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!

You can follow me in several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • I run an online spinning school, welcome to join a course! You can also check out my course page for courses in Sweden.
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. The contributions from my patrons is an important way to cover the costs, time and energy I put into the videos and blog posts I create. Shooting and editing a 3 minute video takes about 5 hours. Writing a blog post around 3. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts, share images from behind the scenes and post lots of woolliness.
  • In all the social media I offer, you are more than welcome to contact me. Interacting with you helps me make better content. My private Facebook page, however, will remain private.
    If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!
Liked it? Take a second to support Josefin Waltin on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

32 Replies to “Washing fleece”

  1. Just at the right time – we undressed our sheep two weeks ago, and this was so helpful advice (as always). I would never have thought of putting another fleece into the first bathwater and that this actually helps cleaning the wool!

  2. This is really interesting. I have just washed a fleece after soaking it overnight and it was so much cleaner. I kept a sample of the fleece that was just soaked to compare it with the washed fleece to see which I prefer for spinning. I have yet to try the fully fermented method, but it looks amazing!

  3. A suggestion to your word on vegetable matter. Coincidentally, a friend had sent this Youtube link to me regarding how to clean a REALLY bad vegetable filled fleece. There is hope, & it only takes a little bit of time.
    “No Fleece Left Behind” https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjKscPzjvHiAhXkjlQKHWmnC6MQyCkwAHoECAkQBA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DzBNjh9Mo3g4&usg=AOvVaw1R3ANLT_Uqv4RDawx8G9Ms

      1. I agree, slow magic indeed! Your other suggestions on first soaking a fleece in cold water and then putting the dirty water on the garden is a great idea. 🌱🌱🌱

  4. Dear Josefin, so now I tried the fermented method over the summer with my five fleeces, and indeed, the wool comes out much cleaner (and softer!). Unfortunately, the “not raspberry pie smell” does not completely go away even after the last rinsing water stays clean. It’s not overpowering, but distinctly different than the normal smell of wool. Is it supposed to be that way and I have just get used to it? Thank you for your input!

    1. Yay for cleaner and softer fleeces! I agree, the smell stays after the last rinsing water, but in my experience it disappears when the fleece is dry. Does yours smell even after it has dried? I have a suint bath that I started some time in May I think. Still works wonderfully! I fill it up every new and then with a splash of new water just to keep the water level from sinking too much.

      1. The first one still smells quite fermented, but two other ones that were rained upon two times before I got around to pluck them from the drying fence smell just fine now. So I guess the first one needs to go back into a nice rainwater bath. After a long dry spell I had to resort to well water for the first one, which contains a lot of iron here and is very cold, so not the best choice for rinsing … Two more are fermenting right now and will be taken care of next weekend (I also used the first suint bath for all, just refilling with fresh water as needed), and then this year’s treasure is ready for processing and the suint bath water will be used for the garden 🙂 I’m so happy with the outcome – thank you so much for your always much cherished expertise!

          1. i don’t know if you will see this. this post is very old. i just this week finished cleaning my border leicester fleece this last week. i have never had my fleece look so beautiful after it was cleaned. i too did not like the fleece condition after it had been washed with soap, sometimes i did it twice. i had to put baby oil on it to spin it. it worked ok. it was recommended by an old irish guy. he said in the old days they would use urine. the one thing that bugs me a little is the smell when the fleece is dry after i have cleaned it your way. it doesn’t bother me but my husband coughs all the time when i have it out. and my sister complains. so i will try to spin it upstairs where noone will mind. i am sure when it is all spun up that i will clean it and it won’t smell.

  5. Hello. You mentioned diluting the suint water when watering plants. How much do you recommend diluting it by?

    1. I have no specific source or guide, but usually I pour about 2 deciliters of suint water into a 10 liter watering pot. When it comes to the rinsing waters I use them undiluted.

  6. This all makes sense; when summer comes around I will be very keen to try the fermented soaking method. I’m very interested in using the water from our rain barrel for that purpose.

    If I want to dye the fiber do you think I need to get all the lanolin out of the first?

    1. Hi there, I do dye (mostly with plants), and I found that a bit of lanolin still in the fleece does no great harm, as long as you mordant the wool before dyeing. I use an alumina mordant for my sluin bathed or rainwater washed fleeces, where the wool can soak in for months until I get around to dyeing, so I guess that reduces the lanolin further. Too much lanolin will result in lighter colours, though. But I never had the wool repell the colour completely. Happy dyeing – it’s so much fun!

  7. Stefanie,

    Thanks for this information. It sounds like you have a sense for what is “too much” lanolin through experience, which of course always ends up being the best teacher. I will take your words to heart and start building my own process via experimentation. I’m looking forward to it! Thanks again. . .

    1. Hi Ruth,

      hmmm, when your hands get greasy from touching the wool, it’s too much lanolin for dyeing for sure. After sluin bathing or rainwater washing, the wool feels still “alive” and still smells a bit like sheep (not totally dry and neutral like after scouring), but you don’t get the feeling you have dipped your hand in hand creme anymore. I put it in the mordant bath next, sometimes directly after the excess wash water has dripped off, without complete drying inbetween. Sometimes, the mordant bath becomes a bit yellowish, so I know there was some lanolin left, but it has never hindered the mordanting/dyeing process for me so far. The thing is: every kind of wool reacts differently to dyeing. I had store-bought wool not take colour well and a lock fresh from a sheep that I just rinsed out under tap water briefly dye beautifully and brightly. So the result is also about the construction of the fibre itself (I can wash and even scour my Blacknose wool as much as I want, it never takes colour as well as Merino, for example). But that’s the fun in dyeing – it’s like a never ending experiment! 😉

  8. This is so helpful; thanks very much.

    I just dyed some Lincoln Longwool using an amount of teal powdered acid dye which I use regularly, and which my experience told me should have given me a medium shade of color. The Lincoln took the dye so intensely the wool turned out almost black.

    So yes, I’m making a note of that — Lincolns take dye differently than the other wools I’ve dyed. I’m guessing leaving lanolin in the Lincoln might change that — that will be another experiment.

  9. I have just taken my first suinted fleece out to wash and dry. I got some of it washed and put it outside on a towel to dry. The rest of the fleece I put on a grid to drip a bit before I had time to wash it. But I found that it attracted so many horrible bluebottles and greenbottles that I had to quickly hose it thoroughly. I think my future method will be to remove the fleece from the suint and soak a little at a time and deal with it bit by bit.
    Thank you so much for your interesting article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.