Friday, March 6, 2015

Let's Wash a Merino Fleece: Step 2, Divide it Up

For this step, you are free to skip it if you do not want to separate out the prime part of the fleece from the rest of the fleece. As I already mentioned before, I always do this step because it gives me options for how I will use a fleece. If you have an extremely consistent fleece, you may want to skip this step.

What do I mean by "prime"? The prime part of the fleece is the best part of the fleece on the animal. For most sheep, this is the wool on the sides of the animal, not including the middle strip down the back of the animal, the leg wool, britch wool, or belly wool. In some breeds, the wool around the face, neck, and shoulders is the softest wool, and should therefore be considered prime wool as well. The "seconds" can mean one of two things (from my experience): 1) anything not prime wool but still usable; or 2) the small, short cuts of wool resulting from the shearing process and often thrown away. Since the "seconds" of the second meaning are usually thrown away before you get the fleece--via a process called "skirting"--I will refer to the first meaning of "seconds" herein.

Now that your whole fleece is laid out, assess which portions you think constitute seconds. This will be a process best done by feel, since it will vary according to the consistency within the fleece you're processing. Does this part feel soft enough? If so, consider it prime. You should really take some time to get acquainted with your fleece so you don't miscategorize the parts of the fleece.

To begin pulling the seconds away from the prime, grab the tip of a lock and slowly pull it away from the prime so the lock stays intact. Do this for every lock until the seconds and prime are fully separated. Go slow. Do this on a day when you have a couple of hours to work uninterrupted. Try to keep the prime in one full piece. I don't mind if I break the seconds into smaller pieces.

Do you see those tips? Pull the whole lock from the adjacent lock to prevent stray fibers from loosening and making the lock jumbled. Use two hands and a gentle touch. Trust me, this small detail is worth it!

As you can see, the slightly cotted locks made it into the seconds box. I'm not too worried about rolling up the seconds like I do the prime, just be sure they're in neat little piles so you don't mess up the lock structure. Remember, seconds are still really good bits of the fleece, just not the cream of the crop!

Here, we have the whole prime part of the fleece sitting on the floor. It's amazing, isn't it? I checked the strip down the center of the back and it was clean and just as soft as the prime part of the fleece, so I kept that part with the prime. The prime fleece is actually quite large by comparison. That's a slightly skewed result since I didn't work on the whole fleece straight from the animal. If I were to venture a guess, the seconds constituted 25% (about 2 pounds) of the fleece I bought, and the prime was about 75% (about 5.5 pounds). 

At this stage, we can roll up the prime fleece and start washing the seconds. If I have the opportunity to work with a whole fleece, I like to use the seconds as the proverbial guinea pigs. (Not really, since I love guinea pigs and would never hurt them.) If you are unsure and inexperienced with washing this type of fleece, or fleeces in general, this will help you prevent ruining an entire fleece. I've heard enough sad stories about ruined fleeces (okay, not entirely ruined, since you can spin semi-felted wool to make really cool art yarn!), so I will emphasize this step in the process. But that will be for the next post!

Post your questions/comments below, and if you have your own way of processing fleeces, post your tips there too! Thanks for reading everyone. :)