Sometimes when running a farm we get done what needs to be done right now and put aside jobs that can wait...at least for awhile. The problem is that when you actually have that free time (which is very rare) you can be overwhelmed by all those jobs you have waiting for you. Such it is with cleaning the fleeces we took in the spring.
Sheering is a job for late spring, when it is warm enough that the sheep and llamas won't get too cold once we strip them practically nakid, but before it gets too hot so that they overheat wearing their long winter coats. When that times comes it is a job that cannot wait, it must be done RIGHT NOW. The neighbors get together and help with each other's animals so things go pretty quickly. I, myself, can sheer sheep at a pretty good rate and keep a darn nice fleece. My llamas are another story. Those I have a good friend and professional sheerer come out and take care of. He can sheer them in less than a half hour so the llamas don't get too stressed and neither do I. In trade I help him when he sheers sheep...lots and lots of sheep.
But once the sheering is done and the beasts are wandering around the farm feeling the air on their skin for the first time in many months, the fleeces can be bundled up and tucked somewhere until that special, almost non-existent moment of when there is free time. And it sits, and it sits, and it sits...But at some point, like after canning for 84 hours straight, I decided that I could not look the canner in the eye one more minute. I looked at those bags of fleece on the shelf and decided now was as good as time as any.
If I was being truly honest here I would have to admit that probably part of the reason I kept finding other jobs to do is because I really don't like the cleaning of the fleece. At least the first part of the cleaning. I can pick a fleece forever, turn around and find yet more sheep crap and burrs in it. I have to admit that I am not thrilled with picking sheep crap. Actually, it would be waaaayyyy down on the list of things I want to do. But since I like wool, I have to get it clean so I can work with it.
After I get it all picked over though and make my fingers smell like sheep for at least the next seven days, it is time to do the washing. Many people are scared to wash wool, and there may be some good reasons behind this. Wool can be moody, it likes things just so-so. If it doesn't get its way it throws a temper tantrum and turn into something less than useful (or saleable) called felt. You can use and sell felt, but not for the same things or price that a good wool yarn does. Still it's just fiber, supposedly without a brain, so I should be able to out smart it.
The first thing I find is that wool likes it baths HOT. The hottest water I can put my hand in. If I decide I want it in cold water I first have let the fleece cool down before I even think of putting it into water. Wool does not handle change well.
The third and reason for this blog post is using a good detergent. Some people swear by the 3D or Dawn Dishwashing Detergent. In fact in hand washed fleeces, Dawn Original is probably the most used detergent there is.
Here's me though. I don't use Dawn. I don't want to take all of the grease or lanolin out of my fleece. That lanolin helps protect the sheep from hard rain and heavy snow. Often if you see a sheep in the winter it is walking around with a pile of snow on its back. This is because it isn't being absorbed into its fleece. The sheep stays nice and warm in its own wool coat the snow stays on the outside. I don't want to waste that precious oil.
Before you decide to follow in my footsteps though make sure you like a bit of cleaned lanolin in your final product. Many people don't, and that's fine. They want that wool so clean it squeaks and are willing to put a rain coat on to keep out the wet once that fleece has become a sweater. If you are one of those then the rest of this post probably won't be for you.
I clean my fleeces in rain water and a plant called bouncing bet. Bouncing bet is a common roadside plant that grows over most of the eastern side of the U.S.. It is also common in Europe where it got its common names. The name bouncing bet comes from the washer-women who cleaned clothing in the town square. They would go up and down on their washboards to scrub out the dirt from the cloth and a "Betty" was their nick name. Another common name of bouncing bet is soapwort. Wort is an old English word for plant and the soap part should be pretty self explanatory. Yep, this plant is used for washing, and for me at least it is a pretty darn good detergent.
The part of bouncing bet that you use is the root. Normally you gather roots in the fall after a plant dies back, but bouncing bet root contains saponin, the working component, all year long. No need to wait to collect it. Also it doesn't matter if you gather it from a roadside. This is not a medicine plant that need to be pure. It is simply a detergent. And last, soapwort is a non-native species and in some states it is considered to be an invasive. Leave one little piece of the root in the ground and the plant will come up from that next year. So it's not one you have to worry about over harvesting and not having next year.
After you dig up the root and pry it apart from all the other bouncing bet roots around it, most people let it dry and then brush the dirt off. If you don't want to wait as long as you wash it off in hard water you don't have to worry about it losing too much of its power. How you activate the saponins is by boiling the root in rain or softened water. Let this cool, strain out the root, and what you have left is the best detergent for washing fleece that I know of. As long as you stick with rain water you will have good, soft wool that retains enough of its lanolin to remain pretty waterproof. It also makes your hair shine and bounce and helps clean your skin off of any residue left by harsher detergents and soaps.
So after putting off the fleece cleaning for most of the summer it is finally finished. I can look at it and sigh with relief. But only for a minute. I still have the last of the corn to turn into relish and the beanstalks are looking full again. Free time on a farm? The little we get is more precious than gold.