Can You Handspin Raw Wool?
I’m sure you have seen a few sites advertising raw fleeces or unwashed wool for sale. Maybe some of these fleeces have even caught your eye, which is certainly the case for me!
But then you wonder, can you spin the raw wool, as is, or are you going to be taking on a lot of extra work when you discover you have to wash that fleece when you get it home? Can you spin raw wool, or not?
You can use raw or unwashed wool for handspinning, as long as you are comfortable working with the level of lanolin in the wool, the fleece is relatively free of contaminants and the fibers will separate out and be easily spinnable with little to no carding or combing.
Should You Buy A Raw Fleece? goes over the pros and cons of working with and entire raw wool fleece.
Can you spin raw wool?
You can spin raw wool, this is called spinning “in the grease”. In my experience, medium wools of 3 inches or more in staple length are good candidates for spinning raw.
Fine wools are generally washed before spinning since they have shorter staple length than most folks are comfortable using uncarded. While you can card grease wool, most people wash then card to keep the cards clean.
The other catch with fine wools is if you want to spin woolen, you’ll need to card, which, once again, means washing the fleece first.
How To Prepare Raw Wool For Spinning gives you more detail on getting your fleece ready to spin in the grease.
Long wools can be used raw if you can tease out the end of the lock. If not you’ll want to comb them after washing for the same reasons as with fine wool, you want to keep your equipment clean.
Spinning raw wool is actually my preferred way to spin, mainly because I am usually using fleeces from our own sheep rather than prepared roving or washed fleeces that I ordered or bought.
Pros of spinning raw wool:
- No need to wash the fleece
- No time spent carding
- Will not accidentally felt the fleece by incorrect or too harsh of scouring
Cons of spinning raw wool:
- Not all fleeces are good candidates for spinning raw
- Some folks do not like spinning “greasy” wool
- Limited fiber prep options
- You do not get the benefit of fiber prep (like carding removing VM)
How to know if you can spin raw wool or need to wash it
When it comes down to it, you can work with any fleece any way that you want to. However, certain things are harder to work with or around than others. Here are the things I look for when considering using a fleece raw.
Acceptable (to me) raw fleeces have:
- low levels of lanolin
- fiber locks that will separate out easily with my fingers
- low to no contamination like VM
I have purchased a few clean and low grease fleeces, like a Lincoln lamb fleece and some Blue Faced Leicester that spun beautifully as is, no need to further prep them.
A few Shetland fleeces I worked with raw as well.
Things would make me consider washing the wool:
- fibers that need carding to be spinnable, usually short staple length
- overly dirty
- tangled/matted ends of wool locks
- overly greasy wool
The most common problem that I run into is short staple length or matted up ends of the wool.
For example, we have is a Finn cross ewe that I love the color of her wool but the ends are a challenge to work with unwashed and the staple length is barely long enough for me to spin well.
I have found that for this fleece, more of a middle ground approach works best for me, I do a suint soak then flick card the wool when it’s dry. This makes the ends loosen up enough to work well for me.
Occasionally, I have a fleece from our sheep that is higher grease.
I have a white one right now that has nice length and shine but is a bit too greasy for me to like working with it.
I prefer to try fleeces raw first, then if they don’t work well for me I’ll do a suint soak and try spinning. If that still doesn’t do it, now I move to an actual wash.
Are you spinning woolen or worsted?
Another reason spinning raw wool works for me is that I tend to spin worsted, this means that the fibers running through the yarn I make are basically all lined up in the yarn from end to end.
Worsted spun yarn has less poof.
If you want to spin woolen, a poofy yarn that traps air and keeps you warmer, then you’ll need to card the wool to arrange the fibers in more of a cyclone, so the fibers are going in all different directions, this requires carding.
To be clear, you can spin any way that you want to, it’s more about if the yarn you are making will do the job you want it to.
For instance, if you are making a patterned stitch with the yarn, like an Aran sweater, you would want worsted spun yarn, since it would show the stitch definition better than a woolen spun yarn.
On the other hand, if you are making hats or mittens, you’ll probably be using woolen, since the slightly fluffier yarn will hold more air, so it is more insulating and keeps you warmer.
You’ll want a longer stapled wool to spin raw
You will want a longer stapled wool to spin raw, this is just so that you have an easier time working with the wool as it goes into the wheel.
I just measured one of my fleeces and it is 3 inches. This is about as short as I can go and still be able to comfortably spin.
Any shorter and I am always loosing the yarn up into the wheel when I draw the fiber out too far and it breaks.
Three inches is just what works for me, you’ll have to experiment around with some different fibers and see what you like and where the line of “too short” is for you.
This is all really circling back to spinning without carding, that’s why the staple length is an issue.
If you are carding the wool shorter staple length won’t trip you up, but you’ll also be using washed wool, since you carded it!
There are 3 reasons not to spin raw wool
Not all fleeces are good candidates for spinning in the grease. Here are some of the reasons I can think of that would make spinning raw wool not a great idea for you:
- You do not want to deal with all that grease. Don’t! Spinning is supposed to be fun, not drudgery. If spinning grease wool bothers you, wash the fleece!
- You want to card the wool and only have one set of carders. Washing the wool is a good idea here, otherwise the raw wool will get grease all over your handcards, which will get on any clean wool you card later. If you want to card the wool, wash it first or get another set of cards and use them for raw wool only.
- The grease in the wool is hard to work with. This may sound crazy, but older fleeces and sometimes the diet of the sheep can make the grease more difficult to work with. It’s almost like the grease is a bit stiff. The obvious answer here is to wash the fleece rather than spinning it raw.
I’m sure there are more reasons to not spin raw wool.
The only thing that really matters is that you are happy with spinning the unwashed fleece you have and you like the resulting yarn.
If so, carry on. If not, change something in your spinning technique or wool prep and see what that will change in the resulting yarn.
Classic Carder has a nice article on Preparing Fleece, going over suint soaking and a simple way to wash fleeces.