Machine Washable Fleece?

Breed makes a difference. Really.

I wrote a blog entry about the eBay fleece that was supposed to be Rambouillet. Rambouillet is closely related to Merino, I use a lot of Merino and Merino cross fleeces, so I thought it would be nice to have some inexpensive fine fleece to mess around with. Even if it's a filthy backyard fleece. Now I think I've finally convinced the seller that maybe it's not what he thought it was, but in the end I've still got this fleece. One thing about buying cheap stuff on eBay, is when it goes wrong it's sometimes not worth the bother of trying to get your money back. It's usable fleece, just not quite what I thought I was getting. I don't expect much of eBay most days anyway.

I pulled it out of the box and the first thing I notice is that it's not horribly stinky. It's supposed to be from a ram, and intact rams are notorious for smelling like, well, ram. That was nice, at least. But the second thing I notice is that it doesn't look like Rambouillet fleece. It's tippy, with dirt halfway down the staple in spots. Merino-type fleeces are very dense, the tip end is usually square (lambs are the exception) and dirt tends to stay at the very end. Rambouillet is not quite as dense, but still it doesn't typically end up caked in gunk nearly down to the cut end. Also, the crimp pattern should be expected to be regular the entire length of the staple and it's not. In fact, it looks very much like the Dorset fleece I got a huge box of a while back.

Next, Merino-type fleeces have a lot of grease. When fresh, it actually feels damp. Old ones get sticky and hard. It takes plenty of detergent and hot water to get it all out. This one had enough grease that I noticed it, but hardly as much as I was expecting. That was unusual.

So I pulled out some samples and swished them around in soapy water to see what happened. Most of the fleece is very dirty, so the tips came out yellowed on most of it. Only a few actually washed out white. I am a little annoyed that the fleece was described as "very white" but otherwise this is no great surprise. It's a dirty fleece. But no canary stain, so the yellow is limited to the tips.

The washed wool didn't feel like I expected, either. It had that springy hand that makes me think of down fleeces like the Dorset and Suffolk I've worked with. It felt very much like the mystery fleece that was clearly a down meat sheep crossed with something fine and Merino-like. So I tried one more test: felting.

I pulled out a couple locks and washed them none-too-gently, squeezing the cut end in particular because that is always where it starts to felt first. Nothing. Not even a suggestion of felting. I took some fiber I had combed earlier and laid it out in a small batt and tried to felt that. It took much more work to get it started than it should, and never held together well. Just to see, I took a lock of mystery and a lock of Merino I had lying around and washed them at the same time, in the same soapy solution and the same handling. The cut end of the Merino started to felt. The mystery fleece didn't.

So, given that this fleece differs from Merino-types on several major points, I declared it was not the pure Rambouillet that was advertised. Since it obviously wasn't going to felt without serious effort, I decided to attempt wool heresy: I put it in the washing machine.

Now lots of people scour fleece in their washing machines. You let the machine fill, turn it off and put your fleece in to soak. Then you turn it to spin to get all the now filthy water out. But, and this is a huge but, it only works with a top-loading machine. You have to be able to completely fill the machine with water. I have a front-loading machine. It doesn't fill with water, it washes by tumbling the clothes around, sloshing as it goes. You can't fill it with water and you can't run it without agitation. Even the spin cycle flops things around a few times before it gets up to speed. Mine does have a "hand wash" setting but there is no soak only.

Since this fleece was filthy, I started with a cold soak overnight. I filled a big tub with cold water, added a little detergent as a wetting agent and shoved the fleece in there. I didn't use hot, because I was only dealing with dirt, not grease. The grease will get taken care of later. After the soak, I drained the tub and dumped the whole mess in the washer for a spin. Most front-loading machines won't allow you to manually control the cycle, but mine has a spin only option. And this thing on high spin is a frightening sight.

Out comes the now wrung-out fleece, I wipe down the inside of the washer and start an empty wash. This was the worst of the worst, so I wanted to rinse the machine before the next go. In the meantime, I start packing wet fleece into mesh bags. Three at a time go in for a hand-wash cycle, hot water with high spin and twice as much laundry detergent as a normal load. I stop the washer after the spin and reset it for a rinse (since I don't have an option for a hot rinse.) The fleece comes out mostly clean and a little tangled but only the slightest suggestion of felting. I roughly picked the wet fiber so it doesn't sit there like a lump (but you do have to handle wet wool carefully so it doesn't break) and put it out in the sun to dry. Once in a while I go turn the pile of fleece so it dries more evenly.

Eventually there's no more sun out back but the fleece is still a bit damp, so I decided to put it in the dryer. Yes, in the dryer. It's nearly dry, so it will tumble around as a fluffy mass instead of big wet globs. It's not good for maintaining order, but it won't cause felting. Also, all that fluffing makes some of the VM fall out. Yes, it leaves a mess in the dryer, but it does work. I did have to clean the dryer out when I was done, and there was a lot of tiny bits of junk in there. Some even got past the lint screen because I could hear it rattling around during the next load. But eventually it was all blown out the vent. Well, maybe. (I can still hear some things rattling around in there.)

So now I have my washed mystery fleece. It's not great fleece or a great scour job but it works. Since there wasn't that much grease there to begin with, what little is left will be ok.