Gettin’ Wooly: Processing a Fleece in the Grease

Last month when I was at West-An Tir War in Gold Coast, Oregon, I purchased a Gotland fleece in the grease. This means it was cut off the sheep with no processing whatsoever. It was only $10 and filled up a whole pillow case. I was very excited because I’ve been experimenting with making some helmet liners based on extant ones made with all natural materials. I have come to the conclusion that the ideal material to use for the stuffing would be wool roving. Wool roving can be a little expensive at around $6.00 an ounce, and I have been trying to find a less expensive solution. So, I decided to get the fleece and see how cost effective it would be for me to process it myself. Since I won’t be spinning the wool, I figured it wouldn’t have to be as heavily processed as roving meant for spinning.

The first thing I noticed about the fleece was the smell; it smelled like a petting zoo which, I suppose, is only to be expected. I don’t know if all fleeces in the grease are as dirty as this one, but it was pretty nasty. There were lots of bits with manure stuck to them and a LOT of grass all throughout the fleece. I consulted my good friend, Google, to see the best way to go about processing this thing. I found this handy article and decided to give it a go.

The fleece straight out of the bag, laid out on my patio table
Neighbor kitty, Felix, is “helping.” 🙂


After cutting off the really dirty parts of the fleece, I put it into a mesh laundry bag (the drawstring kind like you used in college) and put it into a big plastic tote filled with hot water and dish soap. I let it soak for 30 minutes, drained it/squeezed out as much water as I could, and then repeated the process.

First time in the bath. Look how dark the water is!
I can’t remember which wash this was, but water is still pretty murky.
Once again into the breach!

After repeating this 5 times, the water still looked pretty murky and the fleece was still full of grass and some dirt clumps. However, I didn’t have time to keep washing it that day, so I did a rinse and laid it out to dry. I think it took 2 or 3 days to dry completely. It still had a fairly strong sheep smell after it was dry so I knew I’d have to continue washing it again at some point.

My large outdoor table has removable tiles which leaves a nice grid to support the drying wool. I laid out a sheet over the top and spread it out.
Still a lot of dirt and plant matter left

IMG_2115 IMG_2118

When I had another free day, I decided to only wash half the fleece at a time to hopefully wash it more effectively. I did the same process but let it soak an hour rather than half an hour. I washed it twice more (so 7 times total!) and was finally satisfied with the less murky appearance of the water and lack of overpowering sheep odor. I left that batch outside to dry for 3 days.

At this point, I debated on just using the un-smelly but still grassy wool as it was to stuff my helmet liners. I didn’t look forward to trying to pick out all the stuff, and I wanted to avoid carding the wool if I could because that’s just more time I would have to spend processing it. Since I wasn’t going to be using it for spinning, it didn’t matter if the wool was all nicely brushed and separated. But, after thinking it over, I decided the easiest way to get the dirt and grass that remained out would be to card the wool. A friend let me borrow her carding combs, and I went to work.

Washed and dried wool before carding.
Washed and dried wool before carding.

I turned on Outlander and started carding. It’s actually pretty fun because you see all this dirt coming out of the wool and it gets super fluffy. Plus, you can do it in front of the TV. Just make sure you put a sheet or tablecloth under you to catch all the dirt!

Wool loaded onto the carding comb
Wool loaded onto the carding comb
Fluffy, fluffy wool all carded
Fluffy, fluffy wool all nicely carded. You can see some of the grass is still left in it.
Dirt left after carding
Dirt left after carding

Unfortunately, a lot of the grass was so small that I still couldn’t get it completely out of the wool. If I were going to be using this to spin, I would probably have to figure out a way to solve that problem, but since I’m just using it as stuffing, I am not going to worry about it. I don’t think the bits of grass that are left will come through the linen so it won’t be an issue.

As far as this method’s cost effectiveness, that is yet to be determined. It’s a lot of work to get the fleece to be usable, but once it is, it’s a lot of wool. Once I’ve crunched some numbers, I’ll make a final assessment. But I think it’s pretty cool to be able to say that I processed the wool myself.

About Apollonia

Apollonia lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and plays in the SCA in the Kingdom of the West. She loves learning about and making stuff.

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