Sweet Harmony Farm

  (Deerfield, New Hampshire)
Simple joys of the alpaca life ...........
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The Ultimate Fleece-washing Adventure

My usual routine for washing fleece has been to:  pick open the fleece by hand, pull out any large bits of VM [that’s vegetable matter for you non-fiber folks, i.e. bits of hay, straw, seedheads, grass, weeds, etc.], shake that handful, stuff said handful into a sweater-sized mesh laundry bag, repeat, repeat again and again, until the laundry bag appears ‘full enough’ which is probably about 3 or 4 ounces at most.  Then I step outside and shake the laundry bag again.  Now mind you, while originally sorting/skirting the fleece, which I only do outside, I have shaken the living daylights out of the fleece while it’s on the sorting table.  Huge clouds of dust billow out like smoke signals and I jump out of the way until it disperses.  The next day my throat and sinuses are on fire but hey, the fleece in the bag is much cleaner.

And why all the shaking of the fleece?  Because alpacas love to roll in the dirt.  They roll in the dirt piles that we silly humans create for them, they roll in the bare earth spots under trees, and they roll in the barn in the stonedust.  When they roll, you can watch really huge clouds of dust billow out from around them.  Needless to say, I don’t bother to ‘dust’ the barn.  Because alpacas have no lanolin like sheep do, the dust doesn’t adhere to their fleece so a lot of it can just be shaken out prior to washing it.   Or so you’d think.

So, I’ve been washing these mesh laundry bags of a few ounces of alpaca fleece in a large painter’s tub in the bathtub.  Washing fleece is really a matter of soaking it in hot, soapy water, removing the bag, dumping out the water, re-filling the tub with hot water and then soaking the bag in plain water to rinse the fleece.  Depending on how dirty the fleece is, you may need more than one soapy and one plain water soak; usually 2 of each will suffice.  You can’t agitate it or else the fleece will felt into a big blob and be unusable.  All you do is soak it.  As you can imagine, washing fleece just a few ounces at a time has been taking me forever and a day to do.

So encouraged by friends on Ravelry [thanks Maple! thanks Connie!], I decided to take the plunge and wash a pound in the kitchen sink.  Similar process, just more fleece at a time.   But before I even tried that, I instead ventured into the Ultimate Fleece-Washing Adventure:  washing alpaca fleece in my washing machine, an older top-loading model.

I decided on Arlo’s blanket fleece.  It’s white, with an easy-to-see dirt line, so it will be very easy to follow the cleaning process.  Besides, Arlo is such a cute little guy.  :)  After sifting through the bag to prepare it, I put it on the scale: exactly 3 pounds.  I filled the washing machine with hot water on the lowest setting, liberally squirted in the dish soap, and then gently stuffed all 3 pounds [silently telling myself:  You Go Girl!]  into the water until it was all submerged.  Mistake # 1:  probably not enough water.  This just means it will need another soapy soak, which I would have done anyway.

After about 25 minutes, I flipped the dial to spin, said a quick prayer, closed the lid, and waited for the machine to do its thing.  Mistake #2:  definitely too much dish soap.  And how did I know?  Soap bubbles were popping out of the drain pipe and dripping down onto the floor.  Oops.

When the machine was done spinning, I opened the lid.  All the fleece was attached to the sides of the machine.  It was attached so well that I think if there hadn’t been 3 pounds worth, I probably could have pulled it all out in one circular piece.  It came out in a few pieces, which I gently separated into more sections, and placed into the bucket.  There was sand at the bottom of the machine, but in reality not all that much, and easily cleaned out with a wet paper towel.  Now, wet, white, alpaca fleece looks kind of yellow-ish and so much dirtier than when it’s dry!  At least I already knew this so no panicking ensued. 

I re-filled the washing machine with more hot water, this time on the medium setting, and much less dish soap.  While it was filling, I started pulling out bits of VM that seem to all mysteriously appear in wet fleece.  When the machine was done filling, I gently pulled the fleece apart in smaller sections as it went into the machine, also pulling apart locks that obviously still had dirt.  Alpaca fiber floats!  When I was done re-loading fleece, I gently pushed it all back under the water.  

When this second load was done, it was all stuck to the sides of the machine again but not as tightly as the first time.  It easily came out in sections as I pulled it out.  This time it was noticeably cleaner.  Wiped down the machine again [not as much sand this time], re-filled the machine for a third time with just a quick squirt of dish soap, added the fleece, submerged again, spun it out again, pulled out the fleece again, wiped down the machine again, etc.

Now it’s time for the rinsing.  After filling up the machine for a fourth time, I added about a cup of vinegar.  Vinegar re-sets the ph of the fiber so the fiber is not dry and also helps to make it sparkly clean.   Added the fleece, spun it out, etc.  Then I did one more plain water rinse just to be sure.

I put all the clean, wet but not dripping, fleece into the painter’s bucket and went upstairs to spread it out to dry.  Mistake #3:  not anticipating that 3 pounds of fleece would take up substantially more room to dry than a mere 4 ounce laundry bag full.  Oops again.  Well, where there’s a will, there’s a way!  Half of it is drying on oven racks, the rest on the old screen I usually use, all spread out across our ridiculously huge bathroom.  I’ll pick apart the fleece and flip it around as it dries.  It was spun out in the washing machine so it’s not dripping wet, so should be all dry and looking very white in about 24 hours.

3 pounds down, a gazillion more to go ................

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