Spinninglizzy's Weblog

Falling down the slippery fibre slope

It Fell Off The Back Of A Truck

“Can you meet an hour earlier, same place?” I hear from my mobile phone.

“Yeah,” I say, “the sooner, the better.”

I arrive at the parking lot, and pull up next to the van.  Looking around, I see we are alone; no witnesses.  The woman there greets me, and pulls open the back hatch of the van.  There it is, stashed in plastic bags.  I check each out, sampling each for quality and cut.  I’m too nervous to haggle over price; I just want the merchandise, and to be away from there.  Money and bags exchanged, I toss my purchases into the trunk of our car, and call to my driver (husband): “Hit the road!”

It was a necessity to be on our way as swfitly as possible, as we did not want to be caught in closed quarters with this merchandise for long.  I’m talking about raw fleece, from a local farmer (is that what you guessed?).  Raw Southdown Babydoll fleece, to be exact; yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.  In Sheep’s Clothing, by Nola Fournier and Jane Fournier, describes Southdown as: “it provides the finest of the down wools — it is full-handling and spongy.”

At home, a closer inspection revealed lots of vm (vegetable matter) — lots of it.  I had been dreaming of rare and exotic wool for spinning, but had not looked close enough before buying.  Now I could see that not only were the fleeces filled with vm, but the staple length was also incredibly short at 1-1/2″.  I would have loved to throw a tantrum, but knew that DH would not be sympathetic, and tears would not wash the fleece clean.  I would never forgive myself for spending so much money on something I’d prefer to throw away, so there was nothing to do but resign myself to the dismal chore of washing it.

I’ve washed raw fleece before, but never this much at once.  It took an entire weekend to wash two fleeces, one almost-black and the other a medium-grey.  The black fleece held more lanolin, and so being stickier, also more vm.  Like all the previous times I’ve washed raw fleece, I resolve it will by my last; I like having cleaned fleece, I’m just not fond of the smells involved.

It’s shocking how much time is involved to process raw fleece into a product that’s ready to spin.  With all the work involved cleaning raw fleece, it may seem that purchasing procesed roving is cheaper.  It’s certainly faster, but for the work you put into cleaning and prepping the fleece for spinning, you get wool that has not been chemically washed to dissolve away the poop, grime, vegetation, or lanolin.  I know I can get away with fewer rinsings, but I do extra ones anyway.  I’ve found that when superficially clean wool is dry, it often doesn’t smell, even when I know it contains traces of dried poop.  With all the rinsings I do, I know that my wool is cleaner, and chemical-free.  I often wonder if the wool used in expensive designer clothing has any of these advantages.  The clothing may look and feel luxurious, but is it truly clean?  And I wonder if those with wool sensitivities are irritated by the chemicals used or the traces of poop present rather than lanolin or the wool itself.

DH has remarked that I might save myself time, money, and grief if I decide to skip the raw fleece step to purchase and use only cashmere roving instead.  I’m not against using cashmere, but the few ounces of it I have exude a strong poopy smell, even though they look clean.  It also bothers me that the over-production of it causes global problems, as you can read about here.

My resulting Southdown Babydoll fleece is very difficult to work with.  There is too much vm in the black fleece to card easily, and most of it might be usable only as stuffing.  Still, the little I’ve spun of it is remarkably different from anything I’ve worked with before.  While it isn’t as soft as merino — I would equate it to soft Romney in softness — it is incredibly springy, with a crisp and bouncy feel that is very unusual and delightful in its sproingy-ness.


I suppose I had not learned any lessons, as all resolutions that this raw fleece be my the last — caved within a week.  I thought I would be more wary the next time around, but I was sucker-punched by the words “award-winning” and “six other buyers if you don’t want it”.   The result was nine pounds of long-stapled white Romney.  Very lustrous and clean, although what I consider only rug-worthy softness.  Perfect for a future tapestry.

I was in a hurry to clean it, so made the terrible mistake of washing too much at once.  I washed about five pounds in a large mesh bag, but it proved to be too much; I found within clumps of tips still soiled.  Sigh, I will need to re-wash that entire lot.

Before I could wash the rest of the white Romney, free Romney fleeces were offered to my spinning group.  I went with my friend forestgnome, (who is at least as crazy as I am; read her post about a CVM fleece that we split) to look at the fleeces, and came home with three fleeces between the two of us.

I  had been washing raw fleece, rinsing up to ten times in hot water.  That was very wearing, as I can only do it outdoors in a (horse) watering trough, and it’s slow and difficult getting all that hot water outside.  I had obtained permission from DH to use the bathtub inside, but in the end, I couldn’t bear to bring the fleece indoors.  Too much in energy and resources was being expended, and a new method must be found.  Right after I had that thought, I happened to read about the fermented suint method (FSM) of washing raw fleece on Ravelry.  It is a method developed in New Zealand, but not well-known in this part of the world.  Judith Mackenzie-McCuin wrote an article about it in the 2008 Fall issue of Spin-Off magazine.  I ordered a copy of that issue, but even before it arrived, I already had four buckets of fleece soaking.  Briefly, it entails soaking a first batch of raw fleece for seven days to dissolve the suint, or sheep perspiration; dirt, and poop from the fleece.  Thereafter, that mixture is kept to be reused over and over again, until, in Judith’s words: “it is too thick to swim in, and too thin to plow”.  Each re-use concentrates and ferments the suint mixture further, and each cleaning becomes more efficient.  Soaking fleece in the FSM for a couple of days, then rinsing well in cold water until the smell is (mostly) gone is all that is necessary for some fleece; others with higher lanolin content may need additional washing and rinsing in hot, soapy water.  

My first trial of the FSM went amazingly well.  My spinning friend Jane (Thank You!) gave me half a dozen empty TidyCat covered bins before she moved back to Florida.  They are a perfect size for the FSM because they are still easy to transport when filled with liquid.  I could soak approximately a 3/4 pound of raw fleece in each bucket.  I use mesh laundry bags to keep the fleece together while soaking.


Of course, I would never consider stopping with only cold rinses to clean; I wouldn’t feel comfortable without the last soapy wash and rinse in hot water.   By the time of the hot wash and rinse, I could tell that the washing liquid extracted mostly lanolin.  While this method does not use less water (in my case), it is still a lot faster and easier, as I can use the garden hose and a little agitation for the cold rinsings.  The best part of this method is that the resulting wool is even cleaner than what I could accomplish in ten hot-water washings without the FSM soaking.

Some of the free brown Romney, after washed with the FSM:


I compared the five-pound lot of white Romney (top, in the picture below) I washed with the old hot-water way with half a pound of the same fleece washed with the FSM:


Even through the mesh bags, you can tell that the fleece inside the bottom bag is much cleaner than the fleece in the top.  A close-up of the two:


The only drawback to this method is the smell.  Start with raw fleece (sheep poop).  Now, imagine that smell concentrated and fermented.  Within minutes of removing the cover from the first of my buckets, I noticed that my next-door neighbour, twenty feet away, was no longer taking the sun on his balcony.  Coincidence?

A clothes-washing machine would speed up the washing process wonderfully.  But even were I not banned from touching our washing machine, I shudder at the thought of using it.  It would be lovely to have a second machine installed outdoors someday.  But then, of course, I wouldn’t need it, because I plan never to buy another raw fleece…


26 August 2009 - Posted by | Spinning | , , , , ,


  1. Tee hee. I never thought I’d read the word “poop” so many times in a fiber blog!

    That is a herculean project. I remember the scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Farmer Boy” where they wash the sheep in the stream prior to shearing. Sounds like a really sensible idea.

    So basically, you are making fleece pickles! Or fleece wine.

    Now I’m wondering where you got a horse watering trough and what you do with it when you’re not using it for fleeces?

    I am a bit of a rinsing fanatic, too.

    Comment by trapunto | 27 August 2009 | Reply

    • Oh yeah, the poop gets bandied about quite a bit around here. My friend forestgnome and I have even managed, inadvertently, to say “fermented sheep poop” in perfect synch before — I guess when it comes to this subject, we can’t shut up long enough for feelthe other to finish talking.

      My horse trough is a round, metal one, about a yard across. We purchased it from a feed store to use as a bathtub for our dog (who is now gone). I’ve used it to scrub things on a wooden washboard on occasion, and DH still uses it every other month or so to clean the plates of our air filter.

      As to the wine, I raise a glass to you, and welcome you to sample the bouquet! 🙂

      Comment by SpinningLizzy | 27 August 2009 | Reply

  2. […] Spinninglizzy has a great post on her blog about this method, which she has also been trying out this summer: https://spinninglizzy.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/it-fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck/ […]

    Pingback by It’s alive!! « Forestgnome’s Blog | 13 September 2009 | Reply

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