Our Fiber

We sell much of our Santa Cruz Island wool and Navajo-Churro wool as “raw” fleeces, but Lynn also spins, knit, and weaves and so we process a lot of wool and llama fiber. In the past, we have sent much of our Navajo-Churro and llama fiber to a fiber processor, who turned most of it into pin-drafted roving. We still post some of this for sale on Etsy – check out our shop, Blue Oak Canyon Ranch on Etsy.com. Pin-drafted roving is very easy to spin and the fiber processed this way is very clean.   People also use it for needle felting and other crafts.

Wool and llama fiber we keep for use here, or process ourselves and offer as a value-added product (other than pin-drafted roving), must first be washed or “scoured.” It is dry and dusty here, so our fleeces are always dusty. Thorough scouring is important and also a challenge.

I (Lynn) have found that Santa Cruz Island and Navajo-Churro wool are very different from each other, different enough that the scouring processes I use are specific to each type of fiber.  Therefore I have tried to explain each separately, below.

Navajo-Churro Wool and Llama Fiber

Navajo-Churro wool generally is low in grease/lanolin, and does not have crimp (in fact crimpy wool is considered a fault in this breed).  It has a long staple, usually 3 to 9 inches.  Llama fiber has no grease/lanolin but, since llamas roll on the ground, their fiber is always dusty and most of them pick up lots of vegetation matter (VM) in their coats.  Generally it does not have crimp, either.  The washing, or scouring, process is the same for both types of fiber.

1. Even if the fleece has been skirted, it is advisable to skirt it again, sorting it as desired, removing as much vegetation and second cuts as possible, and loosening the locks so that water and soap can penetrate into the fleece. We have two 20-gallon sinks outside by the garage.  I put the wool (or llama fiber) into mesh laundry bags, usually 4 or more large bags per fleece depending on the size of the fleece. I do this because when I let the water out of the sink, it drains into garden hoses and any loose wool going down the drain will plug the hoses.   I take care to not pack the fiber in or fill the bag entirely - about half full works for me.  The wool needs to move around so the water can penetrate.  You don’t need to use the bags of course. I direct the hoses with “used” water into some of our plants in the yard – I can’t stand the thought of wasting water if waste is avoidable.  I just have to be careful that hot water doesn't go directly on plants (except weeds - and very hot water with or without detergent makes a pretty good weed killer).  I usually put one large laundry bag with fiber in each sink.  If I am washing small amounts of wool in the kitchen sink, I do not use the bags, as our sink has drain guards.

2. I use hot water right out of the hot water heater for all steps. I turn the temperature on the water heater way up, so that it is too hot to handle with my bare hands so I always wear elbow length gloves. I also wear closed-in shoes – I don’t want to dump hot water on bare or sandaled feet. To retain the heat in each sink, I made lids out of two layers of cardboard, with waste wool sandwiched between, taped around the edges with duct tape.  For best results use water as hot as possible.

3.  Navajo-Churro and llama fleeces may or may not get a pre-soak, depending on how greasy or dirty the fleeces are.  This is a soak in very hot water, no detergent.  

4. For each step, including pre-soak if done, washes, and rinses (below), I leave the fleece in its hot water for 10 to 15 minutes. The idea is to not let the water cool appreciably so that the grease condenses back on the fiber, but to leave the fiber in for long enough for the water and soap to do its job. Between each step, press (don’t wring or agitate) as much (dirty) water out as possible. This makes the next step work better. 

5. Wash step: Fill the sink (or bucket, whatever) with hot water and add the detergent, following the manufacturer’s directions.  Use lots of detergent.  I squirt it in, slowly counting to 10 while I squirt.  You don’t need or want bubbles, so add the soap AFTER the sink is full. Gently swirl the water around to distribute the detergent. Put in the wet and still hot fiber. Let it soak for 10 to 15 minutes. 

6. Llama and Navajo-Churro fiber get by with one wash step.

7. Rinse steps: As the wash step but, obviously, without the detergent. Usually I use three rinse steps, each 10 or 15 minutes, with a glug of vinegar added to the last rinse step.   I rinse until the water is clear.

8. If you want to dye the fiber before carding and need to use a mordant, this would be a good time (while the fiber is still warm) to do it.  Be careful to not subject the wool/fiber to sudden temperature changes.

9. After the last rinse step, take the fiber out of the bags and spread it out as much as possible to dry. We made two drying racks, by making a bench out of PVC and fastening chicken wire to the PVC with cable ties. This porous platform allows air to circulate throughout the fiber, helping it dry. I gently pull the fibers apart, to eliminate “clumping” and help the drying process. As the fiber on top dries, I put it in some container (plastic bag or basket) until the entire fleece is dry. 

10. After the wool is dried, it can be stored indefinitely.  The next step in processing is picking.  For our Navajo-Churro and llama fleeces, I use a human-powered bench picker, which is a lot of work but fairly fast. The bench picker has rows of spikes poking upward at steep angles, and a block which has rows of spikes poking downward at steep angles. I push the block forward and backward while carefully feeding in the fiber from one end of the picker. The picked fiber falls out the other end, under which I have put a large basket or box to catch it. Often I need to pick the fiber twice. The process is hard work.

11.  You might want to spin or felt the fiber after picking.

12.  I card our Navajo-Churro and llama fiber after picking on a drum carder, which makes a nice batt.  Usually I send the wool/fiber through the drum carder at least twice, or more if I am trying to blend colors.  Then the fiber is ready for spinning!

Santa Cruz Island Sheep Wool

I have been researching methods of processing fine wools, and have been experimenting extensively with our Santa Cruz Island wool.  So have others - Deborah Robson was kind enough to allow me to share a link to her 2009 account of her experience with Santa Cruz Island wool:  http://independentstitch.com/2009/09/santa-cruz-wool-how-to-show-a-rare-breeds-magic-with-a-less-than-ideal-sample.html
If you are interested in this wonderful SCI wool, definitely check out her account.

Scouring (Washing):
1. Fine fleeces in general, such as Merino, Rambouillet, and of course Santa Cruz Island wool, tend to be high in grease/lanolin.  Because of this and also because of the fine fibers and fine crimp, our Santa Cruz Island fleeces tend to be dirty.  So, our Santa Cruz Island fleeces always get a pre-soak.  First, even if the fleece has been skirted, it is advisable to skirt it again, sorting it as desired, removing as much vegetation and second cuts as possible, and loosening the locks so that water and soap can penetrate into the fleece. In the past I have put the SCI wool into mesh laundry bags, usually 4 or more large bags per fleece. I do this because when I let the water out of the sink, it drains into garden hoses and any loose wool going down the drain will plug the hoses.   I take care to not pack the fiber in or fill the bag entirely - about half full works for me.  The wool needs to move around so the water can penetrate.  HOWEVER, more recently I have found the wool cleans up better if I do NOT use the bags, so I do one of two practices to avoid wool plugging the drain hoses:  (1) I use a large pot or a 5 gallon bucket IN the sink, and remove the wool before tipping the dirty water out of the pot/bucket, or (2) I have purchased drain protectors (the kind to keep hair from going into the shower drain, yuck) and QUICKLY put one in place as soon as I remove the plug in the sink. 

I direct the hoses with “used” water into some of our plants in the yard – I can’t stand the thought of wasting water if waste is avoidable.  I just have to be careful that hot water doesn't go directly on plants (except weeds - and very hot water with or without detergent makes a pretty good weed killer).  If I use a mesh laundry bag, I put one large laundry bag with fiber in each sink.  If I am washing small amounts of wool in the kitchen sink, I do not use the bags, as our kitchen sink has drain guards.

The photo above shows some brown Santa Cruz Island wool at the end of its pre-soak step.  This wool is in a laundry bag, soon I will post some photos of wool NOT in a laundry bag.  Lately, I have found the wool comes out cleaner with the wool NOT in a laundry bag. You can see that quite a bit of dirt comes out in the pre-soak, this is dust and water-soluble substances in the wool (like sweat).

2.    I use hot water right out of the hot water heater for all steps. I turn the temperature on the water heater way up, so that it is too hot to handle with my bare hands so I always wear elbow length gloves. I also wear closed-in shoes – I don’t want to dump hot water on bare or sandaled feet. To retain the heat in each sink, I made lids out of two layers of cardboard, with waste wool sandwiched between, taped around the edges with duct tape.  On hot days or washing wool indoors, I don't use the lids.

3. For each step, including pre-soak, washes, and rinses (below), I leave the fleece in its hot water for 10 to 15 minutes. The idea is to not let the water cool appreciably so that the grease condenses back on the fiber, but to leave the fiber in for long enough for the water and soap to do its job. Between each step, press (don’t wring or agitate) as much (dirty) water out as possible. This makes the next step work better.

4. Wash step: Fill the sink or bucket or pot with hot water and add the detergent, following the manufacturer’s directions.  Use lots of detergent.  Lots.  I squirt it in, slowly counting to 10 or 12 while I squirt.  You don’t need or want bubbles, so add the soap AFTER the sink is full, gently swirl the water with your gloved hand to distribute the detergent. Put in the wet and still hot fiber. Let it soak for 10 to 15 minutes.   I often use dishwashing detergent that is advertised as grease-cutting, and also have had good results with the detergents specifically designed for scouring wool, such as Kookaburra or Unicorn brands; I am not advocating any particular brand or manufacturer.

 The photo above shows the first wash step with the brown Santa Cruz Island wool.   You can see there is still quite a bit of dirt washing out.

5.  Santa Cruz Island wool always gets two washes with detergent.  For the second wash, I use a little less detergent, squirting it into the hot clean water while counting slowly to 5 or 6 or 8 (depending on the amount of wool).

6.  Rinse steps: As the wash step but, obviously, without the detergent.  I use three or four rinse steps, each 10 or 15 minutes, with a glug of vinegar added to the last rinse step (usually both third and fourth).   I rinse until the water is clear.  And the vinegar odor volatilizes out of the wool as it dries.

8. If you want to dye the fiber before carding and need to use a mordant, this would be a good time (while the fiber is still warm) to do it (depending on what your dye process is, you might want to not use vinegar).  Be careful to not subject the wool/fiber to sudden temperature changes.

Here is that same Santa Cruz Island brown wool after the final rinse - the water is clear and the wool is clean.    

 9. After the last rinse step, GENTLY spread the wool out as much as possible to dry. We made two drying racks, by making a bench out of PVC and fastening chicken wire to the PVC with cable ties. This porous platform allows air to circulate throughout the fiber, helping it dry. I gently pull the fibers apart, to take out the "clumps" and help the drying process. As the fiber dries, I put the dry portions in some container (plastic bag or basket) until the entire fleece is dry.  Once dry, the fiber can be stored indefinitely.

Preparing Santa Cruz Island Wool for Spinning
The next step in processing is “picking” the fiber. This further separates and loosens the locks, and helps some of the particles of dirt, chaff, and VM (vegetation matter) left from skirting and scouring fall out of the fiber. I pick my SCI fiber by hand, which is arduous for a whole fleece, but works well for me. 

The next step is carding. I have used hand cards, which I do  for small quantities of fiber or for experimenting with fiber blending (one of my current projects is blending cotton and SCI wool, and I hope to post results of this and other experiments soon).   Our most exciting acquisition was a sample card.  (There's my idea of excitement.)

Professional processors have a mechanized card machine (or two or several!) which may be as large as room-sized. A sample card is a smaller version of these – used, as you might have guessed, by the textile mills to sample various fiber blends. Any mechanized card (the machine is the card, the person running it is the carder) consists of a licker-in on the end where the fiber is first fed in, a swift (large cylinder) in the middle, a series of strippers and workers (smaller cylinders which work as a team; our sample card has four teams), a fancy, a doffer, and a doffer comb. The licker-in is two cylinders each with short, sharp spikes that further pick the fiber.  The chaff that survived my hand picking is removed during this step. The swift, workers, strippers, and doffer each have carding cloth similar to what a hand card or drum card has. The fancy has carding cloth with very long wires. Each of these cylinders is gear and belt driven, the whole machine is powered by an electric motor, added on later in its history. After the wool goes through all these cylinders, the fiber comes out at the “output” end as a very thin, very sparse layer of fibers which, thanks to static electricity and their affinity for each other, gather themselves up into a loose woolen mass called a cloud. Some processing lines include roving makers or batt makers; we do not have these yet. Actually, spinning from clouds is my favorite kind of preparation now. I find my yarns are much more lively and interesting spun from clouds compared to pin-drafted roving.  But that's just me. 

Our sample card is ancient, a genuine antique - Jim estimates it at least 100 years old - so we try to be careful of it.  Also, we have set it up to deal with short staple, very fine fiber, so we use it only for Santa Cruz Island sheep wool. 


Sometimes I blend colors of SCI sheep wool on the sample card - blue-dyed and white to get various shades of light to darker blue, for example. This blending is fun and exciting, makes great yarn, and I'm sure would make great felt too.
 
The photo to the left shows Santa Cruz Island wool dyed with indigo on the intake conveyor of the card. 
You can see that dye uptake was patchy, with areas of dark and light blue and white.  To me, this is part of the fun of home dyeing so I do this on purpose - almost like tie-dyeing.  On the right is a photo of a cloud, the output, of the same wool, all blended and the colors pretty much homogenized, but with just enough color variation to make interesting yarn.  Ready to spin!

Some of my customers, and (I think) Deborah Robson, use mini-combs to prepare their Santa Cruz Island wool for spinning.  I haven't used mini-combs much yet, so am not prepared to talk about that, but it works very well for them.

Spinning Santa Cruz Island Wool 
After carding, I spin short draw, with very loose tension on my spinning wheel, in order to put in a fair amount of twist (a lot of twist compared to Navajo-Churro wool or llama fiber).  This helps the shorter staple of the wool hold together to make a beautiful, soft, springy yarn.

Here are a few photos of some Santa Cruz Island sheep yarn I spun and plied from some of our Santa Cruz Island sheep fleeces - to show what's possible.  I almost always make two-ply yarn which I use in both knitting and weaving.  My way is to spin Z and ply S.  After plying, I wash the yarn in hot water with a drop of detergent if needed (if extra dye is still coming our or if there is a little grease in the yarn).  Then rinse thoroughly, avoiding drastic temperature changes.  Then I hang the skein to dry without weighting it.  The yarn "blooms", shortening by about one-third and thickening a little, and the wool remembers its crimp and elasticity. 

If I use the Santa Cruz Island yarn for warp on my rigid heddle loom, I try to not put too much tension on the warp so it doesn't stretch the warp.

The white yarn above was blended from several sheep and the gray-brown (above) and dark brown (below) are natural colors, from Sophia (light gray-brown) and Nina (dark brown), two of the three lovely ewes that we obtained from Santa Paula.  I have also included a couple photos of gloves knitted, or being knitted, from Santa Cruz Island sheep wool.