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While most of my fiber gets sent to the fiber mill for washing/carding etc., there are still a few fleeces that just scream to be processed by hand. There is just an added level of satisfaction when you create an item completely from the raw wool. Before you can wash the fiber, it must first be skirted, which is done as follows.
To begin, I unroll the fleece on a bed sheet either stretched between two sawhorses or over a table, preferably outside if possible. This allows you to roll the entire bundle up easily if you cannot skirt the fleece all at once. Next, locate the center of the neck wool. Most good fiber farms will put a tag or tie here to help you. This should be the cleanest portion of the fleece. Examine the edges of the fleece. The term skirting can be taken literally at this point. Work around the perimeter of the fleece. Keep in mind that most of this area, while it was on the sheep, would have been on the belly and insides of the legs. This is where most encounters with waste, weeds, and dirt would occur so it is usually best to remove just a couple of inches all around.
Next, look the entire fleece over, remove any glaring debris by placing one hand firmly on the fleece while using the other one to remove the debris. Try to remove any dung tags wool and all, as this will contaminate your wash water, and is usually not worth the trouble. To remove the seed heads of the hay, locate the stem end, and gently pull it out, if you try to pull the top of the seed head, it will disintegrate into a mess of itty bitty seeds and sink into your fleece. Also, if there is burdock in the fleece, try to remove it all in one piece, or it too will break up into numerous little slivers. If the burdock causes too much trouble, and is located near enough to the end of the fiber, it can be cut out, or the affected lock removed. A handy trick when the burdock is in a really good part of the fleece is to use a small biscuit cutter to surround it, then lift the fleece up and away from the contaminated section.
Once you have skirted the top or tip side of the fleece, gently turn it over to start on the shorn side. On the shorn side, you are mainly removing second cuts, but also take this chance to look for any skin flakes which will affect your wash recipe later.
I prefer to separate the skirted fleece according to its intended use. The neck and shoulder wool is the best, so it is ideal for next-to-skin wear items. The britch wool is a little coarser, but can be spun into very sturdy sock yarn due to its longer staple length.
To prepare the wool for washing, I take the section that I am working on (shoulder or britch) and break it into squares the size of the bottom of my dishpan. Once I have done all of this, I bring the wool squares back indoors to begin the washing process.
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