Once I learned how to spin wool I wanted to know how to process a fleece from beginning to end. Yeah I know but that's how I am, I have to know how things work. I am lucky enough to have a friend that knows the in's and out's of fleece processing. I guess I should make a correction and say that I did not get the fleece from the true beginning, as in, from the sheep itself. I did not sheer the lovely sheep that provided my fleece. The fleece I purchased was from a Targhee Merino sheep and it is really lovely fleece.
When the fleece arrived in the mail (I ordered it from Ebay) it was filthy. My friend had warned me that the unprocessed fleece would be full of dirt and vegitative matter (grass and junk). I took a sample over to my friends house and showed it to her, she approved of the fleece quality and gave me further directions to clean the fleece and remove some of the lanolin (oil) from the fleece which will make it easier to spin.
So here is what you will need to process your fleece from cleaning to spinning, this means it is already sheered.
soap to wash the fleece (this can be done in the tub or in a washing machine, which is how I did it)
laundry bags like you use for delicate wash items or empty orange bags like I use or any net bags that can be closed.
hand carders or a drum carder (hand carders are cheaper but more labor intensive)
spinning wheel or drop spindle or whatever you want to use to spin it.
Now that you have everything that you need to process your fleece you can pull pieces off the fleece and place them in your laundry bags. Do not put too much in each bag and do not put too many bags in the washing machine or tub. Now set the bags aside while you fill your washing machine tub with hot water. Do not put the fleece in while it is filling or you will end up with felt. While the water is filling add about 1/4 cup of detergent. I used Dawn because it cuts grease and really gets the dirt out but you can use what you have.
Once the tub is full of hot water stop the machine. You do not want it to agitate at all. Seriously, no agitation at all. Remember the felt conversation earlier, yep that's what will happen. Now add in your laundry bags and push them down to get water all in and around the fleece. Just remember no agitation so be gentle. Now walk away for about an hour.
Now again I am going to stress the fact that you do not want to agitate the fleece so make sure and take the cycle on your washing machine straight to spin. Spin out the water and then remove the bags with the fleece and set aside. There was alot of dirt on the bottom of my machine so I did a cold water rinse cycle next and then set it back to the soak cycle with hot water. This time you will not add soap just hot water. Once the tub is filled you will again add your bags of fleece. Again, you will walk away and leave it for about 40 minutes this time. You will repeat the plain soak part of the process until the water and the fleece come out clean. Sometimes with a merino fleece you have to actually go through the whole process to include soap two times. They are huge fleeces and have a very fine crimp.
Once the water comes out clean then you can take your fleece bags out and empty the fleece onto towels or a dry rack. gently spread it out to dry
Part II of Processing Raw Fleece will discuss hand carding.