Once I had sorted the fleeces as best I could, it was time to get on with the really mucky job: scouring. Scouring means removing the dirt and grease present in the raw fleeces through thorough washing. This leaves the fleeces in a clean(ish), grease free state reading for spinning and dying. I'll wash them again once I've spun and plyed some yarn into skeins.
Washing the fleece before spinning is not entirely necessary. Apparently, it is possibly easier and more enjoyable to spin yarn "in the grease". Working with the fleece in the first few weeks after a sheep has been shorn means it is easier to slide and draft the fibres onto the wheel because the natural lanolin produced by the sheep. The lanolin can also be soothing on the hands.
I was initially quite keen to give this method a go, but the fleeces I brought home are already a couple of months old. The brown fleece seemed even older as the suint seemed to have dried and had started to make the locks a little tough. I also felt compelled to wash the fleeces in a spirit of neighbourliness. We had been storing the fleeces on the balcony and the sheep smell (which doesn't actually bother us) seemed to become particularly pungent on both damp and hot days. We didn't want our neighbour to complain we had a farmyard on our balcony, so we decided to wash them.
After much research and even more deliberation, we decided to try a slightly controversial method of scouring - in the washing machine. We soaked the worst of the soiled fleece overnight in a bowl and then the next day bundled it up into a big net sack I had made for the occasion and into the washing machine. We washed it on a wool wash, (40° to dissolve the grease) with minimal spinning and plenty of washing-up liquid. I was quite nervous that at the best I'd end up with a felted fleece and at the worst, I'd ruin our washing machine.
But my fears weren't necessary and the fleeces came out clean(er), if a little tangled up.
It took a further good five days of very warm weather and drying out on the balcony for the fleeces to dry properly and for all trace of sheepy scent to dissipate. But I'm very pleased with the results of our first endeavours and can't wait to get onto the next stage of the fibre preparation: carding.