"When it rains, sheep become self-cleaning."

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.

The vegetable matter is another issue altogether which will require lots of picking and combing in the future.

At the moment I'm expanding my drying racks to keep pace with the cleaning.


Nick James said...

Hi Erin, this is very naive of me. What do you do with the woool after you have cleaned it?

Erin Curry said...

Hey Nick,
Your question is an excellent one, and it's one I have been pondering for sometime now. I know I am going to felt with it, but I haven't decided what exactly. I figured when this part was finished I'd work on the next step.

The spring before last, I received probably 30 fleeces within just a few weeks of each other (now I'm up to 50 or so). It's a decent amount of wool which means if I'm patient and just amass and wash I will probably be able to make something fairly large at the end (that may mean making one or two large things or a lots of small things that go together). When I first took on the job I decided not to torture myself by putting a rigid plan in place and just let it flow while I worked on my other projects. I did not consistently work on washing wool the whole time, but would start and stop as needed.

The exciting thing about this improvement is that I can finally see an end in sight and start planning. I think I have about 14 more loads of wool which *should* take just under 2 months to wash and dry. Some will need to be scoured and everything needs to be picked and combed. So that's another chunk of time. And then I get to play and experiment to see what happens.

Kruse said...

Thank you for that post! I usually wash my fleeces with lots of water changes, so it seems that your way will save on water and also really cut down on the risk of early felting.
If I am spinning then I tend to spin with the lanolin on, but only if I have got a very twig-free fleece!
I am very envious that you have managed to get hold of so many fleeces. Can't wait to see what wonders you make with them...

diva in training said...

I was going to ask Nick's question, but as you have already answered it, I will say, good luck!


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