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Skirts and Dirt

posted Jan 9, 2010, 4:37 PM by Mary Powell   [ updated Feb 22, 2010, 4:45 PM ]
With my twenty pounds of raw wool secured, I then had to wash it. How can you wash wool? Won't it shrink? Yes. To properly wash wool, one needs an understanding of the structure of wool. Wool is hair, with a shaft covered in shingle-like cuticles. These cuticles are made mostly of keratin, a substance similar to gelatin. If wool is exposed to water and heat, the cuticles soften, swell, and curl away from the shaft. If the wool is them agitated, the cuticles interlock with cuticles from other hairs, attaching the hairs together and shrinking them. This is called felting and it is permanent, good if you are making a yurt, bad if you want to make yarn. Avoiding felting is easy, keep your wool dry, cool, and still.

However, lanolin, the oily protective substance sheep secrete as their wool grows, is only soluble in very hot water. Some spinners get around this by spinning "in the grease," but I don't like walking around all day smelling like a sheep. Besides, after twelve months on a sheep, lanolin isn't the only thing on the wool. So to safely clean a fleece, one must used very hot water, a lot of detergent, and very little agitation.

Before washing, we must  skirt the fleece to get all loose dirt out. I mentioned this briefly before. Skirting means to sort and pick through the wool, removing anything that isn't wool, any wool that is too dirty, and any wool that is too short. A slotted or mesh table built for the purpose would allow most of the undesirables to fall away from the wool. Since I don't have a skirting table, I spread the wool outside on a swept pathway. Here, one of my fellow interpreters, Charlotte,  is helping skirt one of the fleeces. It is a slow, tedious, and smelly job. She's a hero.