Step 1: Shearing Sheep
The first step to making your very own yarn is to shear a sheep! We currently have two Shetland and two Shetland/Romney/Icelandic sheep that we shear every fall and spring with the help of a local sheep farmer, whose shearing expertise far exceeds our own and are much needed (see pic. 1- 4)! There is a more traditional way of shearing sheep by putting them between your legs and laying them on their butt. But as you see here, the shearer puts our sheep on a stand. Shetland.s small size and constant kicking make it hard to shear them the traditional way (at least ours do!). Using a stand also helps if you happen to have back problems; it keeps you from having to bend completely over for a long period of time.
Understand that there are many different breeds of sheep- some used more for meat, and others for fiber. Meat sheep (Suffolk, Dorset, etc) fiber tends to be coarse and have a more matted look and feel (this is partly due to the fact that much of their nutrients goes to lambing and so their fleece becomes more mangy and coarse). This doesn.t mean that you can.t use the fiber, but it is simply a lesser quality and tougher to work with than that of the softness of fiber sheep (Merino, Romney, Icelandic, Shetland, etc.).
Note: Obviously not everyone can go out to their backyard and simply shear a sheep for wool, but you can, however, purchase raw wool and processed wool online at these various sources: (www.woolery.com, http://nistockfarms.com/handspinning-fleece-wool.html, http://www.localharvest.org).
You can also find raw wool and roving at any state Sheep and Wool Festival.
Also, check out local farmers or crafts people near you, if you can - some of our wool has come from local farmers/friends who have given us their fleeces for free because they were planning on throwing them away. If you get a chance, explore other fibers that are fun to work with, for instance: Alpaca, llama, or cashmere (from cashmere goats). These fibers are much more soft and silken than wool, but are just as warm and wonderful to work with!
Step 2: Picking Through the Fleece
Once we are finished the task of shearing, I take the wool inside to be cleaned. First, I pick through each fleece and remove any pieces of vegetation and excrement that won.t come out when washing the wool (see pic. 5 & 6). Generally, I.m not too picky about this part of the process- I pick out what I can see and easily pull out with my fingers. If part of the fleece is too matted or covered in excrement and dirt (usually the area that covered the stomach or the very tips of the fleece) and cannot be pulled apart with my fingers, I pull it away from the fleece and discard it.
Note: Taking small sections of the fleece at a time and working with a friend makes picking through more manageable!
Step 3: Washing the Fleece
After I.ve finished picking through the fleece, I wash it. While you don.t necessarily have to wash the wool, I find it makes it easier when I go to spin it (we.ll get to spinning later). If you choose not to wash it, the fiber is almost toughened because of the excess dirt and lanolin (sheep oils) that were not removed through washing. There are a couple of different methods to washing the fleece:
First, you can fill up your sink with warm soapy (Dawn dish liquid works great) water (do NOT fill with hot water because your fleece will easily felt together). Take small sections of your fleece at a time and plunge it into the water. DO NOT AGITATE the fleece by rubbing it in your hands, but swish it around the water. If you find the water is pretty dirty after a few minutes and your batch of wool is not completely clean, simply repeat the process by emptying out the sink and starting over. I have found this process to take the longest amount of time, but if you are looking to have your fleece as clean as it can possibly be, this is a fool-proof method!
You can also fill up your bathtub, placing the entire fleece in the water and use the same steps as the above method. I don.t usually use this method because it is the messiest and most back-braking.
The simplest and most efficient way is the washing machine, which is what I usually use. Fill up the washing machine with warm water and ½ - 1 cup of washing detergent (depending on how dirty your fleece is) (see pics. 7-10). Then take the fleece and put it into the water just like you would a load of laundry (see pic. 11). Let the fleece sit in the water for about 20-30 minutes. If the water is brown after this amount of time, put the washing machine on the rinse and spin cycle and repeat the process. Repeat the process however many times it takes until the water stays completely clean (NEVER put the fleece through the agitation cycle because it WILL felt together- Trust me, I.ve done it!).
If you find that your fleece is still not as clean as you would have it be, try the first method of washing by hand. I usually ignore tiny bits of hay and such if they are still present after washing a few times- in my opinion, it gives your yarn a more rustic, homemade feel once you.ve spun it. But I don.t, however, want any lanolin left in my wool, so I wash it as many times as needed until that sticky/greasy feeling has been thoroughly washed out. Usually you can tell if the lanolin has been washed out if you let your wool dry for a little while.
Once the fleece is spun out and clean (see pic. 12), lay it out on a sheet outside in the sun to dry (see pic. 13). Flip the fleece over after an hour or two. If you.re washing/drying in the wintertime and live in an area where you have snow, you can lay the sheet inside and dry the fleece by your woodstove or heater.
If you are not going to be using your fleece right away, store in a large paper or mesh bag, where it can get air flow. Place moth balls or strips of cedar in the bag to keep those nasty moths away from eating your beautiful wool!