Before mordanting it is most important to ensure the fleece or fibre is absolutely clean. Otherwise the mordant or the dye will not take well as the dirt (and lanolin in sheep) will prevent the mordant and dye from penetrating the fibre and you will be disappointed. The mordant and dye will cover the dirt which lies on the surface of the fibre and will rub off when dry. Remember do not skip any steps!
Cotton, linen and silk is more difficult to dye than wool and require different procedures.
SKIRTING AND SCOURING
Because I work almost exclusively with my alpaca fibre, I have a preliminary step to go through before I begin to scour. For most people this would not be necessary (unless you are using a whole fleece either from a sheep or an alpaca) and that is called “skirting” the fleece. Our alpaca fleeces are beautiful but can be dusty as they love to roll in the dirt! When a farmer or breeder sells the whole fleece for spinning it is usually skirted – but not always!
Skirting is simply laying the fleece out on a mesh table with the cut part open to you – the part that was closest to the animal’s skin, this allows the dust to fall through. Then work a few inches in, all the way round the edge of the fleece, removing any debris, including vegetable matter, hay or soiled pieces. In effect removing all the un-spinnable parts of the fleece - before you begin scouring, mordanting, carding or spinning. Careful skirting makes every step much easier! This debris can then be composted.
The main part of the fleece from the shoulders, down the back and sides to the stomach is called the blanket. I only use the blanket for spinning. The neck and legs still produce lovely soft fibre – but too short for spinning, therefore I use these parts for felting or filling cushions etc. – after scouring and carding.
When you have the fleece spread out on the mesh table, shake it a little and some of the dust will fall through the mesh top. You will need to look for any second cuts which look like little cotton balls. They are made when the sheerer makes a second pass over an area that has already been cut. If you do not remove these they will make lumps and irregularities in your spinning. Turn the fleece over. Observe the overall length of the whole blanket – that is the length of the hair and remove any shorter ends.
Shorter and coarser fibres are often found around the edge of the blanket. Where the fibre starts getting shorter or coarser, divide the blanket into two categories. The “first” containing the best and most consistent lengths and the “seconds” containing the shorter/ coarser fibres.
Look out for guard hair, which is longer and thicker than the rest of the fibre. It is more noticeable in the “seconds”.
Remove guard hairs by simply holding a handful of fibre in one hand and pinching the tip of the hair with the other and pull to remove.
Spinning with inconsistent lengths and varying micron counts will give an inferior quality yarn.
The seconds, which include the belly, neck, shoulder and upper legs are made into batts or rovings for felting projects or filling for cushions or toys.
When the fleece has been carefully skirted, I put the seconds in a brown paper sack and put it into a larger brown paper potato sack along with the rolled up blanket and store them both together until I want to scour them – making sure I clearly mark the sack with the name of the alpaca on the front of the bag.
HOW TO SCOUR WOOL
If you have a whole fleece to scour work on small sections at a time – enough to half fill a washing up bowl as you don’t want to overcrowd it. (As I usually want to wash a whole fleece at the same time I use up to ten washing up bowl in a line and work similar fashion to a conveyer belt!)
Fill the washing up bowl with hot water (120 degrees F) add a few tablespoons of washing soda and some washing up liquid. Gently immerse the fibre or fleece into the water, gently pushing it under the water with your fingers and maybe squeeze very carefully without rubbing or agitating. I usually change this water before it gets cold as I prefer not to let the fleece soak in dirty water.
Carefully lift the fleece out of the water and gently squeeze - dispose of the dirty water and repeat the soaking process again. Make sure the bowl is full and ready with the washing soda and washing up liquid already mixed before immersing the fleece as you must not allow running water to fall directly onto the fleece because this will cause it to felt. I then repeat this process for the third time and leave the fleece to soak overnight.
When clean rinse the fibre/fleece in clean water at about the same temperature as the scouring water was when you removed it. Extremes of water temperature also cause felting. Remove from the water, squeeze gently – do not wring. Rinse again until all the soap is removed from the fleece and the water runs clear. Squeeze gently to remove excess water and place wet fleece/fibre in a pillow case and use the short spin cycle on your washing mashing. I can’t emphasise enough do not agitate and do not use extremes of temperature or you will definitely felt your fleece!
I dry my fleeces by spreading them out on my mesh table outside – (which I wash down after skirting,) to allow the air to circulate. When they are thoroughly dry I store them in brown potato sacks. I like to do this in the summertime as I prefer to work outside and drying is much easier. Time permitting, I also prefer to drum card the fleece into batts before storing it, then I am ready to mordant, dye, spin or felt whenever I wish.