Deborah Robson Talks Washing Wool, Win Unicorn Fibre Wash

Guest star Deborah Robson visited the set of Knitting Daily TV for Series 800 and brought her expertise to the screen. Filming three segments, Deborah talked caring for fiber, avoiding yarn pilling, and dove into yak fibers. You can see all of Deb's videos on KnittingDailyTV.com. Here's one from episode 804:

Washing and caring for your fiber can make all the difference in the lifetime of your work. To celebrate our 100th episode, Unicorn Fibre has agreed to give one lucky winner a set of washing, rinsing, and scouring products to prolong the life of your knitwear. Simply comment on this blog for your chance to win, details below

Here's Deborah to talk more about washing fiber:

Washing wool 
I love washing wool, whether it's fleece I'm going to spin, a newly finished garment whose beauty will be revealed after its first bath-and-blocking, or a loyal garment that has earned refreshment.

Freshly shorn wool may be the most fun to wash, because of its dramatic transformation. The grease that coats the fibers when the sheep is using the fleece to keep herself warm through the winter is still soft, resilient, and relatively easy to remove. I think of the animal, freshly released from this seasonally necessary burden to enjoy the spring air (and to begin growing next winter's blanket), and I think of the fabrics I will make from her hand-me-downs to keep other beings cosy in the future.

Even long-stored fleece can be rewarding to put through the washing process, which releases it from a stiff accompaniment of old grease and dust. Although it's best to wash wool soon after shearing, in part because moths especially savor the "extras" that are removed when the fiber is cleaned, as long as you can keep pests away you can safely store wool for many years.

Here's Emma's fleece when she was done with it, on its first trip into the warm water that begins my washing process:

  • START OF CYCLE
  • wool has ONLY been soaked in warm water
  • tray on right has been removed, after the first of
    two water soaks, from the center tray
  • the dark brown is water-soluble dirt and suint
  
  • END OF CYCLE after use of cleansing aid
  • tray on right has been removed, after its cleansing
    soaks, from the center tray
  • tray on left awaits draining

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's easy to imagine that she'd want to start over with fresh growth!

Emma is a Leicester Longwool sheep, a breed known for its long, shiny, strong fiber. The beauty of the wool becomes apparent after about two hours of soaking in a series of baths, beginning and ending with plain-water versions, and with two or three in the middle that are infused with a washing agent.

I've described the details of my washing process elsewhere. Today I want to talk briefly about the transition from dirty to clean, mostly for fleece but also for garments.


This image shows the raw, dirty wool on left and
clean wool on right (same fleece)

Washing or scouring?
Washing is what I just talked about. The process of cleaning raw wool is also sometimes called scouring, a term used in industry to include the removal of all contaminants from wool-scouring is "washing plus."

What might the contaminants in wool be? I say might because not every fleece will have all of these, and each fleece will have contaminants in differing types and proportions.

The big three, present to some extent in every fleece, are:

  • wool wax or wool grease
  • suint
  • dirt

Wool wax or grease is not water-soluble. It provides a protective coating, and, in general, the finer the wool the more grease it contains. It's the hardest of the three main contaminants to remove. That's the point for the sheep! It shouldn't be easy to remove!

Suint (think "sweat") is water-soluble-even in cold water. When we're washing wool, it's the easiest contaminant to get rid of.

Dirt is soil, and can be dust or mud. It can be sandy, or full of clay, or may correspond to any of the gardener's or farmer's other options, and it can be easy or hard to remove, although most of it isn't too bad. (Clay, of course, is most difficult, as it seems to be for growing plants where I live.)

Vegetable matter (or VM) is another contaminant that comes in many varieties. For hand processing, VM isn't, for the most part, removed during the washing sequence and its evaluation and management is a topic for another day. In industrial processing, treatment to remove VM occurs during the scouring sequence and involves a delicate sequence of chemical and mechanical maneuvers to get the plant material out without damaging the wool-a different topic for another day.

Some other contaminants-like dung tags, urine stains, marker dye, and insects-should have been removed before the fleece ever reached the washing or scouring stage.

What to use as a washing aid?
For the intermediate steps of cleaning wool, whether raw or spun or made into fabric, we have many choices in washing aids. I've used a number of them over the years. At this point, I have several criteria for the agent that I use. Oddly, they all start with E!

I want it to be effective, efficient to use, economical, and as environmentally benign as possible.

That means that I look for a washing assistant that

  • is concentrated so I don't need to use large quantities
  • creates minimal suds (which are hard to rinse out, wasting both time and water)
  • does not subject the wool to significant and potentially damaging pH shifts
  • works at moderate heat levels even for fine wools (in order to reduce the potential of fiber damage, and so I don't have to be boiling water or otherwise wasting energy)
  • cleans by bonding with the waxy or greasy particles, drawing them off the fiber and into the water so they can be rinsed away, instead of being knocked off through agitation (which can result in unintended felt, as well as more work for me)
  • does not involve enzymes (which continue to be chemically active even after they've been discarded) and
  • contains no ingredients classified as toxic.

     

knitted swatch of Leicester Longwool, commercially
spun yarn from the same flock that Emma is part of

I now use washing agents that are specially formulated for use with wool. I like Unicorn Power Scour for cleaning raw wool; Unicorn Fibre Wash for my yarns and finished products; and Unicorn Fibre Rinse as a final treatment in either case.

Dishwashing detergents and shampoos create annoying amounts of suds. I'd rather avoid the perfumes and colorants that many cosmetic products contain. Laundry detergents often contain brighteners, enzymes, and other ingredients I consider extraneous at best and damaging at worst. Some components of laundry detergents are actually designed to break down proteins (to get out stains like blood or egg), and animal-source natural fibers are also proteins! It is interesting to check these products' Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) or, for some items, the information in the Household Products Database maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov/ , "Inside the Home" and "Personal Care" categories).

I wash all my natural animal fibers at between 50 and 60°C (120 and 140°F), preferably on the lower end. Wool wax, the stickiest contaminant to remove, melts at 35-40°C (95-104°F) and damage to protein fibers can occur at higher temperatures. The length of time that fiber is exposed to high temperatures, and the pH of the environment, matter a great deal. Dyeing fibers involves balancing these factors in exchange for a rainbow.

________________

A practical footnote and a random fact

Footnote
Here's a quick note about washing fine wools in their raw form: When wool wax is dissolved, its chemical composition changes. If the temperature of the bath cools, the grease can be redeposited on the fiber as a scum that can be substantially more difficult to remove than it was in its original form.

Random fact
Lanolin is produced from a portion of the wool grease recovered from scouring liquid.
 ________________

Deborah Robson is the author, with livestock expert Carol Ekarius, of The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More than 200 Fibers from Animal to Spun Yarn. She has also worked with Interweave Press to produce the instructional DVD set Handspinning Rare Wools. She teaches internationally. Her website is at www.drobson.info, and her blog, The Independent Stitch, is at independentstitch.typepad.com.
________________

Simpson, W. S., and G. H. Crawshaw. Wool: Science and Technology. Woodhead Publishing Limited Series on Fibres. Boca Raton, FL, and Cambridge, England: CRC Press Woodhead, 2002.

von Bergen, Werner. Wool Handbook: A Text and Reference Book for the Entire Wool Industry. 3d enl. ed. ed. New York: Interscience Publishers, 1963.
_________________________

– For more on Leicester Longwool sheep, see "On the Edge: How a Handful of People Have Preserved Some Rare, Valuable Sheep and Their Wools," PieceWork, November/December 2011

 
Win Your Own Unicorn Fibre Products to Clean and Maintain Your Fibers!

Unicorn Fibre, a proud sponsor of Knitting Daily TV Series 800, is helping to celebrate the show's 100th episode season with a great giveaway. Simply comment on this blog post and you're automatically entered to win a set of Fibre Wash, Fibre Rinse, and Power Scour from Unicorn Fibre. You can read more about these great products, loved and used by fiber expert Deborah Robson. Tell us what fiber you're planning to clean, what knitted sweater you're trying to maintain, or share with us a horror story of a washing malfunction that ruined your fiber or sweater. We'll randomly choose a winner from all the comments at noon Central Time on Monday, February 13th, so comment before then. Read the official giveaway rules for more details.

This blog is proudly sponsored by Unicorn Fibre. Visit their website today for more fibre care information and trusted products.

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117 thoughts on “Deborah Robson Talks Washing Wool, Win Unicorn Fibre Wash

  1. I would like to win this to give to a good friend who has just taken up spinning. She has some alpaca fiber that a friend gave her from their alpacas. I know she will need to wash it before she spins it.

  2. I’ve read great things about Unicorn Fibre Products and would love to try them. I use cleaning products to give a bath for blocking and to see the fibers “bloom”. Thank you for the giveaway.

  3. I guess that I’ve never had a mishap when I was cleaning a project before blocking. I am currently blocking a lace blanket with nups. It turned out to be twice as wide after washing and blocking. It looks great! A local mill which I visited uses Tide and hot water to wash their fleeces!

  4. Happy anniversary! So far I’ve only knitted scarves which have needed no blocking, but my next project is a shawl made out of home spun, hand dyed local fleece which requires – ta ta ta dum – heavy blocking! It also is a lace work pattern, so I’d better get this right! Nothing like a challenge! I really would like to try the Unicorn products to make the most of my project. Thank you!

  5. Happy Anniversary! I have a bag of wool that i’d love to tidy up and a sweater from my great grandmother that i’ve been too nervous to wash. Nice to read the article and see that it is a do’able thing.

  6. I have a cormo fleece that I have been waiting to wash because of time and because it is so beautiful. My hubby is very anxious to see how it turns out! I would love to win this for this fleece!

  7. I was gifted a gorgeous alpaca/wool blend shawl and have been wearing it very sparingly so as to delay having to clean it. I’d love to win these products so I can take gave of this fabulous gift with the same love that the knitter showed in creating it.

  8. Happy Anniversary!!

    I really could use some more Power Scour – I have a Coopworth lamb’s fleece, half a Shetland, half an alpaca & some Jacob fleece that need to be washed. 🙂

  9. Happy Anniversary!!

    I really could use some more Power Scour – I have a Coopworth lamb’s fleece, half a Shetland, half an alpaca & some Jacob fleece that need to be washed. 🙂

  10. What about adding washing soda or even ammonia, to the first soaking of raw fleece? I don’t know if I would even want to try adding ammonia. But I have washing soda around already that I use for different stuff. I never can find the straight answer to how much you should use? And for how long you should soak with it? So I have been to chicken to try it.

    I use Kookaburra right not. But was planning on getting some Unicorn toward the end, of the Kookaburra. And compare the difference between the two. I am new to washing raw wool. Its seems with some of my older fleeces and mohair, there is still some grease after washing? So that is why I was curios about the washing soda? If its okay to use washing soda, some concrete measurements and instructions would be great! Thanks for the opportunity to win!

  11. I am a novice spinner and managed to aquire some alpaca fiber that I need to clean. I hear that alpaca is lanolin-free, but I want to do the wash properly and enjoy the spinning into yarn. I look forward to watching this episode when it airs. Is anyone else tempted to buy their own sheep/alpaca/goat when they see the many lovely things we can create from the fiber?

  12. I’m relatively new to spinning and my first attempts at cleaning raw fleece was with dish soap in the bath tub full of hot water…I now know more and have a lovely black Corriedale ewe lamb fleece to wash, plus some white angora goat and two colours of alpaca, all straight of of the animals. I will use a specialty product this time and look forward to better results than the old dish soap method.
    I am glad to know I don’t have to heat the water to boiling, as I think that is what felted my last fleece. Thanks for the hints and tips!

  13. After buying some Icelandic wool yarn from an area spinner that smelled like the bottom of a pig pen and ruining it by mutipe washing in dish detergent I am happy to know I won’t have to endure this experience again.

  14. O.K. I will try ANYTHING to make the washing and processing of raw fleece a little easier and with better results to the fiber. So, I’m going to go to the web site and purchase a small bottle.

  15. I think that the worst washing disaster I had was with a hand knit mohair jumper that I’d made for a Christmas present. I decided to wash it before wrapping to ensure that it was as lovely and fluffy as possible; unfortunately the weather was so cold that I misjudged the water temperature and must have used it far too hot, and because I was using a bar of soap (because I didn’t have any specialist product) the rubbing combined with the heat caused the wool to felt (and I didn’t even know what felting was at the time!) and the garment to shrink. I ended up with a completely unwearable garment and only a few days to think of a replacement present!

  16. Love all these tips and learning about great products from Knitting Daily, I would love to try the Unicorn range of products, I need to look after my precious handknits, as so much time and love and care go into them, and I want to keep them just like newly made.

  17. Even if I don’t win, this is going to be saved as a webmail archive on my computer, just for the information provided (and not just from the video — some of the comments had useful suggestions, too).
    Back when I was taking weaving classes, the instructor said that to use shampoo, (rather than harsher soaps or detergents), for washing and fulling, especially for wool and silk.

  18. I have been washing my fleece with dish detergents and haven’t been totally happy with the process. I would love a chance to try the Unicorn products! This article mentioned something I have been wondering about–the fact that lanoloin is recovered from the scouring liquid. Does anyone know if it is possible to do this at home? I know it probably isn’t practical, but I’ve just been curious.

  19. I plan to clean mostly wool/acrylic blends. The sweaters I’m trying to maintain are some sweaters that belonged to my late Mother, as well as several sweaters that I’ve knitted for myself. The one horror story I have has to do with a pullover that I knit in a feather and fan stitch. It took me weeks to make, and one washload to ruin. Now it looks like feather and ruffles!! I can’t correct it. Every time I try to wear it, my Husband tells me to take it off. I hate to part with it, due to the work I put into it, so I put a cardigan over it if I go anywhere. Thank you for the thoughtful and great giveaway!!

  20. I’m a new-ish knitter and have always held back buying really good wool because I’m afraid of the whole washing process. It’s two-sided: if I’m going to put a lot of work into a piece, it should be make of quality material; but… after putting a lot of work into a project, I’d hate to ruin it by mishandling it. Perhaps a hit of Unicorn?
    Plus, I have a sis who works from fleece on down – I’ll pass this article along to her too!

  21. I have mostly used Orvus Paste when cleaning new wool. My handknit socks and sweaters would love to have a wash and rinse of their own! I do still have some Angora waiting for its first wash, so the Scour would be useful also!

  22. Thanks for a very informative wool washing video. I appreciate being updated about
    why shampoo and dish washing liquid are not the best choices for washing fine fibers.

  23. I’ve always lusted after the alive feel of natural fibers, though not always able to afford them. I enjoyed the tour from Sheep to Yarn. I smiled at the phrase “unintended felting” – such a short phrase for a disjointed, exasperating, confusing, emotional experience. Yes, the memory of a lovely mohair shawl reduced to a matted mess has stayed with me for years. I’m excited to know about the Unicorn Fiber Wash and feel armed to care for my creations.

  24. After 50+ years of knitting, I’ve decided that this is the year to knit at least one sweater for myself! I tried once, in the early years before I knew about swatching and guage, and ended up with a sweater 2 sizes to small. Would love to receive the cleaning goodies to use on my new sweater(s.)

  25. How interesting to learn what is onvolved in cleaning fleece before it gets carded and spun and reaches my hand as a knitter. I may never question the cost of a skein or hank of natural wool yarn ever again! Sure, the commercial cleaning of fleece is less hands on, more automated. I admire the people who raise sheep and clean and spin their own yarn, they are truly dedicated to their knitting, crocheting, or weaving hobby. My hat is off to you! Now that I know all this work is involved I definitely want to take care of my wool garments. June

  26. Wow, what a learning experience about changing raw fiber to those lovely silky wooly fresh clean locks we like to spin, etc. Well written, concise, full of good details and I’m using those hints for washing my finished garments and washing some “earthy” wool that I have in my stash before knitting. thank you for such an informative piece

  27. This is a great product. I bought the wash and fiber rinse after watching this video several months ago. The rinse really works nicely to take some but not all of the itchiness from some of my garments.

  28. Thank you for all the useful information! I don’t take anything to the dry cleaners, they ruined a sweater once and I would rather carefully wash it myself. I have felted by accident a few times myself though. Would love to try this product!

  29. I have used the Unicorn Power Scour to wash some fleece – it worked very well, much better than the dish detergent I would have used normally. Sadly I don’t have the Fibre Rinse or the Fibre Wash. I would really love to try those out but I’m not sure if they are available anywhere near me.

  30. Not only do I need to wash sheeps’ wool but I spin mostly dog fur from various breeds and while they don’t have the same wax they do need a gentle wash to remove the doggy oils and odors without matting or felting the fur.

  31. This was a very interesting article. I thought I knew how wools were processed from sheep to yarn, but like most things, it is entirely different when you hear an expert talk about it. Thank you for this article. I also own the authors book. It is very interesting and impressive.

    I was recently given a sample of the Unicorn products. I have been looking for a lanolin free fiber wash for some time since I am allergic to it. I am more than pleased with the performance of the Fiber Wash and Fiber Rinse and have recommended it to my friends. I am more encouraged to know that experts in the field (double entendre not intended) prefer my brand of choice.

    Thank you for this article.

  32. This was a very interesting article. I thought I knew how wools were processed from sheep to yarn, but like most things, it is entirely different when you hear an expert talk about it. Thank you for this article. I also own the authors book. It is very interesting and impressive.

    I was recently given a sample of the Unicorn products. I have been looking for a lanolin free fiber wash for some time since I am allergic to it. I am more than pleased with the performance of the Fiber Wash and Fiber Rinse and have recommended it to my friends. I am more encouraged to know that experts in the field (double entendre not intended) prefer my brand of choice.

    Thank you for this article.

  33. This was a really informative article. I am just getting back into processing raw fleece and would love to be able to compare products. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook is packed with information – well worth purchasing! Thanks.

  34. I always appreciate getting scent-free items. When I moved north a couple people suggested using shampoo and conditioner to clean woollies, but the suds can be hard to wash out. I have a couple shawls I bought in Russia that I am very reluctant to clean because of all the rinsing I’d have to do – this would be great for my shawls!

  35. I was washing some wool in a relatively shallow pan and left it to soak for a while. What I didn’t know was that two of my cats decided the pan was interesting and decided to play with it. When I came back to see how the wool was of doing, I found they had completely felted a small portionof it. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t paid a premium price for my Merino fleece! Swinging them by their tails suddenly sounded pretty appealing (of course, I wouldn’t do that to my beloved kitties, no matter how frustrated they made me!)

  36. I was washing some wool in a relatively shallow pan and left it to soak for a while. What I didn’t know was that two of my cats decided the pan was interesting and decided to play with it. When I came back to see how the wool was of doing, I found they had completely felted a small portionof it. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t paid a premium price for my Merino fleece! Swinging them by their tails suddenly sounded pretty appealing (of course, I wouldn’t do that to my beloved kitties, no matter how frustrated they made me!)

  37. I have a few fleeces that need scouring. An alpaca fleece and a Jacob. The Alpaca is so dusty I’ll have to wait for warmer weather so I can shake out some dust, before it goes into the machine. I bought a fleece washing bag at a local woolfestival, that is really great to use.

  38. I have a couple of fleece that need washing but seems like I never get around to them in the summer.
    My plan is to wash them and then lay them on the hammock to dry. Is there another way to dry fleeces?

  39. I have tried washing a raw fleece that had sat for awhile. The wool looked nice and clean but when I started to spin it I realized it had a sticky coating over it and it was very difficult to get out. I think I let the water cool and it redeposited. I did not know that the process actually changed the chemical composition of the wool wax. I guess that is why it is sticky when the greasy fleece is not.

  40. On a clothes dryer, Air Fluff and No Heat are big, fat lies 🙂 which I found out early in my twenties when I ruined five wool sweaters at one go, while traveling in Colorado — yep, all five — and not one since I learned a few things. A couple of months ago (many years later) I found a bag of several different “tops”, at a thrift store of all places, all unlabeled, just beautiful, at about the same time I realized I need/want to learn to spin. So much knowledge just in this one post, is well-appreciated. I am off to get the books… Thank you!

  41. I just finished a sweater in Trendsetters Kashmir, and I am hesitating to wash it. I really like how it is now, and am concerned that once washed it could potentially be a completely different sweater! So I will postpone the inevitable as long as possible, and at least get a couple of wears out of it before rolling those dice! I would love to win the care kit, and see how well the sweater does with it!

  42. I just finished a sweater in Trendsetters Kashmir, and I am hesitating to wash it. I really like how it is now, and am concerned that once washed it could potentially be a completely different sweater! So I will postpone the inevitable as long as possible, and at least get a couple of wears out of it before rolling those dice! I would love to win the care kit, and see how well the sweater does with it!

  43. This was a greast episode to watch.
    I usually have good results washing wollen garments. I pay attention that the water is tepid, not too warm; that the water is NOT running on the garment as it will felt and I attempt to get as much water out of the rinsed garment, often wrapping it consecutively in 2 towels and than drying it in open air, if possible, but never in sunlight.
    Now that I will try my hand on some fleece and am hoping for good results.

  44. Working through my very first fleece; a 12-month (i.e.10″-staple) angora fleece from a friend’s goat, “Peggy” (no, not the pseudo-Russian credit-card guy on TV 😉 ). I knew not to agitate the fleece when I started washing it, but either I messed up or this baby was felted on Peggy’s back! Still; it’s given me a winter’s-worth of combing in from of the television and the results are AMAZING! I wish I had known then what I’m starting to learn now, as I’m sure the whole process could have been much simpler, but I’m a “feet-first” learner, so it serves me right.

  45. Love Unicorn Fibre Products video. This is really unique and informative video . I certainly would llove to try their product on my wool sweaters. I have been looking for a great wash for them. Unicorn Fibre wash meets my bill of requirements. I will look no further.

  46. Thanks for the informative piece about washing and preserving woolen fibers. I have sweaters and socks to be washed. I’m going to share this info with my children so they can preserve all of my knitted items. They tend to not think about what they are throwing together in the wash.

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