Several years ago, right around the holidays, we took a family vacation to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This historic town was all dressed up for the season with fabulous cornucopias decorating doors, fresh wreaths hanging on iron gates, and fife and drum corps marching down the center of the street. What a treat it was to visit a town that celebrates the days gone by of hand-forged tools, animal-driven plows, pot belly stoves and hand-shorn sheep.
One day, while visiting the small shops and farms, we stumbled upon a sheep shearing demonstration. I stood there for what seemed like a minute, but turned out to be a good hour in awe, as I watched 0330 being shorn by hand with hand-forged shears. You see, 0330 was a Leicester Longwool sheep, pregnant and due to deliver her baby in the early part of spring. Her fleece had become so heavy and hot that it was time for a hair cut. The only question I asked while I watched was: "What will you do with her fleece?" And so, my adventure begins.
O330 arrived on my front porch just a few weeks after we returned home. She was wrapped in an old white sheet and as you can see, splayed out in the perfect shape of her body, shorn all in one piece. Elaine, the woman demonstrating the shearing, then labeled the different areas so that I could sort the fleece according to quality. I was now ready to take on a new/old craft.
Ok so, truth be told, I let 0330 sit in a box for a few years. I did however inherit a beautiful spinning wheel from my dear friend Cliff and went on to learned how to card, spin and ply yarn.
A few months ago, I re-visited 0330 in her box and decided it was time. I had read so much about washing fleece and was completely overwhelmed by all the information. I had this image of all 9 lbs soaking in my bath tub, then lifting it out carefully (probably weighing 50lbs now), trying to avoid felting, then changing the water, trying not to change water temperature to drastically, then repeating it all over again. I was exhausted just thinking about it, wondering to myself: "OMG, what was I thinking?"
Thankfully, by the time I sorted and bagged the fleece, I realized I really only need to wash a pound of fleece at a time and could do so in my kitchen sink! While I'm no expert on washing and dyeing fleece, I will share what I did.
- Weigh 1 pound of raw fleece and stuff into a mesh laundry bag.
- Fill a large pot with the hottest water you can get from your tap and then add 1/4 cup of blue Dawn, original dish detergent.
- Submerge the mesh bag in the pot and watch as the lanolin and dirt float to the top. Do not touch the fleece, do not poke at the fleece, do not stir the pot! Let the fleece sit for 20 minutes, then gently take it out of the pot, rinse the pot and repeat until the water runs clear.
- Now, fill the pot with hot water, this time just for rinsing and then submerge the mesh bag. Again, repeat until the water is no longer soapy.
- Carefully take the washed fleece out of the mesh bag and place in a salad spinner and spin the water out! NOTE: The use of a salad spinner is a genius moment if I don't say so myself...so much water is spun out of the fleece, that the drying time is cut in half!
- Fluff the fleece and let it dry. I put my fleece on a cookie cooling rack but you can use an old towel.
- Now the cleaned fleece is ready to be dyed. What you need is a large enamal stock pot, acid dyes and citric acid to set the color.
- Since I wanted a very modeled and hand dyed look for my fleece, I choose 3 different colors and dyed the fleece in layers in one pot.
- Put just a few inches of hot water in the pot and turn on the gas to a medium setting. Wet your cleaned fleece with hot water and about a Tbl of citric acid and then place in the pot.
- Disolve 1/4 tsp of acid dye in a water bottle and shake to disperse the dye.
- Pour the dye solution into the pot and heat to 160 degrees, monitering the heat with a candy thermometer.
As a kid I remember my father taking me to the fair. We didn't go for the rides or fair food, we went to see the animals and to visit the craft exhibits. There were always people knitting, weaving, dyeing yarn with natural vegetable dyes, and best of all, spinning fleece into yarn!
FINAL NOTE: For those who read this post and want to ask, "What are you going to do with that?" Let's not go there. It's all about the process, isn't it? The process of 0330 producing this amazing wool that Elaine sheared, that I washed and dyed. And now that it's dyed, so many other options open up. It's all so amazing. I invite you to stay tuned and enjoy the process.