Saturday, 9 March 2013

Raw Fleece, Spinning in the Grease

This title sounds very 'Fifty Shades of Sheep'.  Anyone reading in the hope of a bit of sheep porn will be disappointed.  When we were first going out, while out on a romantic country walk, my beloved did once push me into a ditch and hurdle a wall in pursuit of a sheep, crying 'Flossie, come back, she means nothing to me!'  Reader, I married him.

I dithered for a week after my spinning day course with Claire Boley, then bit the bullet and bought an Ashford Traveller Wheel.  This is not so big as to clutter the sitting room and it has a double treadle, which I found easier than the single I tried at Claire's.  I also bought standard cloth, curved hand carders and a jumbo flywheel and bobbin.  The latter two were intended for the thick yarn I expected to spin and I am very glad I got them, as the jumbo flyer is much more forgiving than the regular size and you can use it with standard bobbins.

The picture shows two standard bobbins with singles about to be plied onto the jumbo bobbin.
The wheel comes as a flat pack with an alarming array of parts, enough to scare an IKEA veteran.  However, the instructions are very clear, it took a couple of hours, but I only had to redo a couple of steps along the way and the process did give me a fair understanding of how it works.

Claire had taught us using a raw fleece and explained they only cost a few pounds each from the Wool Marketing Board.  No luck working out who or where to go to in South Wales and I learned that shearing the local sheep won't happen til May.  Despondent, I searched eBay and found there are quite a few people selling anything from small amounts of fleece to whole sheep's worth from their own flocks, shorn last summer.  The starting price seems to be £5-£10, but watching from the background, I see gorgeously desirable whole fleeces might go for £50.  I bought two, both weighing 2kg for £7 each from Jacob X Texel sheep at Huxtable Farm, which is in Devon and has a website

The fleeces arrived very quickly.  When I got them out of the bags, they felt slightly damp and smelled sheepy, but after being laid out on old duvets, they quickly dried and no longer smelled and I gather this is all normal when you have to post fleece in plastic bags.  You are supposed to sort a fleece, dividing it up into the best wool from the shoulders, the weathered, longer wool from the back and the shorter stuff from the legs and belly.  I couldn't make head nor tail of either of my new purchases, but I was thrilled to bits with them and decided to get going with carding and spinning whatever parts came to hand.  The picture is of about half a fleece, all I have left now.

The wool falls into locks, which you pull out,trying not to disturb the others too much.

The teaspoon is just to give an idea of scale, not a necessary bit of kit.  It is also unnecessary to wash the wool first, in fact, as I found at Claire's, it is easier to spin 'in the grease' than with prepared clean roving.  The lanolin the sheep produce is soothing on dry hands and you can pick out the odd bit of grass or dead insect as you go.  These were nice fleeces with hardly any debris.  I have read instructions on washing fleeces first, but unless you want to dye 'in the wool' or are especially squeamish, I can't see why you would bother.  I think people are born with a particular level of squeamishness, my husband throws up if he smells the waste food recycling bucket, winces when he opens the dishwasher door and back in the day, needed rubber gloves, a clothes peg and tongs to change a nappy. I listened to a Radio 4 broadcast in which a researcher said that a person's levels of disgust equated to many other traits, including their politics.  People who are easily disgusted are more right wing than those who are not.  Certainly holds true in my family.

Anyway, first the wool fibres are aligned by carding into rolags.

My first fleece was spun into thick, uneven singles, but oh, the lovely varied browns and greys!

Once I had plied two singles into rather uneven, very chunky wool, I wound it into a skein and secured it in four places with cotton ties.  The picture is of a skein I made today, it is much better than my first attempts, but still very amateur.

The wool mustn't go into hot water or be stirred around or the fibres all fix together as felt.  Ordinary washing up liquid will wash out the dirt and grease, put it all in a big pot with hand hot water and bring it up to 80-90 degrees centigrade over the course of an hour.

As you see, the water is a brown soup with all the grub that comes off raw fleece and the actual wool changes colour.  Let the water cool back down to about 40 degrees, hand hot, before rinsing in three changes of hand hot tap water, squeeze out the wool and hang up to dry.

It is important to know how fast the water is heating up and how hot it has got.  I started with a kitchen thermometer, but this is really meant for sugar cookery at much higher temperatures, so the bit I needed to see was way down the bottom and with repeated scrubbing, the writing wore away.  By chance I saw a glass rod thermometer with the numbers inside the glass, so they won't wear off and a temperature range just up to 110 degrees.  It is perfect, good for giving things a gentle stir too.  It is from a brewing company called Young's U Brew, I can't see the thermometer on their website but no doubt you could get one if you emailed. It only cost £3.99 on the market where I got mine.

Once the skein of wool has dried, it will have shrunk a bit in length and may have felted slightly.  However it is all clean and soft and ready to roll into a ball and start knitting.

Since I have used up most of my first two fleeces, I would really like to buy a fleece from a South Wales sheep, if you have one to spare.  Short of that, I feel quite at liberty to go back to eBay and ogle some handsome rams.  Cor, look at the fleece on that!


Raw sheep fleece may carry germs.  If you are pregnant or in a poor state of health, I understand you are advised not to handle it.  If you are in good health, I suppose you can take your chances.  Dogs and cats also carry germs, but I still stroke them.  Children are the worst disease vectors, mine have even given me nits.  

Final note - this is not actually 'spinning in the grease' - see post of 5 July 2013 when I had learnt more.


  1. Are you still mourning the loss of Andrew the uber sheep? ¿;-)

    1. I have moved on ... I am now admiring Ruby, Jacob X Charollais

  2. Fran if you can talk a south Wales sheep farmer into not only selling you a fleece but to actually be prepared to let his sheep be man handled and shewn by a complete amateur, I should be very keen to offer my services. I took Emelia to Odd's Farm last year and we watched a sheep sheering demonstration, and I would really love to have a go myself.
    Strange request I know, but it would give you an even more complete process, taking the wool from the sheeps back to creating a new garment for human adornment.
    I promise to watch carefully and try very hardest to get the fleece of in as usable condition as possible.

    Loads of love, and loving the blog


  3. Matt, full marks for ambition, but I think it is unlikely!