Friday, 5 July 2013

Cleaning Raw Fleece in a Fermented Suint Vat

Fermented sheep sweat sure shifts sheep shit.  This is a scatological post that could make those of a delicate disposition lose their lunch.  Scroll down and read on at your own risk.

Straight off the sheep, fleece smells, well, sheepy, plus.  The back end is generally matted with months of crap splatter, the rest of the wool may hide a cornucopia of grass seeds, twigs and insects.  Sheep have glands that produce waterproofing substances for their wool, and of course, when charging up hills on a warm day, they sweat.  All of this history will be lurking on and in a shorn raw fleece.
It seems ages ago that I blogged about spinning in the grease.  I thought at the time that this meant just carding out the debris and spinning the wool, before washing the spun yarn.  If the starting material is a pretty clean fleece that has been 'skirted', which means it has had all the truly matted and filthy bits pulled off, then I would still say this option is fine by me.  However, I now know that this is not exactly 'spinning in the grease'.

There are often sheep in a field I sometimes walk through with the dog.  I have been eyeing them up all spring, wondering what their wool might be like to spin.  A few weeks ago, I saw they were shorn.  Now or never.  I steeled my nerve and knocked on the farmhouse door to ask if I could buy a fleece.  The farmer was mildly amused.  Very kindly, he bundled one into a sack and just gave it to me, saying 'You sure you want this?'  While I was thrilled to bits, when I laid it out on the lawn, I realised that even a dung beetle would not give it houseroom.
My wonderful  gift of a local Suffolk fleece badly needed cleaning.  Endless series of hot detergent washes and rinses of small portions, was an horrendous prospect.  Now nobody spins to save time, but preparing the fleece is not my absolute favorite bit.  I am sure I am not alone, because loads of people buy batts and roving that are just about ready to spin straight away.  
I was half tempted to quietly bin the whole thing, til I read this excellent blog by Moz.  In it, she explains fermented suint.  The salts in the sheep sweat plus the grease on the wool can combine to make a natural soap. This cleans the worst of the dirt off a fleece, while leaving enough lanolin on to make handling the spinning easier.  No effort or heat required.  The result is a fleece that is truly prepared to spin in the grease, but not in the grub.
Would you believe it, pretty much all you need to begin is a really honking sheep fleece and a huge bucket of water.  I beetled off pronto to buy a 90 litre plastic storage box with a fitted lid, as recommended.  An old net curtain lines the box, to help lift the fleece out again.  You are supposed to use rainwater, but our local supply is soft - there is never any scale in the kettle - and the pH is very slightly alkaline.  I tested it with litmus paper and it came up exactly the same as the rain.  So in went the garden hose, filled it up - what had I got to lose?

A few days later, not much seemed to have happened.  I gave it the full week, then pulled the fleece out and let the water drain back into the box.  The strong farmyard smell was encouraging. Something was certainly festering, if not fermenting in there.  
I bought a second storage box for the rinse phase.  Following the instructions, I left the fleece in cold water to soak for a day, then changed the water and repeated this twice. Hauled it out to drain on the lawn, then left it in the greenhouse to dry.  Moz is absolutely right, there is no smell at all when the wool has dried.  There is still a bit of dust on the tips, but the fleece has been transmogrified.


 
Spot the difference?
Following Moz's instructions, the object of the process so far is just to make the suint vat.  She does say there is no reason not to use the original fleece, and this wool is special, because the sheep is practically a neighbour.  Suint cleaned Suffolk spins up a dream with its light lanolin content - I actually managed longdraw spinning which feels magic, when it goes well.  Having created the fermenting suint, the vat is intended for cleaning less grubby, greasy fleeces with only a couple of days soak.  
Before I got the Suffolk dried, I had committed my lovely Gotland locks to the stinky brown depths.  Although they were pretty clear of debris, these sheep are heavy with grease and as I have blogged on endlessly, very inclined to felt.  Since this method involves no agitation and no heat, suint had to be right - but was it all too easy?

Watching Elinor the Gotland sink into the mire still seemed an awful gamble.  Waiting a couple of days for the suint to act, then waiting for the rinses to complete was a right worry.  Of course, it worked a treat.  Elinor the Gotland was clean and dry in good time for the Tour de Fleece.  The rinse water (dilute sheep fertiliser) has also cheered up my tomatoes no end.  Thanks a million Moz! 

18 comments:

  1. Loved this post...... Fascinating!

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  2. I'm doing my first suint clean right now - at the moment it is in my bathroom, but with good weather just now, I think I had better move it outside before it gets too 'ripe'. Really excited by the amount of washing that I won't have to do.

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    1. Very best of luck. I am just about to go again with a suint vat for this year's shearing of another local Suffolk fleece. This one is much cleaner and softer. I saw a good tip which I shall be trying - put a black plastic bag over the lid to help it absorb heat and also exclude light to prevent algae growing.

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  3. Facinating proces, did you continue? Learn anything new? Is there more than sweat to kickstart the proces?

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    1. I did go on to put a series of fleeces through, though mostly they were poor choices and cheap options, they came out fairly clean if not intrinsically desirable. In September, I put some of a Dorset Poll in and wrecked it - terminally grey and greasy despite subsequent washes. Not sure if the weather was too cold or the suint was too claggy. I know someone who saves hers from one year to another, but she probably skirts the poo off better than I did.
      This year, I am being a little more cautious, checking each fleece before the next goes through and skirting much more savagely. It is July, nice and warm, so far so good on fleece four.

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  4. Hi - Loved this post and gave this a go last week. I'm a novice at all things woolly but some experienced spinners... and scourers... were keen to tell me that it isn't possible to do a successful suint method in Wales because temperatures don't stay consistently high enough (as they do in America). What do you think? I've kept my soak in the polytunnel for a week and it now has a milky scum on the top and a fairly ripe but not inoffensive smell... I'm not sure how to tell if it's worked but I'm guessing that even if the fleece is clean it will still have lanolin in it... and for some that is undesirable.

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    1. I've been told the suint method used to be common in Scotland, back in the day. If it is warm enough there, I think it must be warm enough here. The fleeces do still have lanolin in them, but if yours seems too heavy with it, or not clean enough, a preliminary soak in the suint vat doesn't prevent you from carrying on with a standard fleece wash with detergent. It ought to make it easier. I've only had the one significant failure, in that cool September. The method is meant for primitive breeds. Not a lot to lose, unless you try it on a precious fleece.

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  5. Is it possible to rot a fleece if you leave it in the vat for too long? I had a portion of a Jacob fleece in the suint tub for a couple months this summer because, well, I just didn't get to it. The locks are very tender now and I'm just going to use it for compost. :(

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    1. Good point. I haven't left any in the vat for more than a week, but of course, fleece does rot down in a compost heap, so it must degrade in water eventually. Shame about your Jacob. I can empathise all too easily with the pain of wrecking a nice bit of fleece.

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    2. Live and learn. :) I'll be more attentive next time. We had temps this summer at 100 so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

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    3. I left one in a bath for about 3-4 months and not only did the nice Corridale cross become slimy, but it also smelled worse than an open sewer. As I was cleaning it up, my boyfriend almost got knocked over by the smell when he came home. Next time, I'll do this outside in the warmer months!

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    4. Best at the bottom of the garden :)

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  6. Interesting post and comments. And timely too. Here's my experience. Just today I pulled a fleece out of my batch of fermented suint. It was odd to acquire a fleece in the cold of January this year, but nonetheless I put it into the vat where it remained for over 4 months. Now the weather is warming and it was a good day to take it out and put it through the hot washing. I was amazed at how clean it came out of the vat. It is lovely, a very light and fluffy fibre, and even after 3 hot baths it still has small bits of lanolin which I prefer. So despite the lengthy soak, in cool weather, this fleece came out beautifully. That same vat has processed about ten fleeces and I have only added rain water when needed. I do strain it every so often, but that's all. What a system. Nature is truly a marvel.

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    1. Wow. I have previously emptied the vat in autumn and left making another til shearing - about now in Wales. Might try a long winter soak for something this year. Thanks for posting.

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    2. From what I have read and experienced, it is fine to just leave the vat sitting. Luckily I have a suitable spot in my yard, so I can do that. Also, the bin's lid has a hole with removable plug. In the Fall I turn the lid upside-down and let rainwater collect on its own to bring the level up, ready for the new year's fleece, then cover it to prevent dilution. Talk about easy. Now that it's warm, I am going to experiment. I'll process half a fleece for a couple of days then check it. I think a long soak might invite bugs or whatever, even with the lid. This aspect is what I didn't have to worry about with the previous fleece. I am interested in seeing if a shorter time works as well as the longer soak. Today I am picking up a fleece today which I hope might be identical to the one I just finished, so it should be a good comparison. Cheers!

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    3. My friend is shearing her Beulahs tomorrow. Just invested in a new vat - black plastic, should reduce the risk of algae and it has wheels - this must be useful, though I haven't yet worked out how.

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  7. I am going to try my first one today, read up on it " ad infinitum ", I have some free fleece from a friend of mine, it is actually very dirty, so I cannot go wrong.....so fingrs crosed...

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    1. Best of luck - may the fleece force be with you.

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