Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Washing Alpaca Fleece

Last week I decided that it would be a good idea to try to wash the fleeces sitting in my closet while I still had the benefit of warm summer days, which allowed me to sort my fleeces outside and aided in drying them with the windows open to keep the air circulating.  This way if I decide this winter that I would like to do something with one of them, I'll have a nice clean fleece to work with.  I thought I'd document here what I did to wash them both as a reference for myself and for anyone else who is interested.  This all comes with the disclaimer that I had never washed a fleece before, but did consult a number of references, including a few alpaca farmers and the owner of a fiber mill who specializes in processing alpaca fiber, so rest assured that although this is not the only way to wash an alpaca fleece, it is perfectly acceptable.  There are two more things to keep in mind with this process:

1.  This process is similar, though not identical to how one might wash a sheep fleece.  Alpacas do not have lanolin and other oils/waxes on their fleece that require scouring with hot water to remove them.  When washing an alpaca fleece, the goal is to remove the dirt/dust/sand that they so lovingly roll around in all year.  Because of the absence of oils and waxes, you do not need a scouring agent or extremely hot water.  Any mild detergent will work, including wool wash, dish soap, or even shampoo.  The temperature of the water that I used throughout the process is what I might use to run a bath or take a shower although you could achieve the same results with tepid or lukewarm water as well.

2.  This process does not do a good job of maintaining the lock structure of the fiber.  For this fleece I wasn't concerned about this as I will most likely be carding the fiber for spinning.  If you want to work with individual locks or plan to comb your fiber, there are other ways to wash the fleece that will give you more control over the locks.  If, however, you wish to wash a large quantity of fiber for carding or felting, this process works perfectly well.

I first spread out my fleece as best I could so that I could sort the fleece into different piles.

With a sheep fleece this is easier to do because the fibers tend to hold together a little better, but all you want is to be able to see the whole fleece at once.  Often when you buy a fleece it will already have been skirted (the coarser leg and belly hairs, felted bits, and really cruddy bits removed), but what you want to do is feel around with your hands for any patches that aren't as soft or seem to have a slightly different texture, patches where the fibers are shorter or longer, and you can also remove any large bits of VM (vegetable matter) and 2nd cuts if there are any (these occur if the shearer goes over the same spot more than once or cuts up into the lock, resulting in really short bits that will cause problems when it's time for carding or spinning.)  I got this particular fleece from Teresa at Hollyhock Farm Alpacas and it was already wonderfully skirted and free of 2nd cuts.  I sorted the fleece into three different piles from coarsest to softest (but let's be honest here.  This is a baby alpaca fleece and there was no such thing as a "coarse" hair.  It's all relative.)  If there was a patch that was particularly dirty or muddy, I would have also set that aside for extra cleaning.

I then proceeded to wash the fleece in four separate batches, the larger pile in the top right (above) split into two batches for washing.  Take a lingerie bag and fill it relatively full with fiber.  You want to make sure there's room for the water to flow through the fiber, but keep in mind that once the fiber gets wet it will compact a little bit, so you can fit quite a bit in there.

I used a larger laundry bag and simply tied the top shut.  If possible, you want to use a bag that has larger holes like the one above rather than a superfine mesh because it will allow more of the dirt, sand, and VM to wash out during the process.

Fill your sink/laundry tub/bucket/whatever you're using to wash the fleece with enough water that the fiber can be fully submerged and add your detergent.  I filled my sink with 4 or 5 inches of water and used about a tablespoon of detergent.

Now you can gently, GENTLY, press the fiber into the water.  You can let it sink down on its own, but the fiber is so airy that it just floats on top for a while.  You want to agitate the fiber as little as possible.  Just press down making sure that the water has completely wetted your fiber.  Remember, with warm water, soap, and agitation you fiber will begin to felt, so do what you can to minimize how much you agitate the fiber.  You can't do anything about the water or soap.

You'll notice that the water will almost immediately begin to turn brown.  Good, it's working.

Let the fiber sit for 15-20 minutes, then press it down again to get as much dirt out as you can.  The water will be gross.

Remove the lingerie bag and gently, GENTLY, squeeze out any excess water and set the bag aside while you drain the sink and refill it with clean water.  Repeat the process a second time, adding detergent (you don't need as much as in the first wash) and again letting the fiber sit for maybe 10-15 minutes.  Remove the fiber and refill the sink with clean water again.  Keep in mind that you never want to run water directly on to your fiber.  This is agitation and will felt your fiber.  Always remove your fiber before refilling the sink with water.  Got it?  You should also do your best to always match the water's temperature from one rinse to the next.  Moving fiber from hot water to cold water will shock the fiber and cause felting.  It's a great trick if you intend to do it, but it's better to be careful.

At this point your fiber should be clean and it's time to rinse out the soap and any residual dirt/dust that is still in the fiber.  With your sink full of clean, non-soapy water, submerge your fiber again.  It's not necessary to soak the fiber, but press it down a few times to make sure the water is running through all the fibers.  You might want to gently, GENTLY, lift the lingerie bag out of the water once or twice to make sure the soap and dirt is washing out.  At this point, your water will still turn a very light brown.  Remove the fiber, drain the sink, refill it with clean water once more, and rinse the fiber a second time.  Your water should stay clean.

So that's two washes and two rinses.  If you're washing more than one batch, you don't need to drain the last rinse water.  Just add detergent and use it as your first wash for the next batch of fiber.  While the new batch of dirty fiber is soaking, you can take your clean fiber (still in the bag) and roll it in a towel and squeeze it or stomp on it to get as much water out as possible.  Do not wring it out, just squeeze.  Only squeezing.  Alternatively, you can place it in your washing machine and spin the water out on the spin cycle, which is what I did.  But be sure that your washing machine's spin cycle really only spins and doesn't add rinse water.  We don't want water running directly onto our fiber.  Agitation and all that.

When you take your fiber out of the bag, it will stay in a big clump like this:

It shouldn't be felted together, so gently, GENTLY, pull it apart and lay it out to dry.  I MacGyver-ed a drying rack using some plastic netting, clamps, and the bed in my spare bedroom, but you can use a clothes drying rack, a sweater rack, or anything else that allows good air circulation.

Be sure to place an old sheet under the spot where you're drying your fiber.  There will still be bits of VM, sand, and other particles that don't disintegrate and therefore didn't wash out of the fleece and they will fall out as you pull the fiber apart.  As my fleece was drying I would also give it a gentle shake/bounce every once in a while to loosen that up.

In no time you'll have your whole fleece drying while you ponder the infinite ways in which you can use it.  Just be sure that the fleece is completely dry before you store it.  The last thing we want is a moldy or mildewed fleece.

The end.


  1. Great tutorial. I've never been brave enough to start from the raw fleece. Another challenge in my never ending saga to perfect my craft.

  2. Woot! Lots and lots o' fleece to play with this winter then! Good for you - getting it washed always seems the tedious part.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out! The fleece looks wonderfully clean. Great job on the detailed explanation. Hopefully, the fear of washing alpaca fiber has been reduced. Rest assured, Johnny is rolling in the dirt again to produce an equally dirty fleece next spring!

  4. that is totally awesome! I love the fact that you nonchalantly said "if" you wanted to do something in the winter - as if you won't be totally like ZOMG I must work with this fiber NOW!

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