There are a lot of misconceptions about how easily wool felts. Some people even believe that wool can be felt on the sheep. I’ve been following conventional wisdom about treating wool with care, and slowly debunking some of these through trials and errors.
First of all, feltability depends on the type of wool. Some sheep wool felt more easily than others, and some such as Dorset is a natural superwash wool and you’ll have to try very hard to felt that. Cashmere is also naturally superwash. That’s right. You can throw a cashmere sweater in the washer and the dryer (in the cool setting), and it will not felt. The dry-cleaning industry wants your money and you felt (hee hee) for it. Wash your cashmere in your washing machine and your sweaters will be cleaner and less toxic.
I have always wonder about the three conditions for felting, which are heat, agitation, and sudden change in temperature, and all three must be present for wool to felt. I have a video of of Margaret Stove washing Merino locks with plenty of soap, rub vigorously in hot sudsy water, rinse and squeeze, and the locks are loose and and spin like a dream. I have three dirty fleeces (two Rambouillet and a Targhee) that have been sitting in the basements for one year. I wanted test this theory and push as much as possible against convention wisdom to see how one can easily ruin a fleece. So I scoured and dyed with abandoned.
First, I sprayed (jet setting) the fleece with the garden hose to loosen the dirt, then soaked (at least 30 minutes), rinsed, and repeat in the kitty Lift-N-Sift litter pan. Then, I put the wool in the spinner to dry, rip out chunks of wool, and shake hard to loosen more dirt on the floor. The wool had agitation, but no heat and no sudden change in temperature, hence, did not felt. Wheh! That means the sheep are safe from being straight-jacketed by their fleece in the fields.
By this time, the fleece should be already fairly clean. Some people skip the previous step and scour a dirty fleece. They will end up with a scoured dirty fleece.
To scour, I filled a paint bucket (Homer 5-gallon) with almost boiling water, squirted a generous amount of Dawn (do not use Orvus Paste, another bad advice that I’ve since learned) and a cap full of Simple Green (to clean, degrease, and deodorize), and tossed the shredded wool in the bucket. No lingerie bags needed. In fact, I find the lingerie bag shifts all the wool into one big ball, and the dirt got no where to go except embedded into the ball. In the bucket, I turned the loose wool round and round with a tongs in the hot vat to make sure the fiber is free to release lanolin and dirt, wait for 15 minutes, then take the wool out and carefully not to disturb the dirty water in the bottom. Even with the greasy Targhee wool, one scour is good enough, but I repeat the spin, shred, and toss. Wait another 15 minutes, then lift, spin, shred, and toss in the hottest water setting from the tap. I usually dye immediately in a stainless stock pot after scouring and keep the water temperature to almost boiling for at least 10 minutes to set the dye. Lastly, I dump the entire pot with the hot water and the dyed wool out to a paint bucket. The wool had a lots of heat, plenty of agitation, and still did not felt.
This is when felt happens… As the water cools, the wool fibers want to shrink and attach to its neighbor. Deny this opportunity by do not disturbing the fiber as it cools down and absorbs the rest of the dye. That’s all there to it. Do what ever you want to wool in cold or hot water and it will not felt. But touch it as it cools down and it will become a misshapen heap of impenetrable hair ball. Leave it alone and you will end up with clean, loose, and fluffy puffs of wool. Cheers!
PS. So why does Kroger have mats? His wool is very fine, there is also a lot of movements, hence agitation (although he is quite mellow about it), and the change of temperature between his warm body and the cool air. That why the mats tend to clump near his skin and not at the tip.
Time to brush Kroger…and happy new year!