Wool Fumes (With Apologies to the Yarn Harlot)

That’s the only way I can explain it…must have been wool fumes….

Tuesday we discovered what happens when the sump pump goes out in the basement.  I walked down to find 1/2 inch of standing water.  We switch into emergency mode, salvage things on the floor that were the most valuable such as my dogs scent articles (made of leather and metal), some old video tapes, and wool stored down there.

Three unwashed fleeces got wet, others washed and unwashed, were just fine.  So today I started washing these fleeces.  All three were just wet and two should wash up just fine.

But the third…I mean…what the heck was I thinking when I bought it.  Yes it was a rare breed and yes I was at a fiber festival.  But after 20 years of buying fleeces I KNOW better.  The longwool fleece was caked in mud and sheep poo so bad that parts of the fleece even after a 30 minute soak in 120 degree water with Dawn was still caked.  The mud areas did wash up to expose a fleece full of burrs and hay.  I carefully looked through the fleece, nope the whole thing was like this.  Forget it…my time was too important.  It went in the dumpster along with another rare breed fleece I bought off of EBay that was full of keds (aka sheep ticks).

So, how does someone like me end up with a fleece like that?  Part of it was the rarity of the breed, I was just happy to find it.  The other part was temporary insanity caused by wool fumes.   I might have been tempted to ship it off to a processor, but with it wet I wasn’t going spend time drying the durn thing just to have a processor ship it back to me.

Okay what are my suggestions for finding a good fleece?

Have a friend help you

If you have never bought a raw fleece before and you are at a fiber festival, hook up with someone who has experience buying fleeces.  Seek out recommendations from others if you are mail ordering or bidding on EBay.  Also talk to them about what they expect from fleeces.  They may have very different ideas about what is “clean enough” than you do.

Avoid lots of vegetable matter

Even longwool fleeces can have problems with vegetable matter (vm).  It does not have to be perfectly clean.  Right now I have a fine wool fleece I’m sending off to a specific processor because it full of vm and I know that they do a good job removing it and there is nothing else wrong with the fleece.  I also find that I’m allergic to cedar needles and I avoid any fleece that has cedar needles in it.

Just say no to bugs

If the fleece arrives and it has bugs in it, such as sheep keds or live wool moths.  Quarantine the fleece away from your stash and contact the seller immediately.  Ahem, if I had really looked at that EBay fleece when I got it in the mail I would have found the keds and contacted the seller immediately.  Instead I looked at it and didn’t see anything and put it aside.  Keds can’t live off the the host so should already be dead, but wool moths and carpet beetles can and will munch on your fiber stash.    Keds are a management problem and cause problems beyond ruining the wool and skin of the animal.  Scurf (dandruff) can be a sign of sheep and goat lice and is a royal pain in the rear to get out.  I find it more common in mohair fleeces than others.

What about mud?

Mud most of the time comes out.  Sometimes it can stain though so you will have to consider that on a fleece by fleece basis.  Wash a lock if you can before buying.  Sometimes that moorit looking fleece is actually cream under all that mud!

Skirt liberally

Don’t be afraid of asking for a better skirted fleece.  You don’t need to buy their barnyard.  But be realistic.  If you are getting the fleece for $4 a pound you can afford to skirt that yourself.  If you are paying $20 pound then I would expect a much cleaner fleece to begin with.

Check strength of the fiber

Do a snap test with the fiber to find out if it has a weak place.  If it does pass on it or if you got it through the mail contact the seller.  That should have been disclosed when the fleece was sold.

Don’t be afraid to admit you can’t process it yourself

After buying a fleece and starting to process it you just may realize that you hate processing or that you don’t have time to process the entire 8 pound cormo fleece.  There are many very capable and experienced processors out there happy to turn your fleece into roving or batts.

I hope that this short tutorial will help you this shearing season.  It’s spring in the swamps of NE Illinois, and I need to get back to cleaning my basement and washing those fleeces.


3 thoughts on “Wool Fumes (With Apologies to the Yarn Harlot)

  1. I washed my first fleece recently. It was not even that big…a 2.5 lb. Shetland. I have to say that I will probably never (though I hesitate to say “never”) do it again. There is a fiber mill nearby that would’ve done it for $5/pound and I had to have spent more in water than that! We pay for city water. Also, it was not worth the stress on my knees. I used a big plastic tub, inside the bathtub. so I spent the better part of a day on my knees there leaning over the tub. My knees already sound like cellophane so that was not the wisest thing to do. All that said, I’m glad I did it once, just to learn from it and see what a full-on wet sheep smells like! (though the shepherd told me rams are much worse!)

  2. Last year,I was given 5 Romney fleeces for free. They were a lot of work, but, we did them all. They had VM, but no bugs.

    Last week, I bought 2 Border Leicester fleeces. We wash 2/3 of the black one today and it’s beautiful. The rest of it will be finished tomorrow and the white one by Sunday. I went to a recommended farm on shearing day for these. Like you said, ask for help if it’s your first fleece. After these 2, I know what to look for. I also learned how to skirt them.

    There will be more fleeces this summer, but, some may get processed. Like you also said, I will admit if it’s too much for me to do them all. I’m getting some for free from another person who works on a special farm where they try to increase the number of rare sheep breeds. The fleeces are not kept, usually just discarded. I think I will end up with about 20 fleeces to share with my friends. 🙂

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