One Method of Scouring Fleece

Today, Team Wovember Member Tom will talk about washing fleece, often also called scouring a fleece (to scour: to free from grease, dirt, or gum.) So, without further ado, here he is:

Working with breed-specific yarns, and feeling the different qualities that various breeds can bring to a yarn, I got interested in spinning about a year ago, not in the least because Wovember 2012 was so inspirational on the spinning and the shepherding front. Up until the summer I had always bought small, washed amounts of fleece, or even ready-prepared, usually in the form of combed top. But when my friend Susan Crawford offered to bring me back a whole Hebridean fleece for me to play with, I couldn’t say no.


One Hebridean sheep, photograph and © Laura Rosenzweig, who wrote about Hebridean sheep last Wovember

So when I visited Susan we were trying to work out how to deal with a whole fleece, as I had heard that Hebridean fleece can be prone to felting. I asked Deborah Robson via twitter, and she responded with not one, not two, but three in-depth blog posts on how she washes most fleeces.

I will not pretend I know more about fleece washing (or indeed, about anything related to sheepy matters) than Deb, so what I will show you today, is how I interpreted her instructions (I stayed pretty close to them) and how I got on.


My Hebridean fleece, spread out in our little courtyard, such a beautiful deep colour

The following describes one way of washing fleece. There are various methods, and it does pay to do some research and see what might work best for you.

Why wash a fleece, anyway? Well, that fleece has been on the sheep’s back for a whole year, so it’ll be full of dust, dirt, vegetable matter, and, erm, cling-ons around the back area, if you’re unlucky. Not only that, a sheep also produces lanolin (from the Latin words lana ‘wool’ and oleum ‘oil’,) which is a fatty substance, and suint, from the sheep’s sweat.


My unwashed Hebridean fleece, up close and personal (it does whiff somewhat…)

When cleaning a fleece, you have to be careful not to accidentally felt it. Felting of wool occurs when the fibres get exposed to moisture, friction, and quick changes in temperature (especially from hot to cold.) In other words: handle with care when scouring your fleece! As long as you keep this in mind, you can get your fleece clean without a problem.

As I have to wash my fleece in the bathroom, I decided to divide my Hebridean into four parts, and put each in one of those large mesh washbags. One of my yarn stash storage boxes now doubles up as a fleece washing container. In order to lift the full washbags out of the container, I made a ‘lifter-upper’ contraption from some wooden slats I had lying about.


My fleece washing materials: large container, wooden slat ‘lifter-upper’, scouring liquid, water softener

As I live in a hard-water area, and it is not possible for me to collect rain water, I decided not only to use scour liquid, but also water softener.


My set-up in the bathroom, with fleece soaking in hot water

So, how does it actually work? First of all, lots of the dirt and some of the lanolin and suint will come out with a good soak in plain hot water. This means that later on you can use less scouring liquid. So that’s what I did: I filled up the container with very hot water (I had to wear gloves in order to be able to put my hands in) and added some water softener to the water. Then I put in the wooden slat construction, and on top of that I sat the wash-bag with fleece. I very carefully pressed the fleece under the water (remember: no agitation!) and let it soak for 20min. Then I carefully lifted out the washbag with fleece, by using the wooden slats underneath. If rotated by 90deg, this conveniently fits across the bath, so it could drip dirty water whilst I added fresh hot water to the container, again with water softener. I put the fleece back in the container and let it soak in the fresh hot water for 20min. These 20min are important, as this is long enough to melt the lanolin, but short enough to keep to water temperature up, so the lanolin won’t settle back in the fleece with cooling.

The third and the fourth round are again 20min in hot water, but this time I added not only the water softener, but also a proprietary scouring liquid (I used Aussie Know-How Fibre Scour.) By the fourth soak, the water was quite clear. Inbetween each water change I carefully lifted the washbag out of the water, and let it drip over the bath.

The fifth and the sixth round are for rinsing the fleece. Again, 20min soaks in hot water and some water softener only.

The water left from the sixth round was then used for the first soak of the next washbag with fleece. Luckily it was a windy, but dry few days after that, so I could dry the fleece outside. I put the bags over a clothes rack, so that air could circulate all round the mesh bags. Once a day I would turn the bags over. It probably took around three days before the fleece was completely dry.

Following Deb’s advice, I decided to sort the fleece afterwards. I’m glad I did, as I don’t have a lot of space in the backyard, and by handling the fleece, I got to get a feel for it. Looking back, the only thing I would do differently, is put a bit more fleece in each bag, so I would have had only three bags full, instead of four bags. It would’ve saved me some water.

So, what’s the result after all this hard work? A lovely soft fleece! With many thanks to Susan for giving me such a wonderful fleece, and also many thanks to Deb for the in-depth blog posts to help me wash my first fleece.


One washed lock: it shows the characteristic triangular shape of a Hebridean lock

No felting or matting occurred, and it was a pleasure to comb this fleece in preparation for spinning. I will share my combing and spinning experience later this Wovember.

This entry was posted by tomofholland.

9 thoughts on “One Method of Scouring Fleece

  1. I love every part of processing wool. I would much rather spend a day washing fleeces than doing most things. I find myself day dreaming about what this fleece might become. Thanks for showing your Hebridean fleece. Looks yummy.

  2. So interesting! Hebridean sheep look a bit like the Navajo Churro sheep we have in Arizona–although Arizona sheep collect more dust than vegetable matter.

  3. I have just found out about Wovember and love the idea. I especially loved the comment about “three bags full”.

    As an ex woolclasser, I am curious at to whether the fleece was skirted (cleaned up around the edges) before you scoured it. This should remove most of the “cling-ons” from the back end, depending on the conditions at shearing time.

  4. I only just got the ‘three bags full’ comment! Duh. Really interesting Tom, I’ve only done a bit of hand spinning – from rovings from Trefriw ( – another mill well worth a visit (summer only). I now really want a Hebridean fleece too. It would be great if you have any ideas of where fleeces can be bought/traded (I’m a potter), I will look online of course too so only if you have siggestions beyond that…. c

  5. Pingback: A Short History On Wool Combing | Wovember

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