Processing Our Fiber

Our Fiber

We sell much of our Santa Cruz Island wool as “raw” fleeces or parts of 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 it into pin-drafted roving. We still have a little of this roving for sale – email me at if you are interested. Pin-drafted roving is very easy to spin and the fiber processed this way is very clean. People also use it for felting and other crafts.

Wool and llama fiber we keep and process ourselves for use here or to offer as a value-added product, must first be washed or “scoured". Like many fine fleeces, Santa Cruz Island wool tends have a high grease content. Proper scouring of this wool 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. The following paragraphs here describe our processing from fleece to ready-to-spin.

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 obtained an old washing machine that doesn't do anything but hold water and spin - no agitation. Its capacity is about 22 gallons. I fill it with hot water - about 110 to 120 degrees F - and then put the fiber in, wearing protective gloves of course. I take care to not pack the fiber in. The fiber needs to move around so the water can penetrate. I let it soak for 5 minutes or so. Notice this first step is a presoak, no soap or detergent. After about 5 minutes, I put the washer on "spin." I have a large diameter hose connected to the drain tube of the washing machine, and try to direct the “used” water onto a site near some plants (rosemary, mainly, in this part of the yard) – I can’t stand the thought of wasting water if waste is avoidable. If it's a plant you like, do NOT put the hot water directly on the plant.

2. The next step is the actual washing step, with detergent. There are many options for detergent on the market. I don't mean to endorse any particular brand. I've used dishwashing detergent - Dawn, Ajax Super Degreaser - and a couple products designed for scouring wool. Kookaburra Scour works well, but Ajax seems to cut grease better (on the Santa Cruz Island fleeces, see below). We have very hard water with high alkaline content (hardness and alkalinity remain hard even after the water has gone through our water softener!), and in this part of California, surface water is nearly nonexistent and groundwater is a precious commodity. One thing I like about the Kookaburra Scour is it rinses out more easily than the other products I've tried. Anyway, I remove the spun but still wet fiber, set it aside, fill the tub on the washing machine with hot water, add the detergent (1 ounce per pound of fiber, dry weight), mix it slightly, and add the fiber, gently swooshing it. You don't need or want bubbles. Then let it soak for 5 to 7 minutes, then spin the excess soapy water out.

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

4. Rinse: As the wash step but, obviously, without the detergent. Usually I use one or two rinse steps, each 5 to 7 minutes, with hot water (the last rinse needn't be as hot as the previous steps), and spinning the excess water out at the end of each step.

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, spread the fiber out as much as possible to dry. We made simple 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. It can be stored indefinitely once its washed and dried.

10. 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. The block slides on two runners (one on each side) in the picker. 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 a fair amount of work but fun and much faster than picking by hand.

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 or fibers. (Lately I've been experimenting with blending llama fiber with angora rabbit fiber.) 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:

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, 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 need to be scoured before I run them through our sample card (more about that later). 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 detergent can penetrate into the fleece.

Expert spinner Linda Gamble experimented with some Santa Cruz Island (SCI) wool I had sent her, and she recommends spinning it in the grease, from the locks. I've tried this and it works well. You have to wash/scour the yarn anyway, right, to set the twist. I process so much SCI wool - it hit me lately that I started working with this wool in 2010! - that I card my (clean) fleeces by machine, simply I don't have time to card or comb by hand. Anyway, try spinning it from the locks either before or after scouring.

I use our good old washing machine described above, and get the water temperature to about 110 to 120 degrees F. These fibers are fine, and, especially the brown fleeces, rather delicate, that it is good to treat the wool carefully and not over-scour; it becomes brittle and breaks easily. (WHY are the brown fleeces more delicate than the white? I have a theory, but that must wait for another time).

I use our good old washing machine (I should name it), and do a presoak in the hot water. I put in the wool, loosened by hand, fill the machine tub with water. I use a hose hooked up to a hot water outlet and while the tub is filling, I douse the wool. The purpose of the loosening and dousing is to get the water to thoroughly penetrate the wool. About one gallon of water per ounce of wool works for me, maybe get by with a little more wool per gallon if the fleece seems not too dirty or greasy. The presoak should be 5 to 7 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 detergent, in the next step) to do its job. Wearing gloves, I shoosh the wool in its hot water bath.

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, the photo was taken some time ago. 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). By the way I always wear elbow length gloves when working with hot water and hot wool. At the end of the presoak, I use the high speed spin cycle to spin out most of the dirty water. I've read that for small amounts of wool, a salad spinner works well.

2. Wash step: I fill the washing machine tub with hot water as described above, and add the detergent, following the manufacturer’s directions. With Kookaburra Scour, I use about 3 ounces of detergent per pound (dry weight) of wool (this is higher than the recommended rate). If I'm using Adjax, I squeeze the detergent in while counting slowly to however many ounces of (dry) wool is in the tub. You don’t need or want bubbles, so I add the detergent AFTER the washing machine is full, and I gently swirl the water with my gloved hand to distribute the detergent. Put in the wet presoaked fiber and shoosh it around gently. I let it soak for 5 to 7 minutes.

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. The hope here is that the "grease" washes out with the remaining dirt.

3. With Ajax, I can get by with one wash, with Kookaburra I use two, with a little less detergent in the second wash if the wool is particularly greasy. The wool is spun between wash steps and after the second wash step.

4. Rinse steps: As the wash step but, obviously, without the detergent. While I fill the washing machine tub, I hose the wool in the tub. I find two rinse steps, each 5 to 7 minutes, works well for me. I rinse until the water is clear, spinning between rinse steps and after the final rinse.

5. 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 moist and warm) to do it. Be careful to not subject the wool/fiber to sudden temperature changes. SCI wool takes dyes very well, by the way. I've used Kool Aid, food coloring, and (as I much prefer) natural dyes.

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 simple 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. 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, if I have time (which is almost never), or by using the bench picker, adjusted so the spikes above and below barely overlap. Usually, I pick the SCI wool roughly by hand, and run it through the bench picker twice.

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). I'm also experimenting with blending the SCI wool with angora rabbit fiber. 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, stiff, sharp spikes that further pick the fiber. The chaff that survived washing and picking is removed during this step. The swift, workers, strippers, and doffer each have carding cloth which is a variation of 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 roll. Because these rolls are similar to rolags, I call them rolags. Some processing lines include roving makers or batt makers; we do not have these yet. Actually, spinning from rolags is my favorite kind of preparation now. Sometimes I pre-draft the fiber in a rolag into a roving, either drawing it through a diz or not, but mostly I spin from the rolag.

Our sample card is ancient, a genuine antique - our sample card is estimated at circa 1880 by Jim, who has more experience with antiques than I. 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 and blends.

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, my dear friend and weaving mentor Lupe, and (I think) Deborah Robson, use mini-combs to prepare their scoured and dried Santa Cruz Island wool for spinning. I have used mini-combs, and they work great, giving a wonderful prep, but I'm slow at combing so almost always, I machine-card.

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. This helps the shorter staple many of our sheep provide hold together to make a beautiful, soft, springy yarn.

Fear not the short staple!! After all, people around the world have been spinning cotton for eons. :)

Here are a couple 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, and also sell. My way is to spin Z and ply S. After plying, I wash the yarn in hot water with few drops of detergent (Ajax Super Degreaser for me). Then rinse thoroughly, avoiding drastic temperature changes. Then I hang the skein to dry without weighting it. The yarn "blooms", shortening by a little less than 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 the Paroskis when they lived in Santa Paula, California. I have also included a couple photos of gloves knitted, or being knitted, from Santa Cruz Island sheep wool. The pink in the gloves in the bottom photo was obtained in a cochineal exhaust bath.