So, you need to wash some alpaca fleece. Like washing anything else, you just need soap and water, right? Well, yes! And no. Not all detergents are created equal.
Soaps and Detergents. They are common household chemicals that we tend to take for granted. But what are they? If you've ever seen salad dressing, you know that oil and water don't mix. Soap is an amazing little collection of charged fatty acids that form micelles, which can interact with both oils/dirt AND water, so the oils and dirt end up washed away.
Soap can be made simply by hydrolizing fatty acid esters (like beef tallow) using a strong base (like lye). The process is known as saponification. Many detergents today contain the cleaning agent sodium lauryl sulfate, which is synthesized from lauryl alcohol derived from coconut or palm kernel oils. I'll spare you the history of soap in this post, but it is fascinating. You can read a fun synopsis here.
Keep in mind that animal fleece is hair. If you look at the ingredients of your shampoo (but DON'T use your hair shampoo to clean your fleece), you will see a lot more there than just a cleaning agent. There are a whole bunch of other ingredients for balancing pH, managing frizz, or whatever else your brand claims to do. Why? Because you want soft, silky, shiny hair (or at least the shampoo manufacturers want you to think you do). Other detergent formulations have been made for skin. And for laundry. And for dish washing. They all use surfactants, but other ingredients have been added depending on their specific use.
Technically, you don't need to wash alpaca fleece before processing and spinning (and some people prefer this approach). However, alpacas love their dust baths, so if you do decide to wash first, I recommend that you use a detergent that is specifically made for animal fibers.
Many people use Dawn dish detergent to clean fleece. I've used dish soap to clean sheep wool, but it's not my first choice for alpaca. Unlike sheep's wool, alpaca does not contain lanolin, so alpaca fleece doesn't require a whole lot of detergent to get clean. In terms of the expense, I think spending a little more money on a fiber wash for alpaca fleece is worth it because (1) you won't need to use very much and (2) it results in a nicer end product (at least in my opinion), which is why you've spent that extra money on the alpaca in the first place. Would you wash your hair with Dawn? Neither would I.
There are lots of "wool washes" out there (and I'm not naming names because I'm not promoting any particular brand). They cost more than dish soap, but they are also formulated to clean and condition your fiber properly without leaving residues behind that could gum up your processing equipment. (Regular hair shampoos have conditioners that can gum up equipment, which is why they should NOT be used.) If you ask any professional alpaca processing mill what kind of detergent they use, I'll bet it's some kind of fiber wash.
Keep in mind that whatever detergent you decide to use will work more efficiently (i.e. you don't need to use as much) in soft water. Rain water is ideal. But, if you don't live in a place that gets 85 inches of rain per year like we do, you may want to add a softening agent if you have hard water. What is a softening agent and how does it work? Hmmm. I think I have my topic for my next post...
Ciao for now,