Washing fleece

Several people have asked me about how I scour my fleece. The truth is: I don’t. I do soak it, though. In this post of washing fleece I will dive deep into the washtub in search of clean fleece.

Scouring or soaking?

First of all, let’s get the terminology straight. I wash my fleece by soaking it. Usually in cold water from the tap, but preferably from the rain barrel. Scouring is a word that occurs a lot. In Swedish we only use the word for washing, so I was a bit unsure of what scouring actually means in a wool context. I asked in a spinning forum about people’s definition of scouring and it seems like scouring involves thorough cleaning, with a detergent of some sort. Someone also reminded me that the word also exists in Swedish: Skura, which means to thoroughly clean the floor with soap and water. The Encyclopedia of handspinning defines scouring as:

“The removal from fleece, cotton or other textile material of dirt, grease, suint, pectins etc. by thorough washing, to leave in it a clean and grease-free state ready for dyeing or spinning”.

Encyclopedia of handspinning by Mabel Ross

Similarly, The spinner’s encyclopedia states that scouring

” [r]emoves dirt and grease from a fleece by washing.”

The spinner’s encyclopedia by Enid Anderson

To scour thus means to remove all that isn’t the textile or fiber itself. That is not what I usually do.

Washing fleece by soaking

I wash my fleece to get the dirt out, and some lanolin. I want to keep enough lanolin to make the spinning smoother. Wool with no lanolin left is not a pleasure to spin for me.

I don’t use any detergent when I wash fleece from Swedish breeds. Swedish breeds are usually quite low in lanolin and after a cold water soak there is usually just the right amount of lanolin left for a smooth and pleasurable spin.

Cold water soak

I try to wash my fleece as soon as I can after having brought it home. I don’t want to attract moths or other wool–hostile creatures with the raw fleece.

Raw fleece with greasy and almost solidified tips.
Raw fleece with greasy and almost solidified tips. Norwegian NKS fleece.

When it is warm enough outdoors I just soak the fleece in cold water overnight. It can even stay longer than that, it can take care of itself. After that I rinse the fleece in cold water at least three times. Dirt out, lanolin in, just the way I want it.

I use the soak water and the rinsing waters as fertilization in the garden.

A person sinking a watering pot in a tub full of water.
I use the soaking water as fertilization in the garden. These are locks from a Dalapäls sheep.

Some breeds do require a detergent to get enough lanolin out, even for me. Merino is a breed with a lot of lanolin. The newest breed in Sweden, the Jämtland sheep, has some Merino in it and I usually use a detergent when I wash Jämtland. Sometimes also Shetland.

Warm water soak

If I get a fleece in the winter when it is too cold to soak outdoors I soak it in warm water indoors. I still don’t use any detergent. With a warm water soak, I leave the fleece in the water for just 15–20 minutes, not longer. When the temperature changes, which it will when I leave the fleece in the warm water soak for too long, the dirt can go back to the wool and create a waxy surface.

What is suint?

Raw fleece has a lot of dirt in it, plus suint and lanolin. Suint is the sheep’s sweat. It is composed of potassium salts and soapy organic acids that are soluble in cold water. It thus acts as a cleanser of the wool grease, the lanolin. In trying to understand this, the encyclopedia of handspinning comes to my rescue again:

“While the natural grease assists spinning, the suint attracts dirt and interferes with drafting. When fleece is soaked in cold or tepid water the suint dissolves in the bath and acts as a cleansing agent for the wool.”

Encyclopedia of handspinning by Mabel Ross
A tub of really dirty water and wool fleece.
You can see the suint as the soapy bubbles in the water.

This means that a washing method that dissolves the suint cleans the wool. The lanolin stays while the dirt is dissolved in the water. I get just what I want – a clean fleece with the lanolin still in it to assist the spinning process.

The fermented suint method

If I know I am going to wash several fleeces I make a soaking party of it – I use the fermented suint method.

A person pushing wool into a tub full of dirty water.
I soak my dirty Dalapäls fleece in really dirty water to get it wonderfully clean.

This means that I take advantage of the accumulated suint – the natural soap in the fleece – from several fleeces. I do this outdoors in the warm part of the year – this is not something you want to do indoors.

A fleece soaking in dirty water.
It is hard to imagine that this brew cleans the fleece, but it actually does!

This is how I wash fleece with the fermented suint method:

  • I fill a tub with either rain water or water from the hose. After filling the tub I soak the first fleece in the water. Ideally, the first fleece should be a really dirty one to bring as much suint and gunk as possible. I leave it for a week. I make sure I put a lid on the tub. This brew does not smell like raspberry pie.
  • After a week I fill a new tub with rinsing water, same temperature as the greasy water. I pick up the fleece from the suint water, using rubber gloves. This does still not smell like raspberry pie. I leave the fleece in the rinsing water for a while and rinse with another two waters. The third water should be reasonably transparent. I spin cycle the wool and let it dry outdoors on a grid. I use the rinsing waters as fertilizers in the garden.
  • After I have removed the first fleece from the greasy soak, I soak another fleece in it and leave it for a few days. Same rinsing procedure. I keep doing this until I’m out of fleeces. I now have a suint bath that is on its fifth fleece. The water is really gunky and smelly, but it gets the wool magically clean and my precious lanolin stays in the wool, just where I want it.
  • When I have no more fleeces to clean I use the gunky suint water as a fertilizer in the garden. This is a very potent fertilizer, though. I make sure I dilute the liquid to avoid overfeeding my plants.

When the fleece is dry I have a wonderfully clean wool with just enough lanolin for a smooth spin.

Two wool staples. The left white and clean, the right yellow-ish with a greasy tip.
A comparison between a raw staple and a staple washed with the fermented suint method. The right staple is visibly dirtier and has really greasy tips while the left staple is white and clean. The staples are from the same NKS fleece as the raw fleece above.

The NKS fleece that I started the fermented suint bath with had really greasy and somewhat solidified tips. After the washing process the tips were soft and clean.

After I have spun the yarn I wash it with a detergent, usually an organic perfume-free shampoo. That takes most of the lanolin away and makes it ready for whatever textile technique I want to use it for.

White wool.
Fleece washed with the fermented suint method. The wool is clean, including the once solidified tips. This is the same NKS fleece as the raw fleece above.

A word on vegetable matter

After washing – any kind of washing – the wool is clean. However, any vegetable matter that was in the fleece prior to washing will still be there after. A lot of it can fall out of the wool during the preparation of the wool (expecially combing), and some in spinning and plying. But when we look at a fleece we need to consider the amount of vegetable matter before we buy it. If it looks like a lot: Leave it. The will always be another fleece. No cleaning method will get the vegetable matter out. Removing vegetable matter is a purely mechanical process done by you. And my guess is there are other ways you want to spend your time with a fleece than to dissect it looking for twigs, seeds and pines.

I found a chestnut in my very first fleece.

Happy spinning!

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