob fleece can be handled different ways for different color effects, blended thoroughly to make a heathery gray, or made into a sort of spotty ragg wool effect with different colors plied together, or the colors entirely separated to make different solid-colored yarns.
A week or two ago, I decided to jump in and have a go at the first step in the process: scouring the fleece, which means giving it a thorough washing to remove the lanolin and dirt. I had read about it in various spinning books and on-line. Once again, all I can say is all that book learning doesn't hold a candle to the experience of working with the real thing. There is nothing like trying it for yourself.
That little Jacob fleece has taught me quite a lot.
1. People who process wool for spinning really earn their pay. This is hard, time-consuming work. It's not particularly expensive to buy prepared rovings. To do this oneself, one needs to have a conscious reason. For this first try, learning what it's like was reason enough for me. After that, it might be for the satisfaction and self-sufficiency of creating things from the sheep forward. It might be to know what animal one's sweater has come from. It might be to be able to choose the perfect type of fleece for a particular purpose. It might be to have the control to prepare the wool in a specific way for the desired spinning result. But there ought to be a reason.
2. The life of a happy sheep is a life of plenty of dirt. Twigs. Weeds. Burrs. Ladybugs. Even, I fear, the occasional dingleberry (though in fairness, it may have been a food pellet). Playing with a fleece is a dirty business. Just trying to separate big wads of it for washing resulted in a lot of fallen debris. That may be a job best done in warm weather, outdoors.
3. There are a couple of things that make it easier to get it clean. It takes soaking in lots of hot soapy water to dissolve the lanolin and get the dirt out. But not necessarily the hotter the better. If the water is so hot you can't even handle the wool to squeeze out the water between soakings, then some very dirty water stays right in the wool, wash after wash. Mesh laundry bags make excellent containers to keep the wool organized and allow the water to run through. Zippered pillow-covers do not. They're too watertight, and the filthy water won't run out. Wash after wash. After a couple of rounds with a motley assemblage of mesh bags and pillow covers, I went to the store for more mesh bags. It was worth it. I think in the end, I washed the wool six or seven times in hot, hot soapy water, and another three or four times in clear rinse-water.
4. It's a smelly job. I'd seen people refer to raw fleece as smelly, and I didn't understand what the fuss was about. I could bury my nose in my lovely bag of unwashed fleece, and it had a pleasant mild animal smell, nothing at all to complain of. But when it's hot from the soaking water, ahh, that's a different story. It's a bit aromatic and gamy. Thankfully, once the wool is clean and dry, it smells sweet again.
5. I really don't know much about fleece. Are those stains, or just natural coloration? What makes a good fleece? Are those areas matted, or are those tight bundles just the normal structure? Has the fleece been skirted (messy wool removed from the edges)? I don't know what that looks like. I learned to recognize second cuts (too-short tufts of wool caused by the shearer's clippers running over the same spot a second time); how many are normal? How much can I handle the wet fleece without felting it?
But now I know a little more than I did before. I'll learn a little more yet with each time I try it. And it feels immensely satisfying to see the nice clean locks of wool spread out to dry, and to know that I can do this, and that I'll be making something with one little sheep's coat that I cleaned and prepared myself.
There's a lot of happiness in that. Reason enough.