by Learning Lead- Amy Sinclair

I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to touch a sheep. But if you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that your hand feels greasy afterward. That greasy feeling is caused by lanolin. Sheep produce lanolin to repel water to keep their body dry. This natural water resistance is one of the reasons people love wool garments. As such, some people will spin yarn straight from a freshly sheared fleece, without removing any lanolin. This is known as ‘spinning in the grease’. From what I’ve read (and can imagine) this makes your fingers and equipment a very dirty and sticky mess when all is said and done. Plus, this old lanolin can harden, which isn’t so pleasant either. To overcome this sticky situation, it is common to remove some or all of the lanolin from the fleece before spinning. This practice is known as scouring. It is a pretty simple, albeit long, process. You simply submerge the fleece (or sections of it) in hot, detergent-filled water for about 20 minutes. Some people do as little as 15 minutes and some as long as 30 minutes, but any more than that you risk the dirt and lanolin resettling in the wool. The fleece is soaked numerous times, all depending on how dirty the fleece is. Simple, right? However, there are a few important things to keep in mind while doing it.

  1. Never agitate the wool while it is wet (it will felt!)
  2. Never pour water onto the wool (it will felt!)
  3. Never put wool from HOT water into COLD water (it will felt!)
  4. Only add detergent to max 2 soaks (or risk damaging the fibers)
  5. Limit the number of hot soaks to 5 (or risk damaging the fibers)
  6. Squeeze excess water from wool (don’t wring it, it will felt!)
  7. Wash sections of fleece in mesh garment bags to keep the lock structure intact (small amounts can be contained by a strainer if preferred) 
  8. Dry wool away from heat sources and direct sunlight (or risk damaging the fibers)

Now that we’ve gone over the basics, I’ll tell you a bit about my experience scouring. First I had to figure out where I’d do it. Two popular places to scour are in a bathtub or a large wash sink. But we don’t have either of those in our suite….And I did not want to wash tiny amounts in the kitchen sink, so I decided I would use a storage bin. I bought a large, coarse grade mesh wash bag to keep the fleece sections intact, and two different detergents. I wanted to try Unicorn Power Scour (a highly recommended detergent, made specifically for scouring wool), and the more affordable blue Dawn dish soap (also widely recommended).

Materials used. Photo by Amy Sinclair.

The amount of detergent I needed to use depended on how much hot water I used. I needed to be able to fully submerge the wool in water, while leaving a bit of space under it for the dirt to escape. To find out how much water I’d need, I grabbed a liquid measuring cup and filled the storage bin up to where it would fully submerge the fleece. I marked the water’s level with a permanent marker and used this volume (8 gallons) to calculate that I’d need half a cup (4 oz) of detergent per batch. This turned out to be the whole bottle of Unicorn Beyond Clean I had (Beyond Clean is the unscented version of Power Scour). So I could only do one batch with that (facepalm) and the rest would be Dawn dish soap. Good thing I hadn’t bought that yet. I went out and bought the biggest bottle I could find.

I decided to start by scouring the huge white fleece that came from Parry bay sheep farm. I pulled a section of fleece out of the plastic bag and placed it in my mesh bag, careful not to overstuff it (It barely looked like I’d removed any wool from the plastic bag)!  We were going to have to do a lot more batches than I’d thought. I filled the storage bin with steaming hot tap water, added in my tiny 4oz bottle of Unicorn Beyond Clean, and submerged the fleece-filled mesh bag. I could immediately see the cloud of dirt emanating from the fleece as I submerged it.

Submerged fleece. Photo by Amy Sinclair.

After 20 minutes had passed, I took the fleece out of the water and had my husband dump the water out and, leaving the leftover suds in the tub, refill it with more hot tap water. The fleece looked remarkably cleaner already! 

Once the tub was refilled, I submerged the fleece once again for 20 minutes. The water was dumped out and refilled again for a 20 minute rinse to ensure the detergent was completely removed. After that rinse, I removed the fleece from the mesh bag, squeezed out the excess water and laid it out on a towel to dry. This section of fleece took just over a day to dry outside (inside for overnight). Once it was dry, my fingers no longer felt greasy after touching it and it felt much softer now that it was clean.

Fleece looking clean in the mesh bag. Photo by Amy Sinclair.

Some of the tips were still quite dark but the internet had informed me that this was okay. It may be staining or some trapped dirt that will come out when I prepare the fibers for spinning. Although, some people swear by soaking the fleece overnight in cold water before scouring for this very reason. I did this with the third batch and several others (there is a table at the bottom of this post if you’d like to see what I did for each batch).

The second scouring attempt was carried-out using the same methodology as the first but using blue Dawn dish soap instead of the Unicorn Beyond Clean. Once washed, both sections of wool were very comparable in colour. The Dawn one may be a tad less white, if I really scrutinize it, but it is very hard to tell. Both sections felt similar once dry, leaving no greasy residue on my fingers but tips did feel a bit crispier on the one washed with Dawn. So, I decided I would have to try another thing some people swear by to combat coarse and crispy bits: adding white vinegar in the last rinse. 

My third scouring attempt started with an overnight, cold water soak. It seemed to work very well. The water was as brown as the water from the hot washes in the first and second batches. Then we did the 20 min hot soak with Dawn and the water remained fairly clear!

Washed fleece (top) vs unwashed fleece (bottom). Photo by Amy Sinclair.

Since the water was pretty clean, we decided one hot rinse would be enough. So we rinsed the soap suds out of the tub before refilling it. This batch ended up looking very much like the two we did the day before. So I don’t think the cold soak improved the wash, but it did mean I only had to wait around for two 20 minute soaks instead of three. Some of the tips were still quite brown, but as I mentioned before, that should be fine (fingers crossed)!

I added vinegar to the last rinse of the fourth batch. Overall, I’d say that it really did soften up the wool. Now when I feel the batches rinsed without vinegar, they feel a bit coarser, and not quite as soft as I’d originally thought. Some of the tips rinsed with vinegar did still feel a bit crispy, but not as many or to the same extent as those rinsed in only hot water. 

On the following weekends, when the weather was nice, we (my helpers and I) got into a routine of scouring a few sections of fleece.

It took us six batches to clean that one fleece! Then we moved onto the other two fleeces. We only needed three batches for the brown fleece and two batches for Finn’s fleece. So if you compare the number of batches per fleece, you get the picture of how big that one fleece was. Once each section of fleece was fully dry, it was placed in a pillowcase, with a label, and stored.

Pillowcases stuffed with clean, dry wool while they await processing. Photo by Amy Sinclair.

I also NEED to show you how beautiful the brown fleece is! On the cut side it is so dark it looks black. Then it transitions into a deep, warm brown and the tips are a perfect golden colour. I love it so much and hope that the colors remain distinct once spun into yarn.

Brown fleece. Photo by Amy Sinclair.

Now after having scoured all three fleeces, I’d say that my mesh bag was too large and  awkward for me to handle easily. If I were to do it all over again, I would buy multiple smaller mesh bags. This way I could still wash large sections of fleece at once by submerging multiple bags in the bin simultaneously, and it would be easier to hold each section and squeeze out the water more effectively between each soak. Or, if I had a bath tub I’d like to try it the way “The Independent Stitch” does it with perforated trays and base trays. Here’s a link if you would like to check that method out:

Until the next blog! 


Table 1. Details of what was done to each batch of wool.
Photo of Amy and her daughter.

Growing up in Vancouver Amy developed a love for being outside exploring the natural world. She attended McGill University and received a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental and Agricultural Sciences, with a specialization in plant biology. She is an aspiring plant ecologist who enjoys gardening, baking and crocheting. Currently she lives in Victoria on WSÁNEĆ land and is a stay-at-home mom of an adventurous little girl. The two of them spend the majority of their day outside watching the birds, playing in the dirt and exploring their surroundings.