The very best in all that is stinky

It is well past time for me to tackle the fleece mountain.

I’ve actually lost track of how many fleeces I have, let alone what kind of sheep they’re from, or what state of processing they’re in, so I’m hoping to get to an audit before the cold weather truly comes back.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with the fermented suint method of fleece cleaning.  “Fermented” may sound like a good start, but when you remember that ‘suint’ is sheep-sweat, and a raw fleece is full of all the other joys of the field as well as suint and lanolin, the fermentation starts to sound less tasty.

And indeed it is.  Here’s the theory:

Getting up and running
The basis of this method is that you take a nice, greasy, raw fleece and put it in a barrel of rainwater for a week or two, leaving it in a reasonably warm-for-outdoors place.  It should be a good and stinky fleece, as well as high grease.  (And the barrel should be light-proof, to ward off algal growth, and sealed against bugs to ward off infestations).

And then the fermentation will happen.  Think about it: you’re hardly going to be able to stop it, are you?

The salts in the suint and the lanolin saponify.  This means your fleece is actually making its own natural soap!

Now you have your fermentation bath up and running.  You’ll know if it’s working well, because there is likely to be a milky film on top, maybe some bubbles, and if you stir it up, bend over, and get your nose right in there …  it will just about fall off from the stink.

(I’ve heard the smell described as everything from ‘portapotty’ to ‘river sludge’, and honestly, somewhere in between is pretty accurate.  And not surprising, since you’re intentionally letting farmyard materials go stagnant).

That first fleece is the ‘starter’ fleece; it’s unlikely to be very well cleaned by the bath.  In any case, this method is best suited to fleeces that aren’t heavily greasy (after all, you’re not going to make *that* much soap!) – so you’ll likely want to wash it using your usual methods.  Believe it or not, that *distinctive* smell dissipates completely when the fleece dries (or so I have been assured…)

…and Go!
The magic starts now.  Each successive batch of fleece only needs to stay in your soapy fermentation bath for a couple of days.  And each fleece makes the bath stronger and better.  When you remove a batch, all (heh) you have to do is rinse it, and let it dry, and voila! it’s good to spin.  (Before rinsing, drain it as much as possible and return the liquid to the tub.  You want to keep it for next time!)

There are people who have gotten this working so well that their fleece comes up sparkling white, and actually makes soap suds as they rinse it out.

In practice…
I took the starter fleece out of my bucket last Saturday.  It’s certainly cleaner than when it went in, but even with a detergent wash, it’s still greasy.  But that’s to be expected for the first one.

I took the next fleece (a Shetland) out yesterday after 5 days in the bath.  Definite suds, though not loads.  It still clearly had plenty of grease in the fleece, so I gave it a hot water and detergent wash, and it’s drying now.  The tips are still clearly discoloured, but then it wasn’t a pampered fleece to start with.

The third fleece is a coloured one – a Manx Loughtan.  Low grease, for sure.  It will be harder to tell, visually, whether this one is clean or not than with a white fleece!

So, thoughts so far:

  • I’m not sure whether this is actually helping the fleeces get cleaner, or whether it’s just an extra-smelly cold soak
  • Maybe some of those folks started out with fleece that is cleaner than mine
  • If I still need a hot detergent wash, is it really worth the stink?
  • Is this a good way of getting a lot of fleece washed quickly, even if the benefits are mostly motivational?
  • If the stink dissipates when the fleece dries, will it come back when it gets wet??


49) Parade of the Fleeces

Did I mention, it's fleece season?

A month or so ago, I took advantage of one of the first really warm weekends and hauled my fleece stash out of the shed and spread it out on the lawn.  The idea was to get the lanolin all warmed up in the sun; lanolin sets harder and harder over the years, and some of these have been off the sheep for three or four years already.  Of course, I couldn't resist washing some.

So, here's a quick overview (click for bigger):


From left to right, we have:

  • Freddy, a largish down-type fleece of unknown breed.
  • Jane, a smaller, softer fleece of similar provenance (at the back)
  • In front of Jane, a Jacob fleece I'd forgotten I owned.  I think I got it free at a spinning meet, and it was labelled 'cold water washed'.  Sadly, it was felted into a tight bundle, and I threw it out.
  • Two Manx Loaghtan fleeces, which I am calling Honey and Caramel.
  • Note also Kita's head at the bottom of the photo.  Raw fleece is Very Interesting to dogs.

This is Freddy, all spread out:



These sheep are pets of a friend of J's parents, who live in France.  They are not kept for fleece, and are shorn because it's necessary.  I haven't packaged them very carefully, and the structure of the fleece has been lost.  I'm not too worried in this case, because it's uniformly clean (or not) and actually seems to have a pretty consistent staple throughout.  (In the background, you can see my secret weapon in the fleece washing battle – our old bath).

I have two Manx fleeces, pictured in the next two photos (which are nowhere near as good as I thought – sorry!)  I'd only examined one of them before this day, and was delighted to find that the second one was even nicer than the first, with a longer staple and a softer handle.  Sadly, you can't really tell the difference in the photos…



My original intent was just to give the fleece a good airing, but of course, I ended up washing some.  Washing fleece always makes me feel vaguely guilty – it uses so much water! – so I re-use the water as much as I can, and it ends up going onto the garden.  Here's a chunk of 'Freddy', before washing:


You can see there are layers of muck and grease in the fleece.  I use very hot water and a generous squeeze of washing up liquid to wash fleeces.  Washing up is generally greasier than laundry, so washing up liquid is better suited to attacking the grease found in a raw sheep's fleece!  And you need the water to be hot, because it melts the grease and gets it off the fibre so much faster.

Because Freddy is a down type, I'm not particularly (at all!) concerned about keeping the lock structure intact.  That can be a good idea for long wools, or if you want to spin the finest, smoothest worsted yarn possible from a fleece, but this stuff is woollen all the way, baby!  That means I can wash big chunks of it all at once.  So, an armful or so goes into the tub, and is gently encouraged to sink:


I then use my hands (in gloves! This water is HOT and unsanitary!) to 'herd' the fleece slowly from one end of the bath to the other.  I can't remember where I picked up this technique, but it works pretty well.  The idea is that the water will slowly move through the fleece, without rubbing or any real agitation.  It takes a minute or so to go from one end to the other, then another minute back again.  You can see muck coming out of the fibre in clouds.

As previously stated, I like to re-use the water as much as possible.  Most fleeces will need several trips through the bath to become acceptably clean, and once the water is too dirty for the second wash of one section, it can start the first wash of another.  When it gets to this sort of stage, though, it's probably best to run it out and start over:


I don't put this stuff on my veggies.  Oddly, I'm more worried about the detergent than I am about the poop and grease.  The rest of the garden loves it, though.

Here's the difference the first wash makes:


The unwashed is on the left, the washed on the right.  It's not orange any more!

Incidentally, the small bits of vegetation will almost never wash out, especially from a tangly, crimpy wool like this.  You can pick them out when the wool is dry, but it's only really worth it for the big bits.  Most of the rest will fall out during carding anyway, and you can pick more out when you spin…

47) Meet ‘Burwash’

It's fleece season.  I'm on a bit of a mission to get better at handling and evaluating fleeces.  So.

When I was demonstrating spinning at Burwash Manor last Sunday (blogged over at yarnscape, because it's a public event), I took the opportunity to buy a fleece from the chaps who were demonstrating sheep shearing.  I selected this sheep's fleece because the sheep looked, to me, like a Bluefaced
Leicester (BFL) cross.  BFL is lovely wool; long staple, soft and
delicious.  He had some like this one, and the rest of his sheep were rough fells, which do not have soft wool.

Here is the whole fleece, laid out flat, with the britch (bottom!) end towards us and the head end pointing away:


Note the poop-smear at the top left hand corner, and the red marking on the right flank.  You can also see how thick the fleece is on the sides of the sheep, and how thin along the spine.

This is some of the lovely thick stuff from the flanks of the sheep:


You can see that the staple length is nice and long, and it's very crimpy/curly at the ends.  (If you click for big, you'll see that the crimp extends the whole length of the staple).  This bit of fleece is quite nice and not matted; you can see it's quite easy for me to pull it apart, and you can see through to the grass underneath.

This bit is from one of the legs:


It's really quite badly felted.  After exerting a bit of pressure, I couldn't really separate out any locks.  You could cut this stuff to size and have instant chair cushions.

Here's a closeup of the fleece running along the spine:


It's much thinner and less lush than the flanks, and shorter, too.  It's also quite dry to the touch and may be brittle. So I split up the fleece into flanks, spine, back end and front legs, thus:


I'm going to try washing and combing the flanks; they may spin up to a very useful worsted yarn.  I've kept everything except the matted back end parts, and will see if anything is redeemable.  It may not be, but I have this gut feeling that the only way to find the boundary between 'useable' and 'useless' is to step over it a few times.