Homeschooling: Adventures in Wool – Washing & Carding a Fleece

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Around the time we visited the fiber festival I read the girls Pelle’s New Suit by Elsa Beskow. It’s a lovely story of a boy who raises a sheep then barters his time and skills for other people’s time and skills until, finally, he has a brand-new suit woven from his own sheep’s wool. The girls loved it and  requested it often and I couldn’t wait for them to experience that process in their own lives. Now,  we don’t raise sheep, but we can take the wool sheared from one we’ve seen up close and transform it into something beautiful and warm. We bought a fleece at the festival then started at the beginning.

Washing a Fleece

Before washing, it’s recommended that you skirt the fleece or remove large debris or very dirty sections. I think some of that was done at the time of shearing, but we went through the portion we were working with (a whole fleece is made of a lot of wool; we are only working with a bit at a time) and removed the worst of it before setting out to wash it. Washing the fleece turned out to be quite easy. It’s somewhat time consuming in that it requires repeated washes, soaks and rinses, then it takes a couple of days to dry (on screens), but actual hands-on time is fairly minimal. (This post had some good pointers.)

I was shocked at how much softer the fleece felt after a good cleaning; it really made a difference.

Carding

Carding looked simple when demonstrated at the festival and when Aria tried it there, so though I was expecting it to be work and to take some time, I didn’t expect it to be challenging and it really isn’t (assuming I’m doing it right, which I think I am). It is time-consuming. It’s also a bit more involved than just putting the wool into the carders and brushing it out and I was glad we got some advice before beginning. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  • A spinner at the festival told us to make sure the fleece was completely dry before carding as the slightest moisture in the fiber will cause it to rip during the carding process. We waited a couple days after washing to start carding.
  • For actual carding technique, the YouTube videos below are a great starting point if you’re interested. I watched them on my own before teaching the girls. The most helpful piece of advice, besides the proper way to brush out the fiber, was to spend some time pulling the locks apart first. Our fleece was lower-priced than some and as such had quite a bit of dirt and vegetable matter left in it even after washing. (The price of a fleece is not only determined by the type of sheep and quality of the fiber but also how clean it is, as a clean fleece means lots of attention for the sheep, covering them or housing them indoors, etc.) Pulling the curls apart allowed us to remove a lot of the dirt, etc that was left.

  • The festival spinner gave us a few more pointers, such as how to roll our rolags the opposite direction from that shown in the video – from side to side of the carders instead of from top to bottom. She said it’s easier to spin that way, since the fibers are going in the right direction.
  • From this forum post on a similar topic, I also gather that the yarn is actually stronger when the fibers face the same direction.
  • This knitty article takes it a step further and shows how to turn batts (the batches of carded wool not rolled into a rolag) into long strands of wool top.
  • For much more in-depth info on hand-carding, drum carding and beyond, this article is referenced repeatedly online.

I feel like I’m entering a whole new world with this introduction into the world of fleeces, carding and (eventually) spinning. I hope the girls are getting as much out of it as I am, though I’m not sure that’s possible. Both girls tried carding and liked it and Aria, especially, worked at it awhile and is eager to do it again. (Good thing, we have lots left. Quick work it is not.) I could see this as an evening or gloomy weather activity, something slow and cozy and relaxing to curl up with and work on a bit at a time. I’m looking forward to coming back to it over the winter.

From here we’ll move on to knitting. I hope to be able to provide the girls with a spinning demo of my own after the holidays, but they did see some spinning at the festival, so I think Aria has at least a decent grasp of how wool is transformed into yarn. How to spin isn’t taught in first grade, so she just needs the basics for now. Dyeing is reserved for second grade in the curriculum we are using now, but she did some dyeing at her old school, so if I can spin a batch of this in the next few months, we may dye some of it in the spring. Next, though, we make our needles.
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