Three years ago when I lived in the country I managed to wheedle some free wool out of a farmer neighbor, well really all I had to do was ask. The farmer was in fact, also the co-owner of the local hardware store, Reddick Bros., where I would frequently wander about cooing at all the baby chicks, ducks and rabbits and running my hands over ancient farm equipment sold "used" again and again over at least the last eighty years, and before I left would happily purchase the odd ball of twine, handful of rough nails, or once a mysterious old tool that resembled a wooden handled iron with a ridge down the center (I'd later discovered it was a tool for masonry work). On one such trip, knowing the brothers had sheep, I finally gathered the courage to ask if I could purchase some wool. Looking a smidge surprised the brother behind the counter bid me to call his other brother who would likely give me a bit of old wool. After making the proper arrangements, I was show to an open barn where said wool languished on an decrepit Cadillac, both covered in a fine layer of dust, mold and hay. A good country girl and fearless about bugs and dirt, I recklessly filled up and proudly waddled away with three bags full. I imagine the farmer later told his incredulous wife the story of the odd little artist girl who wanted half rotten wool.
A few weeks later I washed a bit of it to spin a bit of clumsy yarn that my ancestors would have scoffed at as an embarrassment, but I still find inordinately pleasing. I'll call it worsted if need be. The rest has been sitting filthy in a shed, forgotten, until "the move" six months ago and had to tote it to my new home, where it has been living on a side porch ever since. A quick inventory reveals about a half a fleece of beautiful brown wool and an entire fleece of yellowish brittle wool, that I am mostly avoiding, I have heard yellow wool dyes well, so maybe it will be indigo or charcoal grey someday. Today I have finally undertaken the task of washing another batch of wool. It's not high quality and hasn't been well taken care of, so it's not good for spinning. If it ever was I wouldn't know, I suspect that the herd of sheep kept by the Reddick brothers is not for wool production, but perhaps they are kept for food, hence the free wool. Whatever the case it seems to felt just fine, which incidentally is exactly what I desire. Washing has been put off for several reasons, one being, to put it lightly, it is a disgusting chore, the fleeces are filled with dirt, bugs, grease, and other "barnyard ephemera." The process is ancient, and it smells of ancient women's tasks and I revel in that despite the filth. My mind wanders. Are these tasks somehow part of our memory, carried out for so many generations, the techniques are so easily lost, but is the essence of it forgotten too? Who washes the Fates wool? Do they spin it directly from mythical sheep, or is our fate spun from our very hair, or is the strand as fine as our dna?
Alas onto technicalities most of us do not remember. . .
My cleaning method is loosely adapted from a few different sites, and I am very inexperienced in cleaning wool, so I suggest if you want a proper instructions don't follow mine. That said, my basic method involves filling a bucket or large metal bowl with hot, hot water in my bathtub (my hot water heater is really hot, so I don't have to bother with boiling water to get it to a good temperature), adding a big squirt of dish washing liquid, then dunking a net bag used for washing lingerie filled with the wool into the bowl. I poke it down with some sort of long utensil because the water is too hot for comfort and then let it soak for 15 or so minutes, I sometimes press the bag down, but don't stir because I don't want felt just yet. When I wash the brown wool the water turns an opaque black, I can see the white bag poking out of the water and then nothing, it's fairly gross. Drain the wool for 10 minutes, then fill up a bowl with fresh water rinse in bowls of clean water first hot, then subsequently cooler, until the water runs clear.
Then it must dry and be carded before anything else, I initially tried "carding" it just by pulling apart locks longways and brushing them with a comb, and that gets most of the leaves and dirt out, but I found it too daunting to do a lot that way, so I saved up for some wool carders, which I'll use on the new batch. Hopefully tomorrow will find me on my porch carding heaps of wool. . .