Washing a Romney Fleece (sheep's wool, not a sweater from a presidential hopeful)


Last weekend I attended the Madrona Fiber Arts retreat where my brain was blasted with loads of information about wool and sheep and yarn (more to come on that later. I met famous people! Well, at least famous in the knitting/spinning world), where I spied knitters of all level and obsession, and where I fiercely guarded my budgeted pocketbook. As I squeezed into vendors' booths to admire their yarn, fiber and equipment (and eavesdrop on knitters plans for the lovely stuff) I felt overcome by the urge to spend. Knowing I'm approaching poor (remember, farm internship?) I made an entire round without any purchases and just at the end I spied raw wool. My hands began to sweat with anticipation (weird, I know) as I approached Island Fibers assortment of raw fleece.
Raw Romney Wool

If you've never touched sheep's wool before in its natural state I encourage you to add to your life-list. There's something insanely real about losing your fingers in a greasy, smelly mass of fibers and knowing the sticky wool is ultimately what your favorite sweater is made from. Or those high-tech underwear you bought at the outdoor gear shop. Or the fine socks you wear with your best dress. Wool is an utterly versatile fiber that permeates our daily existence. Carpet? Yep. Coats? Of course! Mattresses? If you buy the right type. House insulation? Depends on your location, but it's a naturally flame-resistant choice that's on the market. And it all begins with the lanolin-rich fiber pictured above.

I went out on a limb and bought the remnants of this Romney fleece for multiple reasons, but mostly because I was attracted to the beautiful natural colors in this particular wool, appreciate learning the characteristics of various breeds, and because I'm afraid of washing raw fleece. It was time to face my fear. In spring of 2009 I took a spinning class where I washed my first fleece and under the guidance of my instructor it was a 2-3 day process involving overnight soaks, various temperatures increasing over time, etc, etc. It was arduous, scary, and no fun at all. After reading a few books* and spending a few hours in the forums of Ravelry reading about how other spinners clean their fleece -- for example, in a top loading washing machine-- I determined this shouldn't be as scary as it seemed. Ultimately I felt I needed to do ~5 soaks to get this wool in usable shape and I needed the water to be as hot as my tap could handle but not over 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 1: Test the temp of my tap water. 125 degrees. That should do unless you have a very fine wool with loads of grease. I read somewhere that lanolin "melts" from the fiber at 140 degrees but 125 worked just fine in this case.
Step 2: Fill the tub and add appropriate amount of Unicorn Fibre Wash.**
Step 3: While tub is filling, load wool into bags but do not pack tight. I want water to penetrate the wool.
Step 4: After tub is filled gently submerge the wool, pressing lightly on the laundry bags until the water covers them. Take extra caution not to agitate the wool because hot water + agitation = felt (a spinner's enemy). Let soak undisturbed for 15-20 minutes.
Step 5: Gently left laundry bags out of water, allowing excess water to run off while you drain the icky, icky, bathtub. Taking care not to agitate the wool, I did carefully press the laundry bags against bathtub side to squeeze out water.

Repeat! I did 2 Unincorn washes, 2 water rinses, and 1 Unicorn Rinse. Ultimately the water should run clear and that will signal when your washing is complete. Be sure to keep the water hot during this process-- you may need to turn up your water heater or heat some extra water on the stove as I did just in case. Also, never shock the wool by taking it from hot to cold-- that will surely cause felting. Keep the temperature a nice, even hot.
Washing raw wool

After the wool is clean very carefully remove it from bags and lay it in a well-ventilated area to dry, on a screen or rack of some type that allows air circulation around and through the wool. I had to get creative for wool drying and rested a broom on shower curtain rods, over which I laid my clean/scrubbed oven racks. The wool dried nicely in this setup with the aid of a dehumidifier in the bathroom. I was able to bathe without incident for a few days though showering would have been an issue...

I was overjoyed to find my wool in great shape after 3 days of drying. No evidence of any felting and it feels soft, supple, and looks lovely. It smells great too! Soon I'll pick the last bits of plant and fecal matter from the wool and prepare it for spinning. I'm excited to see what it becomes.

PS. I bought 1 pound 7 ounces of raw wool. This sheep didn't have too much dirt or lanolin; after washing it weighs about 1 pound 2 ounces. They say that fine wools with heavy grease can lose up to half their weight with washing.

* The books I referenced and found helpful were Start Spinningand In Sheep's Clothing
**Unicorn Fibre Wash & Rinse are my favorite wool products but you could use dawn dish soap or another wool-scouring soap as you please. In the Seattle area I purchase my supply at Acorn Street.

Edited to add: the amazing author and instructor (see upcoming post) Deborah Robson posted earlier this month about washing wool. Check it out!


  1. you are too cool sista.

  2. Ah, this looks familiar! I have also had success repurposing window screens to dry wool on.


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