By Amelia © October 16, 2010
The slow cloth movement has been getting a bit of press lately -- enough to come across my radar screen. It's an interesting idea about handmade goods and a contemplative approach to making textiles. So when I ran across a new-to-me fleece washing method that starts out with "leave the wool to soak 2-3 days" calling it "slow wool" just seemed appropriate.
You may have read about the fermented suint washing method that has you leave your wool in water for 2-3 weeks. I have, and have read peoples' follow-up complaints about the odor on various forums (Ravelry and Spin-List, if memory serves me). I'm pretty sure here in Washington state it would be darn nasty stuff, not only from fermentation but that horrid red algae that shows up anywhere that stays wet longer than a day in my bathroom. Bleh! So I never tried the fermentated suint method.
This past summer, though, at a "fleece to dye for" weekend class by Judith Mackenzie, she introduced us to her fleece washing method. Like all things Judith, it's a gentle method; so though she doesn't name it, besides calling it "slow wool", it could also be called "gentle washing".
You start with a large tub -- I had a large plastic tote the llamas aren't currently using, so I used that. You want it to hold 15-30 gallons of water. Fill the tub with water from the hose. If you have time, let it sit around for a day to warm up (in the right season) or to release any chlorine additives it may have (mine does). If your water has deposits in it -- do your sinks or tubs get a ring in them? then you have deposits -- you should find an alternative source, be it rain water, a neighbor's well water, or lots of bottle watered, because your water needs to be just plain old water.
Put your raw wool in. I'm still playing with ratios of wool-to-water; early in my fiber days, I read 1:100, wool-to-water (by weight?) but admit I always put more wool than that in my baths. I find that my tub, with 15 gallons, does best with under 3 pounds of wool in it. So large fleeces may need to be broken into batches.
If you want to help it along, put a few squirts of pH-neutral dish soap in it. Get one with no enzymes or antibacterial additives, that says it is "good at cutting grease". Be careful of using wool scours with this method, as some are very basic, and with our 2-3 day soak, they could damage the wool. Your more typical 20-minute soak in hot water with such wool scours won't damage wool.
You can do some gentle stirring to help distribute the dish soap if desired, but no rough agitation.
Let it soak for 2-3 days. There's no need to cover the bucket -- though I did put a few sticks of lumber over mine to dissuade the neighbor's new puppy from exploring, as he's explored other recent outdoor fiber experiments. The water will get quite dark. Lift out the wool. I lifted mine out in the morning, and let mine hang as shown in the picture above until evening, so that most of the water dripped out. If your washing machine is a top-opening one, and you can turn off the water supply, you can spin out the dirty water -- wipe out the inside of your machine when you are done.
Now, using an indoor tub or large sink -- or my buckets-in-the-shower approach, fill the tub/sink/bucket with your hottest tap water. Put the spun or squeezed-out wool in the bucket to soak for 10-15 minutes. Do not agitate it. This is the first rinse. Repeat the rinses until the water is clear. Here are 3 buckets showing the progress of a rinsing. This one was easy -- a covered fleece, quite clean. My own sheeps' fleeces take about 6-8 rinses.
Once you have it rinsed clear, squeeze out the water, use your washing machine as above to spin out the water, and lay the fleece out to dry in a sunny spot out of the path of wind or pets.
You can re-use the soaking bath if you like; I've reused mine for 3-4 fleeces in a row. Then I realized I had lovely semi-clear water at the end of my rinsing sessions, so now I reuse a soak bath for 2 fleeces, but rejuvenate it a bit like sourdough starter with the last couple rinse baths.
Why does this work? Sheep produce suint, a natural cleaning agent. We call it sheep sweat, but really it's pushing the dirt out, away from their skin, toward the tips. By putting the fleece in water, we're letting the suint do its job, pushing the dirt off the fiber.
One thing I've noticed is that fleece washed this way seems to retain a bit more moisture. It's not greasy -- though I still want to wait 6 months to see if fleece washed this way retains any tackiness, my hands don't feel oily after handling a fleece washed this way. I like the feeling, so I'm hoping this does pass the no-tackiness test.
My observations on this is that it seems to work best with medium to coarse wools; a very fine merino would likely still need the application of heat to release its grease. And the dirtier the fleece, the harder it is to rinse it clean; my own Soay fleeces are quite stubborn, while show-grade fleeces from my stash rinse crystal clear in 3 rinses.
So, I won't abandon my past water-boiling-to-get-sinks-over-160 F fleece washing methods entirely, but it's nice to have this option for those gorgeous Leicester, Romney, and Corriedale fleeces that tempt me at fleece sales.
This does take a fair bit of water, which is reusable, with some planning and spare buckets. And outdoor space, or room for the soaking. The soak water didn't stink in the outdoors, but I don't know how it might fair in tight quarters. The wool didn't stink up my bathroom during its rinsings, and when done, smelled of nothing in particular, no sheepiness.
So far I've washed Romney, Shetland, Corriedale, Llama, and Soay fiber using this method. There's quite a bit more Soay to work through, more Llama, Manx Loghtan (from the UK), and Icelandic fleece. At two fleeces a week, I might be done by Christmas -- but with far less effort on my part than my boiling-water-in-the-sink washing. This is a Good Thing.
Past posts related to washing fleece:
Where can I get my fleece processed?
What do you look for in a fleece?
How do I know what sheep breed to look for?
How do you skirt a fleece?
How do I wash raw fleece?
How much weight will Shetland fleece lose in washing?
I washed the fleece, now what?
... And be sure to see the Fiber topic for a whole host of ideas on preparing washed fleece for spinning and information about specific fiber types.
© October 16, 2010 by Ask The Bellwether, posted at http://askthebellwether.com/blog