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??