Suint Cleaning Newfoundland Fleece

Last fall, at Fibre NL, I listened intently to UK artist, Liz Clay, talk about her experience in Suint cleaning of fleece. This is a traditional technique that cleans by soaking the fleece in soft water. There is some science involved as the potassium salts naturally present in sheep’s sweat combine with the grease in the wool to create a basic soap.

I was fascinated by this information as, for me, cleaning fleece is the most arduous part of yarn processing. Washing takes lots of water and soap, then rinsing, more rinsing and then rinsing again. It is dirty work. If it could be as easy as a week long soak in a plastic storage tub, things would be much simpler. The fact that the soaking water is saved and gets more powerful with use and the exhausted vat can be used as a fertilizing water on the garden were added benefits.

With spring comes fleece, so I did a little research, contacted Liz Clay and did more research. I found a few sites who touted various degrees of success and failure with the method. I thought I would give it a go: really what did I have to lose. It was just sticking wool in a plastic bin and letting it soak.

Knowing what I know about fermentation and fleece, I could see why some people had struggled; tap water, unless from a surface well, would not work as it would inhibit fermentation. Also the vat was going to smell bad…really bad. As long as I know the source, I don’t mind bad smells at all, so that wasn’t a worry. Although, if you are squeamish this may not be an activity you should undertake.

Natural soap bubbles created with potassium salts and wool grease.

Natural soap bubbles created with
potassium salts and wool grease.

I filled my bin with 5 gallons of rain water and topped up with well water. I used the rain water to contribute some natural yeast to the vat as there was some discussion online about their role in the process and I knew from experience that naturally occurring yeasts are crucial for food fermentation. I submerged a full fleece (Cheviot) and loosely put on the cover and topped with a rock so it wouldn’t blow off in the spring wind and my geese wouldn’t play in it. I chose a white fleece as the first one, so could easily see progress and how clean it actually got. I had a little look at day 3 and could see the telltale scum on the top and smell the sewer-smell that said everything was working as it should. Other than that, I completely forgot about it; other than occasionally getting a whiff of it when walking by. I wouldn’t recommend this process to anyone with close neighbours.

Today I decided to was a good day to open and pull out the fleece. It was there a little longer than a week but I figured with the cooler than room temperature weather it could stand the extra fermentation. I placed it on a screen, allowing the liquid to go back into the bin for the next batch. I soaked it in a second vat for a few hours, drained and put in a final vat of rinse water. It is now drying in the sun.

Cleaned Cheviot just out of the vat without final rinse.

Cleaned Cheviot just out of the vat
without final rinse.

So the verdict?? I think this method to clean wool is WONDERFUL! The fleece hasn’t felted at all and just falls away from itself. I am marvelling at the beauty of the fleece; usually at this point in processing I am sick of looking at it and need to step back for a bit. There is no dealing with sheep ‘dirt’ it has completely dissolved…it is amazing. Suint cleaning will save me water, soap and time. There is some grease left in the fleece but as I am dyeing the fleece, that will be cleaned out at that rinse. Now I just want it to finish drying so I can sort and get to the next step!

I am headed back into the garden to get the second fleece into the Suint vat; a beautiful charcoal grey Shetland!