Over the last year one of my major ongoing studio tasks been washing loads of raw wool one after the other in my bathtub. I've been scouring them which means soaking the wool in hot water and detergent for a time, pulling them out while the water is still hot, draining them and the tub and repeating til the water is clear and then giving a couple rinse soaks at the end for good measure. It's work that uses a lot of hot water and detergent, means the bathtub is constantly full of wool in various states of dirty and, most importantly, any other work I'm doing is constantly interrupted to tend to it.
Recently I stumbled across about the Fermented Suint Method which seemed like a promising method to make the process more efficient. The Fermented Suint method was developed in New Zealand and involves soaking dirty raw wool in rainwater for several days. This works because of the self cleaning properties of wool. Judith MacKenzie McCuin explains:
"In addition to the coating of lanolin that happens during the passage through the tube of the [hair] follicle, wool is coated with a substance called suint.
Secreted from a gland similar to a sweat gland, suint is applied just before the fiber exits the skin. Suint is liquid at room temperature and hardens as it moves up the shaft of the fiber, away from the sheep's body heat. Like soaps and detergents, which are made from either sodium or potassium salts, the chemical composition of suint is primarily potassium salts, making suint a natural detergent. Unlike lanolin, suint is water soluble. Like all other soaps and detergents, suint naturally attracts dirt and surrounds it, moving the dirt up the wool shaft by osmosis towards the tips of the fleece. When it rains, sheep become self-cleaning. The rain activates the soapy qualities of the suint in the tips of the fleece and washes away much of the dirt. " ("On Washing Wool" Spin-off magazine, Fall 2008)
She goes on to mention that pioneers would run the sheep through rivers or creeks before shearing to wash the wool.
This is the first batch of fleece, which has been sitting in water for five days and is ready to come out. Future fleeces only need two days in the same bath of water.
That film on the top means it's healthy.
That stink means it's happy.
That cover means my neighbors won't hate me.
I have six buckets going right now and am using tapwater instead of traditional rainwater, if these fleeces were more expensive/delicate I'd probably try rainwater.
Once rinsed and clean, the wool no longer smells sour. This process leaves some lanolin which I may decide to remove with my usual scouring method, but it will be much faster needing only one or two washes and rinses rather than several.