Washing the Bowmont

I’m now officially *very* behind on blogging this workshop – this post is all about washing the fleece, which was the job of *last* weekend, and which took about seven hours in total, I think.  That’s much longer than the workshop leader estimated, so it seems I’m slow.  😛

The reason it all took so long is because Bowmont wool really is ultra-fine: finer than Merino.  The micron count of fine Merino is 18 – 22; for Bowmont, it is 15 – 20.  Fortunately, Bowmont also contains less lanolin than Merino, so should require less washing to achieve cleanliness.

Lesley recommends washing the fleece almost lock-by-lock, ‘swishing’ it through a hot, soapy bath and rubbing at dirty spots or lock ends under water, then rinsing in a clean bath at the same temperature.  It feels very, very wrong to be rubbing at such fine fleece – especially in hot water! – but as long as the locks are kept intact, it really does seem to work without felting.

I sorted my fleece first – most people probably didn’t have to go through this preliminary step – or at least, their fleece probably wasn’t quite so anti-sorted to start with.  Anyway, since the washing works best when the water is really quite hot, and since the bath cools down alarmingly quickly, I definitely found it worth having the fleece pre-sorted into locks, all facing the same way, for easy access, like so:

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Fleece lasagne!  This wool, when clean, is bright white, so you can see we have a job to do…  And apparently the tips are extra-dirty this year – lucky us!  Joking aside, Lesley thinks that this is a result of her having to treat the flock with anti-blowfly stuff as a preventative measure last autumn.  You *have* to prevent blowfly – a sheep with a blowfly maggot infestation is literally eaten alive, and quickly – so I’m not going to quibble about dirty tips.  I didn’t manage to get all the fleece sorted so neatly; some of it was a bit too mangled, no doubt due to a too-close encounter of the Kita kind.  I set this aside to wash more ‘roughly’ – just to see what would happen.

I did experiment a bit with how many locks I can wash at once; I decided that one at a time definitely got them cleanest, but was waaaaay too slow!  I think the optimum for me was around 5 locks at once.

It was still a very slow process, so my view for about seven hours of weekend was this:

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I’m sitting on the dog’s beanbag, with the hot bath nestled into it (for insulation).  The method used is to grab a bundle of locks by the butt end, then wash the tips in the hot, soapy water (baby shampoo used as detergent), rubbing to free the dirt then ‘swooshing’ the lock through the water to get the dirt actually out of the lock.  Then turn the locks around and wash the butt end; this is much cleaner to start with, and only needs a few ‘swooshes’.  Then turn it around again, and get rid of excess water by ‘pushing’ it out of the lock using finger and thumb along the length.  The second turn is important as it ensures the scales that make up each fibre’s surface are pressed down, not lifted up, which preserves the lustre and smoothness of the fibre – and presumably makes it less prone to felting.  The process is repeated in the rinse tub (which is probably to the right of me at this point), but this time it’s quick for both ends of the lock (well, usually!) because all you should be doing at this stage is getting rid of detergent.  The clean, wet locks go on the towel, looking a *lot* cleaner, but a bit sorry for themselves – flat and limp, with a bit of a ‘tail’ if you didn’t manage to hold the butt end of the lock firmly enough as you ejected any excess water.

They fluff up again as they dry, though.  I wish I’d taken before and after photographs of individual locks; the tight, even crimp of this wool is amazing, like a too-regular perm!

My main discoveries from the workshop so far:

  • The temperature of the wash bath is *crucial*.  The hotter, the better.  It makes a huge difference as to how much lanolin comes out, and how easily.  (This is one of the reasons I’m wearing rubber gloves; water hot enough to wash this fleece well is too hot for my hands to handle!  Other reasons are that if it’s taking all the oil out of the fleece, it will be incredibly drying to my skin, and also that sheep muck is icky, and hygiene is important.)
  • Rubber gloves really impair my dexterity.  It can be hard to tell precisely how much of the lock I’m gripping or rubbing, and how hard.  An advantage of larger bundles of locks is that it’s easier to tell what you’re gripping.
  • Washing fleece this way takes *hours!*

My washing success was somewhat erratic; some locks were squeaky-clean and bright when I’d finished; others were still a little yellow in the middle and smelled delicately ‘sheepy’ still.  Before going on to the rest of the process, I sorted the fleece into the cleanest, less clean and kinda mucky sections.

The mangled wool was washed by the simple expedient of pushing it under the water, then gently squeezing and releasing it – then repeat with the rinse bath.  It felted quite a bit and will never, ever be nep-free, but I’ve kept it anyway.

Next installment: actual spinning!  (and carding, and combing, and dizzing, too!)

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