The Lure of Lanolin

Greasy Coopworth

If you are a wool lover and spinner (like I am) and you go to fiber festivals (like I do),  the lure of buying an entire (sheeps worth) raw fleece will eventually SNAG you.

In the beginning (30 years ago!) all I could find was raw fleece.  Gratefully, it was from New Zealand, very clean and not overly greasy (it might have even been gently washed to reduce the amount of lanolin).  In those days I didn’t bother to find out what kind of sheep the fleece was from, a sheep was a sheep, right???  Well, it was card it into nice fluffy rolags and spin!  So naturally, I thought that there would never be a problem buying raw wool.  All my raw wool experiences had been, well, pleasant — just a little dirt, soft fresh lanolin, isn’t all raw fleece the same??? Apparently not.

Over the next 25 years I had various weird experiences with raw wool, enough to make me say things like “NEVER AGAIN!!!”  I was in Homles County, Ohio (mid 80’s) and Ratstedlers Woolen mill had local raw fleece (black) very cheap (we’re talking $2.00 per pound –Yay) and I rubbed my hands together, chuckling with glee.  By the way — I didn’t know about Skirting at that point!  WHAT is skirting??  Well, it is a euphamistic term for removing clumps of shit clinging to the outer edges of the fleece.

So, this fleece was pretty dirty.  I tried carding some, daintly putting a towel on my lap, I started to card, and soon my white towel was almost as dark as my black sheeps wool, and there were more than a few of these mysterious brown clumps (what are those??? — recall the definition of skirting).  Hmmm…. maybe I had better wash it first.  I had 2 large black garbage bags full of fleece, so I got this brilliant idea of soaking it in large trash cans.  I did not add soap, I didn’t want to wash out the lanolin (at this point I had no idea of what ELSE was in that fleece).  Remember, I had no idea what skirting was.  My soaking wool made a GREAT fertilizer tea. Oh and dear readers, the aroma of lanolin was completely masked over by another aroma that started to develop (remember the clumps??).

On went the rubber gloves.  I removed the wool from the “tea” and rinsed it in another large trash can and laid it out to dry.  Sadly, not all of the clumps had dissolved.  The end of this story is that I wasn’t prepared for the truly disgusting nature of dirty, unskirted fleece, and it wasn’t worth putting the effort into carding it to spin — the fiber was, ohhh about 2″ long and had lots of second cuts.  You think it was so cheap for a reason??  That experience put me off raw wool for about a decade or so.

You know, though, I am lured by that shinny, sweet smelling,  soft texture of lanolin soaked wool.  I love the glistening, wavy look of freshly shorn locks, the absolute spinability of the virgin wool.  I tried a few more raw fleeces, being careful to look for those little clumps, but not realizing that just cause it smells good that doesn’t mean the lanolin is fresh.  Dried out, sticky grease is not conducive to spinning.  Merino fleece is over-flowing with grease, and GOOD LUCK scouring it out! (I did not know about industrial strength textile cleaners).  I also tried buying raw and sending it out for processing.  That works OK, but the stuff you get back does not have the charm of the original.  What to do???

Having missed the Maryland Wool Festival (see “be careful what you wish for”) I went to the Great Lakes Fiber show, wearing my new high top, ankle protecting boots.  Once again, the lure of freshly shorn, greasy, yummy smelling fleece overpowered me.  THIS is heaven.  A deep wiff of a good raw fleece transports me to a simpler time, to a feeling on one-ness with nature.  My friend, Jean, says I get a light in my eyes and it’s all she can do to prevent me from burying my face in the bag!  Suffice it to say, I like it.

Drawn inexorably to a display of shelves upon shelves of raw Coopworth (a fiber I recently discovered makes a lovely, bouncy yarn), I bury my hands in a bag of brown & grey wool.  The proprieter tells me that her sheep are covered and shorn once a year.  This stuff was nice, clean, well skirted (remember skirting?) and hardly any VM (sounds nasty doesn’t it??? — it just means “vegetable matter”).  The wool had been stored in cloth bags since shearing, was $52 for 4.8 pounds — how could I RESIST????

Spinning greasy is a joy.  The fiber just slides like butter (feels like it too).  The grease is soft, wet and smells terrific (Jean says it must be an acquired appreciation).  The plied yarn sparkles and glistens — it’s almost a shame to wash it.  Now I’m happy! Spinning my greasy Coopworth, one with the sheep.  But then life gets in the way and I don’t spin on it for 4-6 weeks.  Unhappily the grease starts to dry out and feel tacky.  The fibers no longer slide.  What do do?  I like spinning directly from the lock, flick the ends and spin from the cut side. No carding!  So the wheels in my mind start turning. “The super dooper industrial strength textile detergent got the yarn clean,  how much easier it would be to clean the unspun locks???”  Here’s the trick to cleaning raw fiber and preserving the structure of the lock.  Put small amounts of your fleece in net bags (the small lingerie ones) then put the bags, 2 at a time, in a sink full of REALLY HOT, and I mean HOT water and 2 oz of Synthropol.  Let sit for 15 minutes (set the timer) DO NOT LET IT COOL DOWN. Pull it out, squeeze out the excess water and put it in a rinse bath of really HOT water, again, another 15 minutes, remove and spin out in the washer to remove excess water.  Then lay it out somewhere — a wood rack is always nice, to dry.  Your fleece is now clean, grease free, and not tangled up.

You will have to resort to the above procedure if you wait too long to spin your fresh wool.  Lanolin HAS a shelf life!  The moral of the story is that NOTHING is more important than spinning your fresh fleece!

Words of wisdom (or advice) for selecting a raw fleece:

  • Ask if the sheep was covered.  If you have a problem with covers, maybe you shouldn’t ask.  “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”
  • Ask WHEN the sheep was shorn and how the fleece was stored.  If it was shorn a few months prior but stored in cloth, it may be ok to spin greasy.
  • Root through the bag of fiber, you are looking for dried up bits of lanolin (it was most likely already skirted — remember skirting???)
  • WHIP out your drop spindle, and ask if you can spin up a sample.  If it is “good” greasy, the fiber will slide, slide, slide.  If it is not fresh, it will be sticky and spinning will be a struggle.  BTW — do you know how to use a drop spindle??? if you don’t THIS is a good reason to learn!  I often want to spin up a quick sample, ply it and knit it, what could be simpler than using a drop spindle??? LEARN THIS SKILL!!!!!
  • Once you are satasfied, pay the price, take it home and GET GOING!
  • Keep in mind that if you buy 5 pounds of raw fleece you will probably end up with 3.75 lbs of spun, cleaned wool.  Lanolin and VM have weight, about 25% or so.  Buy accordingly!
  • When you get home, forget about work, ignore the kids (they will get fed somehow), forget about the dishes (someone will do them), lock yourself away and enjoy the fragrant, slippery, wholesome, earthiness of Spinning in the Grease!