Washing the Fleece
Sheep almost always live in the open air, and even the more primitive breeds no longer shed their wool at the end of the winter. This means that they get dirty - often VERY dirty - dusty, muddy and sweaty with lots of entangled bits and pieces. It must be such a relief to dash away from the shearer, free of all that weight, smell and heat. Rugs and carpets, however, be they modern or antique, smooth or shaggy, are expected to be pretty or smart colours and to lack that distinctive aroma that shouts 'sheep!'
To bridge the gap, the first process towards your rug is scouring, which means washing and rinsing the wool to remove most of the impurities, from sweat to bits of twig. In some breeds (the very sweaty ones) this can reduce the weight of the fleece by up to 50%, but the wool usually used for Designerug rugs and carpets loses only about 25 - 30% of weight in this process - so you know that your shaggy rug may have come from a shaggy sheep, but at least it hasn't come from a very smelly one!
Scouring, in the case of wool, means gently washing in a detergent mixture, then rinsing until it is free of dirt and detergent both. The wool is usually passed through a series of long, narrow tanks on a belt. Each tank is equipped with a set of gently moving paddles to keep the water moving without tangling the wool. The first tank contains the cleaning mixture, which rapidly becomes extremely dirty. After that, it is pressed through rollers to remove as much water as is possible without turning the whole thing into felt. Then the belt moves it along, in and out of rinsing baths, each rinse being followed by a further gentle pressing. By the fifth bath the cleaning materials have been washed out and the wool looks bright and clean, and shows a surprising range of shades, from palest cream to beige. Of course, there are also black sheep, but their wool is separated out before the scouring. The final process is drying and fluffing, which happens as the belt moves through an oven and the wool is dried with jets of very warm air. Now it is ready for the next stage - the spinning.
Spinning the Wool
Blending. - Ideally, all the spun wool will be a standard colour so the dyer will be able to judge quickly how to produce that puce you chose for your designer rug pattern. Unfortunately the sheep are not too interested in that part of the job, and their coats vary over a surprising range, according to age, diet and specialised breeding.
The Blender is the man who sorts that problem out, judging by sight which bales of washed wool have to be dumped into the big blending bin (like an enormous mixing bowl, with paddles) to give an even-coloured yarn at the end. In the blending bin the wool is tossed and stirred to mix up all the different bales of wool, but carefully enough to avoid tangling them. This makes sure that there won't be darker or lighter lengths in the final yarn. At the same time, a special oil is added to the wool to avoid what could be a dangerous build-up of static electricity as thee wool is processed (most of this oil comes off onto the machines themselves, and the rest is removed in the dyeing process). The man who works as a blender has a very dusty job, although the wool has been washed, and a mask is a necessary part of his equipment.