Last week, I shared with you the pictures from shearing day. Today, I'd like to show you what happens to the wool after it's off the sheep.
First, the fleece is "skirted." This means it is laid out flat, and all the nasty, dirty bits are removed. Sheep live in barns, and they get a lot of VM (vegetable matter), poop, and other gross things in their fleeces. The nicest wool comes from across their shoulder and backs; anything from the belly usually gets tossed.
Fleece laid out for skirting.
After that, the wool needs to be "scoured." This just means washed in soapy water. Depending on the type of fleece, this can be a straightforward process or something a bit more tricky. Some kinds of wool are very prone to felting - this is what happens when you accidentally put your cashmere sweater in the wash, and it comes out looking like it would fit your three-year-old nephew. Fine wools, like Rambouillet, Corriedale, and Merino, have to be washed very carefully, with a minimum of agitation, to prevent felting. My sheep are Babydoll Southdowns, and they have a "down" -type wool, which is springy and resilient (it has a lot of "loft," to use a woolly term) and can take a lot of abuse. Also, some wools have a lot of lanolin so need a longer wash time; my guys produce an average amount of lanolin, so it's fairly easy to wash out.
While some folks prefer to wash a whole fleece all at once in the bathtub, I like to wash a little at a time. I use very hot water and lots of soap; I prefer Dawn hypoallergenic dishwashing soap because it's good at getting rid of the grease. The fleece goes through two washes (the first sinkful of water gets very dirty very fast), then two rinses, then it's laid out to dry on either the laundry rack or outside on an old bedsheet.
After the wool dries, it needs to be picked and teased. "Picking" means separating the locks and removing any straw, hay, and other undesirables; "Teasing" means the picked locks are separated further and fluffed up. This is a very tedious process; it helps to have something good on television while you're doing it. Usually, about one third of the wool is weeded out at this point; what you are left with is a fluffy pile that reminds me of spindrift on the beach after a storm.
Picked and teased wool
Now the wool is ready to be carded - this means combed and straightened. This is done one of three ways: by a drum carder, which is mechanical and can card a lot of wool fairly quickly; by hand carders, which are big, flat, square combs with short metal teeth and long handles; or by wool combs, which have long, sharp teeth and are used primarily with long, fine wools like English Leicester. Because my wool is considered a "short" wool (the locks, or "staples" are about 2-3 inches long and have a nice crimp), I use hand carders.
First, one carder is "dressed" - that is, I put a clump of wool on it (the metal teeth grab it). Then the other carder is pulled across the wool several times, straightening out the locks and untangling any tangles. This is done as many times as it takes to get the wool looking like the person carding it wants it to.
Dressed carder Carding in process
Once the wool is satisfactorily combed and fluffy, it is then removed from the carder and rolled. Rolled longways, it is a rolag; rolled along the short side, it is a batt. Technically, roving is a batt that has been elongated by hand-pulling in order to facilitate spinning, but the term tends to be used for all carded, rolled wool.
A basket of carded, rolled wool
The wool is now ready for dyeing, needle-felting, or spinning. It is a labor-intensive process, which is why artisan fibers are so expensive. My wool, as I said, is very light and springy; the wool in the basket above only weighs one ounce combined (this would fit into a quart-sized ziploc bag). Other wools are heavier, but the process remains the same.
A good book about different types of wool and how they are used is In Sheep's Clothing: A Handspinner's Guide by Nola Fournier and Jane Fournier (Interweave Press, 1995).