Our sheep are all wool sheep, meaning they need to be sheared every year. We do this in the spring just before lambing. I have had woolly sheep lamb before (ewes due for shearing when they have their babies), and it was not especially messy (surprisingly). Shearing early makes the mother more sensitive to weather changes. Without her fleece, she'll seek shelter in poorer weather, and her lamb follows her. My shearer also tells me that lambing also can cause a change in fiber - something about them breaking off or something.
Wool in it's raw form is similar to your hair or clothes if you wore them outside for a year. Fleeces are oily from lanolin the sheep produce (skin oil) and has sweat, shed skin cells, dirt, and vegetative and other debris. Washing is necessary to clean the fleece and it must be done carefully so as to not felt the wool. All wool is not equal, but I will not delve into that - I am not experienced in grading wool. As I have read, East Friesian wool has an average fiber diameter of 29-33 microns, USDA wool grade of 46-54 with a staple length of 4-6" (seems consistent with what I have). This is a medium wool good for blankets, sweaters, socks, rugs, and felting.
A few terms:
Raw fleece off the sheep is laid out on a skirting table. Our fleeces are dirty because we don't jacket our sheep. They get hay, grain, straw, and other vegetable matter in their wool. Skirting is the process of removing the heavily soiled and damaged wool. This includes under the tail, the belly, and around the neck. The fleece can be beaten on the table a little to help dislodge some debris. Once skirted, we roll it up tight and pack them tight into garbage bag where they await washing. Make sure they are dry or they will mold. Some insects and rodents may be attracted to wool they can get at.
I prefer to wash outside because the wool stinks. I have washed it in the bathtub before, but not when I was on septic instead of sewer. I put the wool in garment bags so stray pieces don't clog the drain. The garment bags are optional if washing outside with a skirting table. I use my skirting table for washing and designed it that way - so I can dry several fleece at once. Using a plastic bin, fill it with hose water. Add about 1/4 cup soap and swish to mix. Add a skirted fleece, gently push it into the water, and let it soak for about fifteen minutes. It can go longer without problem. If washing several fleeces, I move from one to the next in a row. The water will be dirty.
I'm taking pictures of my new "planting/skirting table" and pictures of wool washing just as soon as it stops raining. Please check back for pictures.
After the wool has soaked for a little, I give it a couple of gentle pushes to the bottom to help move out some of the cloud of dirty water. Dump the bin onto the skirting - the water should drain out leaving the wool behind. While the bin is refilling, I gently press the water out of the wool and let it drip. Put soap in the water and return the wool to the bath. Soak, dump, and repeat until the wool is clean. For my dirty little sheep, this may be four or five washes. The last one is a rinse without any soap.
If you have a top load washing machine, you can do the final wash in the machine with hot water, which I think is the ideal scenario. Fill the machine with hot water, then add soap. Gently lower the wool into the water without any agitation and allow it to soak. When you're ready, allow it to move into the spin cycle. You'll need to remove the wool and repeat without soap to give the wool a good rinse. The spin cycle is good for really getting the water out of the wool, but make sure it doesn't spray water on the wool.
Check back for pictures ... they should be coming soon.
Felting is caused by rapid temperature change or agitation, especially in the presence of soap. You want to avoid these things to avoid felting the wool. Once washed and rinsed, you can move right into dying. Usually, I lay the wool out where there is a little air circulation and allow it to dry. Cleaned dry wool is ready to store for extended periods of time until you're ready to use it. I will store skirted unwashed fleeces for up to a few weeks, but longer than that and you're more likely to have problems with insects, mold, or other problems. I store completely dried fleeces in plastic bags in storage bins. You could probably drop moth balls in there with them, but I haven't so far.
You may notice you still have some debris in your wool. Some won't come out without acid soaks. Picking helps open up the fibers and you can consider a tumbler with a fan. I haven't tried these yet, but they are on my list of things to do - future projects. Pickers don't look hard to make. I'm looking for a larger one to put more wool through it. Also one that would be safe if I have little children around. The tumbler will be more involved to make as it involves building a round chamber out of hardware cloth (I'm thinking 1/2 inch) and a motor that rotates it on it's side. I'm thinking of putting a fan to blow on it, too, to help get out debris.
Then, the wool is ready to die. It can be used in natural colors, which is nice, too. Then dried again and carded either by hand or drum carding machine. Then, it's ready for projects ... spinning (I want to learn), weaving, felting, etc. It's very versatile. I hear making things from wool is rewarding and addictive. I'm excited to learn to spin and weave. Felting is fun, especially wet felting with a resist to make cat caves, bowls, shoes, etc.
If you're interested in purchasing wool, please let me know. We don't usually list it for sale, but have enough that we could sell some if you're a hobbyist looking for some. It's not merino or Leicester, nor are my sheep jacketed.
Wife to Brandon, mother to Tess and Liam, farmer, entrepreneur, cook & baker, nurse, and accountant who loves to try new things, travel, and work toward greater self-reliance.