Processing your own fibre is a game changer and the idea of having unlimited core is enough to make one weak at the knees I swear. I have been collecting odd ball fleeces for a long time now and there is no secret that I believe it’s the wool that has taught me most of what I know about Needle Felting today. The most valuable lessons to date have come from the rubbish fleeces. I have learned how to wash it and how to ruin a fleece along with the amazing wins I have had along the way.
When a farmer asks you if you would like a free fleece say YES please. If they want to sell it to you just ask if you can take a sample to try first. Sometimes this is easier said than done and there is a risk that the fleece won’t behave the way you are hoping however I guarantee you will learn something from it. I always collect fleeces in large linen bags made from old sheets. These allow the fleeces to breathe until you get to washing them.
Washing your fleece
So now that you have your fleece you need to wash it. Take the fleece out and lay it as flat as you can on a large net curtain. This netting will contain the fibre and stop it from going down the drain, it is essentially a large washing bag. You could pull off a clump of fleece and pack it into a small laundry bag to wash in small batches as I used to in the early days but nowadays it’s massive loads with the netting.
I do this on my kitchen floor and I have around 6 large net curtains. Using my bathtub I wash around half a fleece at a time. As best I can I place the fleece all the same way up. I try to put the tips of the fleece down and the cut side up. If you are lucky the fleece holds itself together just enough but some are very sticky with lanolin and when folded and stored they tend to stick to themselves. It can be very tricky to part them but if you can’t find the cut edge then that’s because it’s stuck to another cut edge. Pull this apart and lay it out with the cut side up and pack it together on the net in the shape and size of the bathtub.
Now fold the netting over the parcel of wool, both long sides first and then fold the ends in. This parcel of wool is then placed into a bathtub of hot soapy water. It’s important to run your hottest hot water first and once the tub is around a third full turn the water off and lay around half a bottle of liquid soap into the bath. There should be no soapy bubbles as this would encourage felting to occur. I use an eco friendly laundry wash, nothing special only because it’s readily available. I’ve seen some lovely specialised fibre detergents and would love to try them but haven’t yet. Use what ever you have at the time and try a small clump of fleece before the big wash if you like. This will show you how much washing it needs up front.
Lay the large parcel of fibre into the bath with the tips of the fleece going into the water first, the folded netting should be on top, and press it down into the hot, soapy water. I use a plastic mop head to push it down and do so systematically along the whole fleece. Each fleece will vary immensely with how gentle you need to be, this is why the clump test is invaluable. I let this soak until the water has started to cool and with my Romney fleeces I give them a systematic squish every now and then whilst waiting for the the dirt to soften.
Once the water has cooled enough to put your hands in, pull on your rubber gloves and, from the drain end of the bath, start to roll up the parcel as tight as you can. Pull the plug and continue to roll and squeeze out the dirt. This is where I apologise to nature for letting this valuable resource down the drain. I have a plan for a specialised bathtub set up at standing height that has a drain to my garden beds but for now it gets wasted. Once the parcel is rolled up completely, I lift it out and pop it into the hand basin to drain whilst I rinse and refill the bathtub, to a third, with hot water again. Depending on the fleece it may require soap again, the clump test will show you how many soapy dips it needs.
When the parcel is replaced into the bath start at the drain end and roll it out away from that end. This makes sure that it gets turned each time and makes for a much more evenly washed fleece. Use the mop to push it down systematically again and let it soak a little then another squish depending on the fleece but the sort of fleece you want for core wool can handle a little rough squishing. Repeat these steps until you have a fairly clear bath after rolling up the parcel.
Drying the fleece
This lovely clean fleece should be a pleasure to smell and hang in the lounge room. If not it may have needed more soap and squishing but let it dry and give it some sun, you will be surprised what a good airing can eliminate. I have a fire place in my lounge with a clothes line across the room and with some towels under them I just hang them to drip dry. If there is a load of sun I put them out on the lawn on their netting. They take a while to dry so the chances are you will move them around and the netting makes this very easy.
Make sure it is completely dry before it is stored. I store my washed fleeces in pillow cases, each one, stuffed to the brim and labeled with the name of the sheep, or the breed, and the year of shearing. The fleece is now ready to be processed and I know that was hard work but it was the easiest part to some degree.
Now that you have a lovely clean and dry fleece you will need to pick it prior to carding and this is a very important step. If you want to use small batches it is easy enough to pull off a clump of locks, comb the tips out with a strong comb and then the same with the cut ends. This will give you small amounts of lovely combed fibre to use. You can also pull it all apart and fluff it up then using two hand carders or dog brushes you can card up little batts.
However if you are lucky enough you will have a picking machine of some sort. The picker is a specialised monster to say the least. It has big nails that open the fibres up and loosen the locks so that the resulting fluff can be put through the drum carder with ease. These are expensive to purchase but if you are a handy person, or at least have access to one, there are plans available on line to help you build your own.
There are two main types of pickers, a swinging picker and a box picker. The only other option is to sit and pull the locks apart or pay someone to do it for you. I have done all of the above and I’m lucky enough to have a son who made me a very raw but highly functional swing picker recently. Trust me this machine is a major game changer.
Now that you have your fluff all ready to be made into batts it’s time to introduce you to the queen of the fibre processing journey. The electric drum carder is the most efficient and loved of my machines. The picked fluff is now put through the drum carder systematically until you have a lovely batt. These batts are your core wool store and can be rolled up and stored in plastic tubs with a couple of recycled moisture cells from vitamin bottles. Now you are all ready to make some life sized creatures or loads of little ones. Maybe you can put together a kit and write a “how to” for something that is unique to your style of needle felt. All I know is, once you have the freedom of unlimited fibre even the sky is no limit.
Please not that all of the fibre washed in this blog was for core, I wash my finer fleeces in a completely different manner, more about that in another blog.