Sunday, September 4, 2011

Adventures in Wool: Step 1, Skirting Fleece

Long time no post. This summer has just flown by, and in other ways it has dragged - I'm in no rush for it to end despite the leaves starting to turn & fall.

I wanted to put one of those nifty word-list things along the right side of my blog. You know the ones that you click on the big or little word & it takes you to related posts? So cool. Love them.
No deal. This template doesn't support that. What it does let me do is label the post at the bottom by the comments & you can click on that to go to related posts! Yay!

I recently took a small detour from sewing when a family friend gifted me with 30 -yes THIRTY- fleeces. Raw fleeces. From sheep. Smelly, dirty, nasty, BaBa Black Sheep and oh does he ever have some wool. There's more if you want it. It's free, but you have to come get it. And I mean that too. Please... take some! (I'm offering the raw or skirted fleeces - you have to wash your own).

The sheep are hair (not a spinner's friend), Dorset & Finn. The Dorset & Finn are absolutely lovely. The hair is OK for batting, which is fine with me, I do more quilting anyway.Link
I learned A LOT about sheep, fleece, VM "vegetable matter" (a.k.a. vile muck, veritable mess, very manky), lanolin, "tags" (poop & grease - eew), shorts (second cuts), wool vs. hair, skirting, classing, scouring (ie washing - don't agitate it!), BTW is your Tetanus shot up to date? What gloves fit, how much hot water our heater holds, drying, picking, flick carding, ticks, burrs... oh boy...

Moon LOVES fleece. She's officially left me for the sheep in the basement.

I am not in any way a professional here, I'm just sharing what I learned after making some BIG mistakes.

So, without further delays, I'll tell you How To Skirt a Raw Fleece.

1: DO NOT just pull it apart & toss it in hot water! NO! Bad plan... bad, bad, bad plan.
ask me how I know this... that stuff does not "just fall right out."
2: DO get yourself the following equipment & prepare for one of the grossest things you will ever do (and the most fun).

Tools & materials for skirting wool:

To make the mess
- skirting table (how to build one) OR
- large wire rack
- Sawhorses to set the rack on
To contain the mess
- 2 plastic tarps, the kind that are waterproof & can stand up to some abuse.
- trash bags
- trash can, in my case a big pink tote
To keep you clean (ha)
- rubber gloves
- work clothes; pants, long sleeved shirt, shoes, socks, head scarf or at least a hair tie
- safety glasses (you really want these)
- dust mask; I admit I couldn't tolerate the mask & took it off.
Go for the Hazmat suit & call it a day!
To keep your clean fleece clean
- clean feed bags or cloth bags - NOT plastic bags!
- paper & pen to label the skirted fleece in the bag(s)
- soap & water for hands & face
- tissues or paper towels to blow your nose
- other clean clothes before you ever go in the house
- work apron
- scissors
- broom & shovel (not a dust pan, a shovel).
- an outbuilding or outside is preferable. This makes a genuine mess.
- a place to store the skirted fleece, again, not in your house!

Initial Skirting:
(it will be gross)
Initial skirting should be done on site by the shearer / Shepard - but it may not be. Belly wool shouldn't even come into the main part of the fleece, but it may. So when you go see the Shepard, and are confronted with that Giant Mountain Of Manky Wool you will know what to tare off right away.
A good fleece (so I've read) will stick together even as you pull it off the pile (or out of the pile - which will then fall on you - wear long pants, long sleeves, gloves - it IS a barnyard).
- Immediately remove poop tags. These are generally located at the back end of the fleece.
- Pull off any truly heinous belly wool, it'll be right at the edges & will look like something off of a homeless sewer hippie in a bad episode of Law & Order - NOBODY gets that grungy, nobody. Except sheep, apparently.
- Bag that nasty, mucky, smelly thing so you can move on before your friend tosses the next fleece on your head. Go ahead, fill the back of the truck! There's lots more where that came from.
Don'ts & Do's
Don't take anything that's wet unless you have a place to dry it or can soak it right away (soaking is different from scouring). Wet = mold, mold = trash.
DO NOT TAKE THE RAM! ask me how I know this...
Don't take anything that is hopelessly messed up or falling apart.
Do not take a fleece that is super-dirty from the cut side. Waste of Time.

Do educate yourself on the fibers you want to use & look for those characteristics (under the grunge) hehe.
Do take fleeces that are holding together & look relatively clean from the cut side.
Do look for a Shepard who raises sheep appropriate for what you want to do (and keeps them clean - those nice little coats are just so cute).
Do look into a breed that isn't Merino. Yeah, it's the best but give another breed a chance too.
Do look into paying someone like these guys to do this stuff for you! (or at least tell you how).

OK, so now you've got this heaping, stinking pile of greasy, vm-encrusted mess (in feed bags no less)... what do you do with it?
Well, you don't just toss the whole thing in a tub of hot water! Oh NO!

I did this a bit differently than it's done commercially.

Laying Out.
- First, I laid out 2 or 3 fleeces on the downwind tarp at a time (or on the floor of the little outbuilding when it was raining).
- Then I looked for the head, sides & back.
- Remove any remaining poop tags.
- Remove heavy areas of VM (vegetable matter) from the neck area.
- Remove any obvious grease tags - these look like that L&O sewer hippie's dread locks & if you squeeze them grease actually comes out (I think I just threw up a little there). DO NOT try to clean them, they don't clean.
- Remove any obviously stained areas, no point in keeping them if they don't come clean.

Throw the fleece!
- Throw the fleece cut side down onto the skirting table! It's fun. You'll like it. It'll bounce.
- cut side down, grab ahold of it & shake it a little.
- flip it over & take any obvious VM or second cuts off (short hairs that are a re-buzz on the hair cut), any remaining grease or poo tags.
- Shake the heck out of it with the lock side down. Super gross & tons of... stuff... will fall out. I mean TONS - your fleece will lose about 1/4 of it's weight right here.
- Repeat many times.
Now, the fleece is going to start to get loose & kinda fluffy & may start to fall apart a bit. This is where I separate out the different hair types & give myself smaller chunks to work with. If you are selling the fleece, you will want to keep it in one piece (apparently).
- I divided the fleece according to wool types: breech wool (back legs), nice wool (clean-er), and manky wool (pre-wash). About 15" x 15" chunks, or however they divide. (the one pictured is still in that chunk, but you can see the different hair/wool types clearly).
- Back on the table & shake, shake, shake.
Note: when shaking, keep it DOWN. Don't pull it up in the air so that awful mess goes in your face... it's a movement of the wrists & elbows, not the shoulders... get it?

Monkey Picking!
- Remove any left-over bits. Don't eat what you find.
- Maintain the lock structure! Do NOT pull the locks apart! Yes, get the ticks & burrs out, but don't separate those locks, you'll need them later. ask me how I know this...
- Shake it again both sides until it goes light & fluffy, you'll know.
(What's pictured here is actually cleanable, but if it's worse, get rid of it.)

At this point it should look like something you might not be afraid to touch with your bare hands if you have a sink & soap in the near future. Perhaps the cat won't need a bath after rolling in this fleece.

And you are done skirting! Congrats, you just did one of the grossest jobs on the face of the planet! Well done. I'm proud of you.

- If the fleece is still intact, lay it down, lock side up & then fold the ends in. Roll the fleece into a bag & label it.
Sheep Breed
Name (if it has one)
Date shorn
Date skirted
Date scoured
Date carded
Date dyed/spun/etc.
If you want, just for kicks, weigh it before & after to see how much stuff fell out of it.

If the fleece is in pieces, you can either group like with like from different sheep or keep it all in the same bag & process it as one fleece later. I suggest, if it's in pieces to group like with like even if it is from different sheep; that will make scouring & further processing much easier.

A single fleeces yields a lot of wool. Much more than the original volume, considering that it has lost over 1/2 its weight in the skirting & scouring process. I think what it loses in weight, it gains in puff.

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