More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Wool
We Sell Wool!
We enjoy needle felting so much that we decided to go straight to the source for our needle felting wool: the sheep! Brian and I seek out local shepherds to purchase raw fleeces, right off the sheep. Then we process the fleeces ourselves, a multi-step procedure involving skirting, washing, picking, dyeing and carding of the wool. Read more about this process below. We sell our wool and other needle felting supplies on Etsy. Drop by DraigAthar Designs any time to see what we have to offer!
Wool For Needle Felting
Not all wool is created equal, and not all of it is suitable for needle felting. There are many different breeds of sheep, each with different wool characteristics. Most of the wool available to crafters is sold with spinners in mind; the breeds and preparation of wool most commonly seen are those that are good for making yarn for knitting or weaving. Fine wool like Merino is sold as roving, sliver, or tops. The loose ropes of fibers all lay in generally the same direction, for ease of spinning.
Needle felters benefit from wool carded into batts, where the fibers are not so neatly arranged. Batts tend to felt up more quickly with needles than roving does. Also, the breeds of wool spinners love are not always the breeds that needle felters love. While super fine fibers like Merino may give you a nice soft felted surface, they can take a long time to felt with a needle. Other breeds commonly available (like Corriedale) tend to leave a lot of stray fibers sticking out all over a felted surface, giving your work a 'halo' effect. It's true that personal preferences vary greatly when it comes to selecting fibers for needle felting, but I know what I'm after: fiber that needle felts quickly and gives me a clean felted surface. After trying many different breeds of wool, I've found that my own personal favorites are breeds of sheep not necessarily raised for their wool! Meat breeds like Dorset, Suffolk, Hampshire, Texel and many others have great wool for needle felting. The fibers tend to be short to medium length, crimpy and somewhat coarser. They felt up solid but springy and often leave little halo.
The problem is that needle felting is a relatively young art form, and has gained in popularity in recent years. Suppliers that have long sold fibers to spinners have begun to label their wool as "Also Great For Needle Felting!" whether it really is or not. I'm here to tell you that there are many other options out there for needle felters that really ARE great for you, and I encourage you to broaden your fiber horizons.
Our Story and Our Wool
Brian and I started selling wool on Etsy in 2007. We bought fleeces from wool festivals and made contacts with breeders in Connecticut, where we lived at the time. We weren't selling high volume; we washed a fleece a piece at a time in the bathtub, dyeing it in the kitchen in a big soup pot and carding it with a hand-crank drum carder. We labeled each fleece by breed when we sold it and we test-felted samples of it so that we could report how well it felted up in our item descriptions. We tried to give people as much information as possible, and we dyed in a wide variety of colors often not found elsewhere. Most of all, we had fun.
Then, in 2010, we bought a house in the New Hampshire countryside. The house has a septic system. Processing wool the traditional way (with copious hot water and detergent) creates a lot of lanolin-laden waste water, which we were told is very bad for residential sized septic systems. Not wishing to kill our plumbing, we decided in the end to stop processing wool for sale.
In the depths of a long New Hampshire winter, I stumbled across an article on the internet about suint fermentation. It's a very old method of cleaning raw fleece that involves very little water, no heat, and no detergent at all. You re-use the wash water over and over again, and when you're finally done you can dump it into a compost pile. Bingo! No need to kill the septic system! It sounded too good to be true, but in the spring I gave it a try. It works! We were back in business! It's taken us a little while to get things all set up again, but we're now back to selling wool on Etsy that is great for needle felters.
How We Process Wool
This is the part where you shake your head and call us crazy. Suint fermentation is not for the faint of heart! But if you're interested to learn about it, read on.
We buy raw fleeces from folks who raise sheep. Most of our fleeces come from small farms around New England. We keep track of each fleece individually by breed, and proccess each one separately. Sometimes we even get to meet the sheep, like the Shetlands our neighbors raise. We skirt the fleeces heavily and line them up in the barn for processing.
Suint fermentation is simple but stinky. All you do is collect a bunch of rainwater in a big tub, dunk a raw fleece in it, and walk away. The suint (sheep sweat) on the wool dissolves in the water and facilitates the ferment that removes the lanolin from the wool. You can tell you've got a good ferment going when it smells something like a cross between a sheep and a sewer, so we do all of our fermenting outdoors. I consider the smell the trade-off. Instead of using lots of water (and energy to heat the water) for washing, we use a much smaller amount of water and no energy (no need to heat it). After a few days in the ferment you pull the wool out and rinse it in cold water, then let it dry in the sun. Miraculously, the smell disappears. Then it moves on to picking.
Our wool picker is a scary looking device that teases open the wool locks and helps any remaining dirt or little bits of hay to fall out of the wool before dyeing. It's a breeze to use, but you definitely have to pay attention at all times. Those metal points are sharp!
There's no getting around energy usage for wool dyeing. You have to heat the wool in a dye bath to get the dye to permanently bond with the fibers. We haven't evolved too far away from a soup pot on the kitchen stove. Now we vat dye our wool in crab boiling pots outside on a propane stove. We dye in small lots, one or two pounds at a time. This allows us to have a wider variety of colors available at any given time. We're currently using traditional acid wool dyes, but I'm in the process of exploring biodegradable dye options and solar dyeing methods. More to come on that soon!
Dyed wool dries on racks back in the barn and then gets carded into batts on our trusty old hand-crank drum carder. I've thought about upgrading us to a slightly larger carder with an electric motor, but then we wouldn't get as much exercise while processing wool!
There you have it, start to finish, now you can go out and try all of this yourself! Or you could just visit our shop and buy some wool, leaving the stinky part to us.
As you can imagine, our method of processing wool is limited by the seasons. The suint ferment would simply freeze solid outdoors here in the winter. As a result, our supply of breeds and colors of wool fluctuates quite a bit. We have a mailing list we send occasional notices to when we have new wool available to keep customers up to date with our offerings. Choose 'Contact' from the navigation bar at the top of the page to drop me a note saying you'd like to be on the wool mailing list. We'll keep you posted!