Slow Wool ...

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.

Clean fleece!

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 look through Ask The Bellwether using the search box in the top left 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


ritarenata said...

i just got from a tyrolean farmer, a lots of wool alp´s-sheep. so thanks for this posting.

Laura Sue said...

Do you or any of your readers have ideas for those of us with front loaders? I'd hate to think we're out of the loop here. I'm sure our founding mothers didn't spin water out in the spin cycle.... Just drain longer?

Amelia of Ask The Bellwether said...

@Laura Sue ... I let mine drip in the mesh laundry bag for a day, that took out most of what would have spun out. You can also find spinners to spin out the water at,, and

In ye-olden-days of wringer washers, actually, you could put the wool through the wringer and squeeze out most of the water. There's a mill in my neighborhood that uses one of these wringers for small batches.

Anonymous said...

I've been using a similar method to clean my fleeces for the last year or so, but I don't use the washer to spin out the water, nor do I use any hot water to clean the fleece at all - just several soaks and rinses with hose water, waiting a week or so between rinses, and spinning out the excess water with a salad spinner before laying it out to dry.

We have a septic system and DH is convinced that any wool residue put into the system will immediately render it useless ;-)

I've successfully washed Romney and Coopworth fleeces this way.

Anonymous said...

Slow cloth is interesting for sure, though I don't agree with some of the statements made by the copyright holder... but that's another discussion.

I'm really interested in trying the fermented suint method, someday when I'm not in an apartment! For now it's my trusty wool scours and damn hot water.

AnniesArtifacting said...

I've now tried this method with a beautiful long wool fleece that I got a fantastic deal on, and it worked beautifully!!!!

Would you recommend using this method with Alpaca?

Or should I stick to using the tiny bit of Kookaburra and Unicorn scours that I can afford?

I've used the "dawn-dish washing" liquid methods before, but it seems to dry out the fleeces and also seems to take away the luster...though I've had friends tell me that I'm crazy and too picky....

I have a good fiber friend, localish for me, who do to a serious illness has, unfortunately had to give up her ten alpacas and lovely mohair goats.

She gave-yes gave me the left-over from shearing alpaca fleeces as everyone else was basically trying to get them from her for nothing, knowing that she had to sell as much off as she can.

Her beautiful pens, sheds etc, have all been torn down, as she is now renting her fields to a neighboring farmer to plant on...ugh...

Anyway, I promised to do all the "yucky" prep work, and she and I were going to do the dyeing together...then she can sell them for a better prices than as full fleeces...(she wants me to take a "cut" from the sales-but we agreed on my just taking a bit of fiber instead...sick but not any less determined).

I have never washed whole alpaca fleeces. There's about 27 pounds (yes pounds) to scour, and get sparkling clean. Some of it is very hmmmmm...noxious in smell, and I have a fairly small house so I'll have to do all of this downstairs most probably in the garage With the door

Would this "slow clean" process work with the alpaca, or is it just for sheep's wool?

They are some very lovely fleeces and because she got sick last year during a normal "shearing time" the staple lengths are a bit longer than usual at 5 to 8 inches in length...

I just need to do this THE BEST WAY that I can, and need a little advice...

Thanks for any help you can give me... fyi-I don't live in a very "spinning friendly" area. The other Alpaca "farmers" in our area, are very angry that she gave these fleeces to me to clean. But they would only do it for Half to 2/3rds of the clean fleece. I asked for 2 pounds...???

Amelia of Ask The Bellwether said...


I have used this method on my llama's fiber, which is pretty similar to huacaya alpaca. The fleece was clean when it was done. I do add wool wash (dish detergent) as llama has no natural lanolin in it to scrub it.

- Amelia.

Lisa B. said...

Since it's been well over the 6 months you mentioned ;-), I was wondering if you ever did get stickiness from the slow method+hot water wash? I just bought a Romney lamb fleece from The Pines Farm and wanted to try this method. (It seems too cold here in Seattle now for an outdoor soak, so I was going to do it indoors in a big plastic tote.)

Lisa B. said...

Since it's been well over the 6 months you mentioned ;-), I was wondering if you ever did get stickiness from the slow method+hot water wash? I just bought a Romney lamb fleece from The Pines Farm and wanted to try this method. (It seems too cold here in Seattle now for an outdoor soak, so I was going to do it indoors in a big plastic tote.)

Amelia of Ask The Bellwether said...

Thanks for checking in! It's been 2 years. Most of the fleeces remained dry, but one does have a lanolin feel to it. It was my least favorite fleece, so it is likely I didn't give it enough soak time or rinses.