From start to finish: Part 4 – Washing

Washing. It sounds straightforward, right? Well it’s not. This step is one of the easiest to get wrong, and the penalty for messing up is turning all your fiber into a big felted knot, completely ruining it (it’s like putting your favorite wool sweater into the wash on high, it shrinks and deforms). It is, however, probably the only step that doesn’t leave you dusty. Like all of these fiber processing steps you need a few specialized tools to do the job properly. In this case, you might have everything you need under the sink.

If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this: never agitate or shock alpaca fiber. Avoid very hot or cold water, or transitions between them. Use simple organic dish soap, not laundry detergent. And never, never, never agitate the wash water. These rules apply to the finished product as much as they do to the raw fiber.

Wet fiber looks kind of like brains.

Like I mentioned in our last start to finish post, Mom does this step now, so I’m using ‘we’ very loosely. Everything we do during washing is done deliberately to create less friction or agitation, because that causes the hairs of the fiber to tangle and felt. First, we take a small amount of picked fiber, usually around 5 handfuls, and put it into one of those mesh lingerie bags you use to wash your delicates.

We don’t wad it all up into a ball, we carefully make a thin layer of it, so the mesh bag lays flat with the fiber sandwiched in it.

In the meantime, we start filling the utility sink with lukewarm water. We add soap after the tub it has filled with a 3 inches of water, and after we turn off the water. This creates less bubbles, which can cause felting.

Once the soapy water is ready, we lay the bag of fiber across the surface of the water and press it slowly into the tub.

We do NOT add any water once the fiber is in the tub, because that would cause felting. It takes awhile for the fiber to actually saturate, which is what makes it such a great outdoor material, but also makes washing difficult. We now very gently begin to, for lack of another word, massage the fiber with our fingers. Our goal is to carefully disturb the dust and other vegetable matter, without matting the fiber. I usually allow the fiber to soak a bit. Then we remove it from the tub, and drain the water. The water is generally murky at this point.

While the tub is filing again we wring the water out of the fiber, NOT by twisting it, but by rolling it into an old towel and dancing around on top of the towel. Singing helps. At this point the dog is usually looking at me very worriedly, as if I’ve finally lost my marbles. Then, we (literally this time) rinse and repeat. We do soapy washes until the water is fairly clean, 2 or 3 times depending on the alpaca (Brittany is a dirty girl).

See? On the second rinse, the water is much cleaner.

Then we do one rinse with no soap, another with a bit of conditioner, the last with 2 tablespoons of vinegar. The conditioner makes the fiber extra soft, which as the spinner, I’ve decided is entirely for my benefit 🙂 . The vinegar neutralizes the soap, which is basic.

Mom lays the fiber on top of a window screen, which is over the bath tub, to help it dry, and then it’s ready to card!

Washing enough fiber to fill our drum carder once, to create a good-sized batt, can easily take an entire afternoon, depending on how dirty it was at the start.

The rest of the series:
From start to finish: Step 3 – Picking
From start to finish: Step 2 – Skirting
From start to finish: Step 1 – Shearing

About cliffhousealpacas

Once upon a time, my dad drove by some funny looking animals standing on little dirt hills in a field. Thus, the dream of an alpaca ranch was born. Now, we are embarking on a grand adventure of raising alpacas and becoming fiber artists.
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5 Responses to From start to finish: Part 4 – Washing

  1. audreyln says:

    What does wet alpaca smell like?
    I’ve recently been doing some (intentional) felting of my own with some wool. Wet sheep has a funk to it!

  2. Wet alpaca smells kind of like popcorn, to me anyway. I can’t think of another way to describe it. It’s not bad, or manure-y. It smells kind of like the grasslands after a rain.

    Maybe the funk comes from the lanolin in the sheep wool? I haven’t worked too closely with sheep wool, but lanolin is an oil that they have in their wool. Alpaca wool has practically no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic (and maybe less smelly?).

  3. Pingback: Post 101 | Cliff House Alpacas

  4. dorothy garland says:

    I made a mistake on my precious alpaca sweater. Washed it in cold water in machine with woolite. It shrank. What can I do to repair it, get it back to right size and soft? Please help me.

    • I’m sorry, there’s no way to undo felting. Once a garment has shrunk, there’s no un-shrinking it. The best you can do is reuse the material for something else, throw pillow cover, maybe?

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