How to Wash Fleece: the Henry Clemes Method

Washing raw fleece is a straightforward process, though many different methods exist. This is Henry’s wool scouring method that he has refined through years of tinkering, with the goal being to consistently produce a clean wool fleece while being as efficient as possible with his time and the amount of soap and water used. Starting with a greasy fleece, this method will result in a clean, dry fleece in as little as 36-48 hours, with just about an hour of actual working time. The process consists of skirting and bagging the fleece, three washes, two rinses, and drying.

Equipment and Setup

We don’t all have the same amount of space (or budget) to dedicate to a fleece washing setup. Our equipment consists of a dedicated washing machine, dedicated hot water heater, and a custom-built drying cabinet. We wash over a hundred fleece a year, but everything in this method is scalable down to washing just a couple of pounds. The three pieces of equipment needed are a washing tub, a water heating device, and an area to skirt and dry fleece.

We use an old Kenmore High Capacity washing machine. This particular washing machine’s agitator is broken – which is great as we won’t accidentally use that function to make felt. When using an old washing machine, a working spin cycle definitely helps to remove the dirt and dirty water between each step in the process. A bathtub or deep kitchen sink works almost as well as a wash machine – especially if made of cast iron. When washing in cold weather, we recommend filling the tub with hot water before beginning the first wash, to raise the temperature of the tub and reduce the loss of heat.

A gas water heater is ideal for heating the amount of water needed to wash wool. We have a dedicated water heater just for this purpose but using a household water heater is fine. Turn the heater up to its highest setting and make sure everyone else in the house knows not to use any hot water until you are finished washing and have turned the heat back down to the normal temperature. Do not forget this final step of turning the water heater back down to normal temperature as someone may scald themselves with water at the hotter temperature. The closer the water heater is to the wash tub or washing machine, the better. As the hot water travels through (relatively) cold pipes, it will lose temperature. Our water heater and washing machine are side by side; we fill almost directly out of the water heater with an insulated rubber hose.

If your water heater does not produce water at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, you may need to supplement the water in your tub by boiling water on the stove. When starting each wash, it is imperative that you begin with a water temperature at or above 160*F so that it does not drop below 140*F before the next wash or rinse. Do not guess on water temperature; use a candy thermometer to make sure you are staying in the proper temperature range. At the proper washing temperature, water will cause burns so investing in a pair of thick rubber gloves is necessary. A dedicated mini plunger – not the one from the neareast bathroom – works well for gently pushing the fleece below the surface of the water and will keep your gloved hands out of harm’s way as much as possible.

A stainless steel electric food warmer is a good solution for washing smaller batches (1-2 pounds at a time) and provides the tub and water heating component in a portable and efficient package. Most food warmers also let you select the exact temperature at which you are heating. Food warmers are also excellent vessels for dyeing.

A separate area may be used for skirting and drying, but isn’t necessary as they both need the same basic elements: a flat area capable of laying out an entire fleece (or as much as you are washing at one time) with 1/2” to 1” openings for dirt and vegetable matter to fall out when skirting and to allow for air flow when drying. Running a fan or a dry breeze will help to dry the fleece but can also cause it to blow away. A sealed room or area with a dehumidifier speeds up the process, but the result is no different from a day or two in the sun.

If your setup doesn’t include a washing machine with a working spin cycle, a spin dryer made by The Laundry Alternative or Panda is a great way to remove the bulk of the water from the fleece and will greatly speed up the drying process.

An alarm, timer, or a similar app on your phone is an important tool for staying on time throughout the process.

The last piece of equipment is a tool for keeping the fleece together in the water. Henry started with thick plastic netting when he was washing in the sink, but garment bags are so much more manageable and easier to store. Garment bags typically hold 3-4 pounds of fleece, lingerie bags typically hold about half a pound. When shopping for these bags, the larger the holes in the mesh the better as it will allow for more dirt and vegetable matter to be removed during the spin out.

Water, Power Scour, Fleece Ratio

The amount of water and soap to use is best discovered through trial and error. While our guide below provides recommended ratios of water, Power Scour, and fleece, the key principle seems to be matching the amount of water and Power Scour used, rather than the amount of wool. If using a washing machine, this means filling the machine with known quantities of water – one-gallon jugs, two-gallon buckets, etc. – and marking the water level on the inside of the tub. You do not want to attempt measuring 160*F water while you are in the middle of the washing process.

 

Overnight Soak Water Power Scour Fleece
Tub or sink 2 gallons 1/2 teaspoon 1 pound
Washing machine 16 gallons 1 tablespoon 6-8 pounds

 

Wash #1 Water Power Scour Fleece
Tub or sink 2 gallons 1 tablespoon 1 pound
Washing machine 16 gallons 8 tablespoons 6-8 pounds

 

Wash #2 and 3 Water Power Scour Fleece
Tub or sink 2 gallons 1/2 tablespoon 1 pound
Washing machine 16 gallons 4 tablespoons 6-8 pounds

 

Rinse #2 Water Fibre Rinse Fleece
Tub or sink 2 gallons 1/2 tablespoon 1 pound
Washing machine 16 gallons 4 tablespoons 6-8 pounds

 

There are several soaps, soaks, detergents, pastes, etc. designed or capable of scouring wool and other fibers. Henry experimented with a variety of them and found the most consistent results for a wide variety of breeds to come from Power Scour. The Unicorn Fibre products consistently produce a clean, soft hand that is free of lanolin yet doesn’t feel harsh or overly scoured.

Fine wools have a higher grease content and surface area than long wools and may require more Power Scour. Long wools or less greasy wools may come clean with two rather than three washes; Henry has found it most efficient to wash all wools with the same method as this tends to result in the fewest re-washes.

Alpaca and Mohair do not have lanolin and can be washed with one-quarter of the recommended amount of Power Scour and clean best with water in the 110*F – 120*F range. Likewise, they may be washed with Unicorn Fiber Wash rather than the harsher Power Scour. Alpaca is inherently dusty and benefits from multiple overnight soaks and spinouts prior to beginning the wash routine. With multiple soaks, Henry has found that one wash and two rinses can be quite effective for washing an alpaca fleece.

Water conditions may also determine the amount of detergent necessary, with hard water requiring more Power Scour. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we have excellent water, so Henry didn’t find it necessary to tweak the quantity of soap from the recommended amount.

Skirting – 10-15 minutes working

Now is the time to separate and/or remove any unwanted parts of the fleece. Lay the fleece out on your surface and do your best to recreate fleece as it was on the animal. Depending on the quality of the shearer, shepherd, and/or whoever rolled the fleece, this may or may not be possible. Tags – the clumpy bits from near the rear end – and dung can go straight into the compost pile, along with any shorts or second cuts. Leg, neck, and britch wool often have a different crimp and fineness than the rest of the “blanket” or “prime” part of the fleece. It is up to you to decide whether to wash them together or separately. Once you have skirted this side of the fleece, flip it over (doing your best to keep it intact) and check over the other side.

Henry’s method of washing wool will remove all the lanolin from a fleece. However, fleece with extraordinarily dirty or tightly closed tips may still have dirt in them. Examine the fleece well while it is on the skirting table and note how tight the tips are and if they are caked in dirt. Most of the time, this method of washing will produce a fleece that is clean enough that any additional dirt will come out in the carding or combing process. When working with exceptionally dirty fleece, you may want to open the tips with either a Lock Pop or a flicker between the first and second wash.

Bag the fleece – 5 minutes working

Bagging the fleece not only keeps it together, but prohibits you from seeing the fleece, which will go a long way towards keeping you from being tempted to play with or agitate it once it is under the water. Henry typically puts three to three-and-a-half pounds in a bag, rolling it so the outside of the fleece – typically the dirtiest part – is toward the outside of the bag. Your mileage may vary, but the theory is that if the dirt it towards the outside of the bag, it will be able to find its way out of the bag, rather than being trapped inside.

Depending on the breed, how it was sheared, and how much skirting took place, one bag may hold an entire fleece. If not, split the fleece vertically (down the spine) or horizontally (across the middle of the back) to get to even amounts in each bag. Some fleece may require splitting into thirds or fourths, depending on the size of the fleece, the bag, and your wash tub.

Once the fleece is bagged, tuck the drawstring inside the bag so that it doesn’t get stuck on the agitator in the wash machine or anywhere else in the process. The water you will be working with is hot enough to cause instant burns; eliminating potential snags and hazards in the name of safety is always a good idea.

The Method

The washing process consists of an overnight soak, three separate washes, and two rinses. Two keys throughout the process are to maintain a consistent temperature and agitate the wool as little as possible.

At temperatures below 140*F, the lanolin may reattach itself to the wool fibers which makes it very hard to remove again, so the goal is to keep the water in the 140*F – 160*F range. Use a candy thermometer to check the temperature if you are unsure. The standby or waiting time between each wash will vary depending on equipment, but 20-25 minutes has been the sweet spot for each of the combinations that Henry has used so far. Most water heaters can replenish the required amount of water in the 20-25-minute range, and a large pot of water will get up to temperature in about the same length of time. Use a timer to stay on top of the process so that too much time doesn’t lapse and the water temperature does not fall below 140*F.

Agitation or movement of the wool while in the hot water will result in felting. Once the bag or bags of wool are under the water, leave them alone for the entire waiting period. Put the lid down on the wash machine. Cover the sink or tub with a cutting board so that you’re not tempted to mess with it. Walk away. Read a book. Do anything but agitate the fleece.

The steps below are Henry’s process in a washing machine – the order of operations (when to remove fleece or add water) may vary slightly if working with a sink or tub.

The overnight soak – 5 minutes working; 10-12 hours waiting

An overnight soak is critical to priming the fleece for an effective washing by introducing a surfactant that will make the dirt and grease wash away more easily. Fill the wash tub with enough cool water to fully immerse the amount of fiber you are washing. Add one tablespoon of Unicorn Power Scour per 8 gallons of water and stir in. Add the wool, making sure the bag or bags are below the surface of the water. Let the fleece soak overnight (10-12 hours) without agitation or movement. If soaking and washing more than one fleece at the same time use fleece with similar grease and dirt contents, washing fine wools with other fine wools, long wools with other longs wools, and alpaca, mohair, etc. separately.

Optional: Preheat the wash tub – 5 minutes working; 20-25 minutes waiting

If the ambient temperature is cool (less than 60*F), preheating your tub or wash machine will reduce heat loss, which is critical to maintaining the desired temperature range throughout the process. Spin out washing machine and drain water. Remove bag(s) of wool. Fill machine with 160*F or hotter water. Let it sit for 20-25 minutes.

Wash #1 – 5 minutes working; 20-25 minutes waiting

Spin out washing machine and drain water. Remove bag(s) of wool. Fill machine with 160*F or hotter water. Add Unicorn Power Scour and stir in. Add bag(s) of wool, using plunger to make sure wool is entirely under water. Agitate wool as little as possible. Close lid on wash machine, set timer for 20-25 minutes and walk away.

Wash #2 – 5 minutes working, 20-25 minutes waiting

Spin out washing machine and drain water. Remove bag(s) of wool. Fill machine with 160*F or hotter water. Add Unicorn Power Scour and stir in. Add bag(s) of wool, using plunger to make sure wool is entirely under water. Agitate wool as little as possible. Close lid on wash machine, set timer for 20-25 minutes and walk away.

Wash #3 – 5 minutes working, 20-25 minutes waiting

Spin out washing machine and drain water. Remove bag(s) of wool. Fill machine with 160*F or hotter water. Add Unicorn Power Scour and stir in. Add bag(s) of wool, using plunger to make sure wool is entirely under water. Agitate wool as little as possible. Close lid on wash machine, set timer for 20-25 minutes and walk away.

Rinse #1 – 5 minutes working, 20-25 minutes waiting

Spin out washing machine and drain water. Remove bag(s) of wool. Fill machine with 160*F or hotter water. Add bag(s) of wool, using plunger to make sure wool is entirely under water. Agitate wool as little as possible. Close lid on wash machine, set timer for 20-25 minutes and walk away.

Rinse #2 – 5 minutes working, 30+ minutes waiting

Spin out washing machine and drain water. Remove bag(s) of wool. Fill machine with 160*F or hotter water. Add Unicorn Fibre Rinse and stir in. Add bag(s) of wool, using plunger to make sure wool is entirely under water. Agitate wool as little as possible. Close lid on wash machine, set timer for 30 minutes or longer and walk away. At this point, the lanolin has been removed so there is no concern for maintaining the temperature.

Dry – 10 minutes working, 12-36 hours drying

Spin out washing machine and drain water. Remove bag(s) of wool and set them on your drying rack. Remove wool from bags and spread out on drying rack as thinly as possible with the space available. Fleece will dry faster with more air movement – large clumps will take much longer to dry.

Depending on breed and washing technique, the fiber may seem matted after the final rinse. Locks will open and separate easiest while they are warm and moist just after the final rinse. Vegetable matter is also typically easier to spot when moist, so this is also a good time to pick out large chunks of VM that did not wash out

Washing Fleece: The Henry Clemes Method Cheat Sheet

Required Equipment

  • Wash tub
  • Method for heating water
  • Drying rack/skirting table
  • Heavy rubber gloves
  • Garment or lingerie bags
  • Timer or alarm

 

Steps

  • Skirt and bag fleece
  • Overnight Soak with Power Scour in cool water, let sit 10-12 hours
  • Wash #1 with Power Scour in hot water; let sit 20-25 mins
  • Wash #2 with Power Scour in hot water; let sit 20-25 mins
  • Wash #3 with Power Scour in hot water; let sit 20-25 mins
  • Rinse #1 with no detergent in hot water; let sit 20-25 mins
  • Rinse #2 with Fiber Rinse in hot water; let sit 20-25 mins
  • Lay out to dry

 

See table above for recommended quantities of water, detergent, and fleece

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