Shearing Sheep and My Fleece Washing Method
Raising wool animals for fiber is an age-old tradition and one we were excited to take on when we moved to a larger property. While we carefully considered alpacas, we ended up falling in love with Southdown babydoll sheep and haven't looked back. If you'd like learn more about this heritage breed of sheep, please visit the journal article entitled, Babydoll Southdown Sheep at Cedar House Farm. In this journal article, I explain my process for shearing and washing the wool to be used for fiber crafts, knitting and crochet.
SKIRTING — removing sections of the fleece that are soiled, matted, or contain heavy vegetation
SCOURING — washing the fleece to remove lanolin, bedding and dirt
DRYING — spreading the fiber out on a screen or drying rack to dry, turning and flipping occasionally
Why do we shear our sheep?
Well, besides the obvious reason, that I love home-grown wool for crafting and crochet, shearing them is important to their health. Not shearing sheep regularly can cause them to become stressed, uncomfortable, and overheat during the summer months.
Is shearing painful for the sheep?
No. Shearing a sheep is much like shaving a dog or cutting your hair. Furthermore, a professional skilled shearer knows how to restrain the sheep safely and painlessly to ensure it does not kick or flip and cause injury. Our sheep do not experience as much as a nick, thanks to our skillful shearer.
Why do we hire a shearer instead of doing it ourselves?
Sheep shearing is a skill that takes great attention to detail and experience. If not done properly, it can lead to injury to the sheep or the shearer. For the safety of the animal it must be done efficiently and quickly. There are certain trades my husband and I are comfortable practicing, but sheep shearing is not one of them. Want a sneak peek at our professional shearer in action? CLICK HERE.
How often do we shear them?
Southdown babydoll sheep only need to be sheared once a year, in the spring, and before lambing season for ewes. Some fiber animals (mostly long-haired breeds) required more frequent shearing, so be sure to consult your breeder for a recommended shearing schedule.
My Southdown Babydoll Sheep Fleece Washing Method
- After the fleece is sheared from the sheep, it is time to process it. I prefer to do this sooner than later, as the lanolin that is naturally present in the wool can harden over time causing staining and making it more difficult to remove from the fiber. If you do have to store your fleece for later processing, store it in a canvas, paper, or a cotton cloth bag such as a pillow case. Avoid plastic bags for longterm storage.
- Create a makeshift skirting table using two sawhorses and a screen so that you can skirt the fleece. You can create a simple screen tabletop by creating a wood frame approximately 2’x4’ (or larger) and then attaching welded wire, chicken wire, hardware cloth, or screen fabric to it. We happen to have an old screen door leftover from our home renovation, so I use that as my skirting table surface in THIS REEL.
- To skirt the fleece, lay it out flat and remove the underbelly and any other heavily soiled areas of the fleece. Then carefully pull apart and remove any sections of wool that are matted, soiled, or contain heavy vegetation.
Note: This is also a good time to evaluate the quality and crimp of your fleece. Brittle fibers can be a sign of stress, illness, disease or malnourishment.
- Section the remaining fleece off into segments that are approximately 2’x2’ and carefully slide it into a mesh laundry bag. Zip closed.
- Fill a sink basin, tub, or large bucket with hot (120-140 degrees F) water. Add roughly 2 tbspn of Dawn dish soap for each laundry bag you are adding to the water. Before adding the bag, mix the soap into the water.
- Carefully submerge the laundry bag into the soap water and use a wooden spoon to press it all under water. Let soak, unagitated, for 30 minutes.
- Drain the water, being careful not to agitate the wool. Carefully press the bag to remove as much soiled water as possible. Do not wring or twist the bag. Then roll it up into a tube shape and remove it from the basin.
- Refill the basin again with hot soapy water (same temperature as before) and repeat the soaking process until the drained water appears clean. Remember not to run or pour water directly on the laundry bag or it can felt the wool.
Note: The number of scour soaks you will need to perform depends on how dirty the fleece is, which can vary greatly by the flock's living conditions, grazing habitat, as well as each individual sheep's eating habits. For example, our sheep, Hercules, always eats from the bottom of the hay feeder and his fleece is always filled with significantly more vegetation than the others. The amount of lanolin present in the fleece can also cause additional soaks.
- Finally, fill the basin or sink with clean hot water (same temperature as previous soaks but no soap) and let the wool do a final 10-minute soak, removing any remaining soap residue.
- Drain as much water as you can from the fiber one last time by pressing gently and rolling the entire bag up like a towel. Remove the clean fiber from the mesh bag and carefully lay out on a drying screen in a well-ventilated room. Run a fan in the room on low to keep air circulating and turn the fiber from time to time so it dries evenly. Do not point the fan directly on the wool.
If you plan to process your own wool, here are a few additional tips that greatly helped me when I was beginning this journey:
- Keeping the water temperature consistent during the scours is important. Drastically changing temperatures will shock the wool, causing felting.
- Soapy suds will not help the cleaning process and can irritate the wool, causing felting.
- If you are cleaning wool that has heavy lanolin, letting the water cool to room temperature before draining can bind it to the fiber and make it difficult to remove.
- The scouring process is not meant to remove vegetation. The majority of vegetation should be removed before the scouring process. Remaining vegetation can be removed after the fiber has completely dried by giving it a good shake before carding. Additionally, vegetation will continue to fleck out during the carding and spinning processes.
I’m continuing to learn and grow in this process each year and at at my own pace. This is truly a labor of love but also a peaceful, therapeutic, and extremely rewarding process for me.
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