Washing Fiber

I have been thinking of this for a while.  People ask me all the time, “How do you wash the alpaca fiber?”

I keep thinking; if I did a blog on that, I can just send them the link instead of having to type it all out EACH time I am asked!  See…. slow but brilliant, that is what my headstone will say!  =)

I wash my alpaca fiber in big livestock water tanks.  We simply use hot tap water and Ajax dish soap.  We use Ajax because it is the cheapest surfactant dish soap that I have been able to find.  By the ounce from Walmart (in the big bottles) it is even cheaper than the bulk I have been able to find online.  It seems too simple, but it sure works out well for me and I wash a little over a thousand pounds of fiber a year!  (note:  you will see Equate handsoap in some of the pictures, I don’t use that to wash, we use that for felting…. it is NOT a surfactant and it will not be effective in removing  grease from your wash fibers)

Sudsy wash of fiber in the mill

Sudsy wash of fiber in the mill

The next question is:  “How much soap do you use?”  Well the beauty part of using ajax is it won’t scorch or dry out your fibers, so you can’t damage the fiber by putting too much in.  If the fleece is small poundage (under 4 pounds) and not too dirty, I use “one big squeeze”.  Right, that is where people go “Huh?”  It is also as specific as I can get!  I use one big squeeze and it makes a coffee cup saucer size spread of soap in the bottom of the tub.  

Then I take my hose and spray the soap to make it bubble and foam.  When I have enough water, about 25 gallons, I add the fiber and push it under the soap bubbles so it is all wet.  With suri or mohair, this may take a little bit of wiggling with your fingers to get it so it separates enough to adsorb the water.

I like to let this wash sit for a whole night.  It makes a big difference with the alpaca fleeces if you let one of the washes sit overnight.  Those dirty bugger love to roll and sitting in the wash seems to allow more of the sand and stuff to drop off the fleece!

Next we move the fleece to the second wash.  Adding soap the same way we did before.  Question #3 is:  “How do you move the wash?”  =)  Well, we are pretty simple, we just put our hands in the water and pull out a clump and squeeze it and toss it into the next wash tub!

Moving the wash from one tub to another

Moving the wash from one tub to another

See…… simple.  When the tub is mostly empty of fiber, I use a strainer, or colander, to drag around in the water to catch the little bits.  Then I turn the colander upside down over the drain hole after I pull the plug.  This help to keep so much fiber from going down the drain!  I like a metal mesh type colander the best.

The second wash, you don’t need to leave the fiber in for a night… only 30 minutes or so.  Longer won’t hurt, but it can be a short wash.  Then onto the rinse tub.  Move it the same as previously described.

Rinse tub with fiber in the mill

Rinse tub with fiber in the mill

The rinse tub is the same hot water, but no soap.  Here we use a little tablespoon of Syntholube.  This helps us keep the static down when the fibers are running through the big machines.  You don’t usually need this type of thing for home hand spinning projects.  Do NOT add conditioner to the fibers.  Conditioner coats your fibers and if you are going to felt them, they will not felt right.  In addition when you spin them, they won’t hold the twist as well.

Please, please, please, take the fiber OUT of the rinse BEFORE the water gets cold.  You don’t want any leftover grease cooling back onto the fibers before you pull it out of the water!

Squeeze this tub really well when you take it out to put it on the drying rack.  If you have one of those spin dryers, those are a dream at this point.   The more water you squeeze (or spin) out the shorter the drying time.

Drying fiber in the mill

Drying fiber in the mill

We use some wooden racks with chicken wire on it.  There are fans at the far left end (you can’t see them in the picture) that I turn on to help speed up the drying time.  Direct sunlight on a warm day speeds up drying tremendously also!

Spread the fiber out thin, it dries a lot faster!  You can see I have some already dry batches bundled up in piles here, but the white thin one is the freshly washed one I am trying to dry in the picture.

No, you don’t have to wash in livestock tubs.  You can use buckets or utility sinks.  Anything big enough to hold the fiber you have to wash.  We do big loads here, so we use big tubs.

Yes, people tell me you can wash in a top-load washing machine.  I don’t know how to do that, you will have to look online for those instructions.  =)

When we have to wash bison or sheep wool (which is MUCH greasier with lanolin than alpaca!!), we use a stronger soap called:  ECCOSCOUR EF-312 CONC  – A biodegradable, nonionic detergent and scouring agent for both natural and synthetic fibers. The emulsification system is produced solely from derivatives of natural plant & animal products. ECCOSCOUR EF-312 CONC has a pleasant citrus smell and does not contain any petroleum or chlorinated solvents, alkyl phenols, phosphate, glycol ethers or other chemicals that are hazardous to the environment.”  (quote from the Eastern Color website.)  From Easter Color and Chemical Co. in the first wash.  Otherwise, you have to wash a sheep fleece like 6-7 times in ajax to get through the lanolin.  A lot of work!  

I will admit,  I don’t like to use much of the eccoscour, (and we are lucky we don’t have to!!), it smells different and sometimes that gives me a bit of a headache, but I get those so easily from smells and foods anyway……

I hope this helps.  Nothing fancy, simple process, easy to do at home.  =)

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