Once you have thoroughly skirted your wool, it is time to consider the next step, scouring. Scouring is not just removing as much of the remaining debris as possible, but it also removes the lanolin, and the skin flakes if necessary. Remember, there are three things required to cause wool to felt: water, temperature change and agitation. Hopefully, we can keep that from happening.
Considering that when I started spinning, I was on a very tight budget, I tried to be as frugal as possible in my wool selections. This meant that in return for the lower price tag, I would have to put a bit more effort into the fiber to achieve my desired result. I was able to accomplish this with a few easy tricks. The first thing to remember is that a cheap fleece cannot always be turned into a good fleece. Buy your wool from a farmer who is raising their sheep for fiber. Oftentimes they will have a few fleeces that will be discounted due to large quantities of vegetation, or in some cases, skin flakes. These are things that can be remedied with careful scouring.
To begin scouring your wool, you will need a plastic dishpan and a sink that is large enough to hold the dishpan. With a pencil, draw a 2” grid on the bottom of the dishpan, then drill a ¼” hole at each intersection, thus turning the dishpan into your own wool strainer. Some people also use mesh laundry bags for this, but I find the temptation to agitate is far too strong that way, and I can process larger batches with the dishpan. Lay a square of your skirted wool in the dishpan, and set it aside.
Next, in the sink bowl, fill with enough hot water (as hot as your hands can stand) to easily cover the wool in the dishpan. After you have finished running the water, then add about a quarter cup of original Dawn or lately I’ve been using Gain, dish soap. Swish it around to dissolve, but try not to form bubbles. In the case of a fleece with skin flakes, I add about a half cup of ammonia to the scouring bath as well.
If you have a second sink basin available, take this time to fill it as well for your rinse water. This will keep the wash and rinse temperatures close, which will reduce the chance of felting your wool. If you are working in an unheated area, you may want to cover your rinse bowl with a board or cloth until it is needed.
Once you have your water prepared, carefully lower the dishpan with the wool locks into the wash water. Gently push the wool down into the wash water. Do not agitate or swish it from side to side! Let it stand in the wash water for a good 10 minutes. Then lift the dishpan out of the wash water and let as much water drain out as possible. At this point squeeze, do not wring, your wool to remove as much of the wash water as you can.
If you do not have a second basin, while your wool is draining from the wash, drain the wash water, and refill the basin for the rinse. Try to get the temperature close to the temperature of the wet wool in the dishpan. Then lower the dishpan of wool into the rinse water. Again, leave it in for a while, and only move the wool gently. Lift the dishpan from the rinse water and allow it to drain. At this point, look at the rinse water, is it very dirty? If so, run another rinse basin and repeat this step. It is okay to be cloudy, but if it is very brown and full of sediment, it is better to rinse one more time.
While your wool is draining in the dishpan, spread out an old towel on a work surface that you don’t mind getting water, the countertop works well, or if you have an outdoor picnic table, they work well too. Lift the washed wool from the dishpan, and place it on the towel. Roll the towel up as you would to dry a sweater. Once you have squeezed the excess water from the wool, lay it out either on another towel or I use a window screen laid over saw horses to dry.
Once it is completely dry, be sure to store your wool carefully, or better yet start carding it!