For the A&S Display at Pennsic 45, I chose to wash fleeces in a period manner.
To craft any item well, you need to have a solid foundation. If you use bad materials to start, it’s a lot harder to create something fantastic. The better you prepare your materials, the easier the rest of the process is. When making a garment, your fiber source is important.
Different breeds of sheep have different qualities of fiber. When creating a modern garment, there are dozens of breed studies and fiber source books that walk you through all the various breeds and their different qualities. When recreating a period garment, you need to pick a breed that is similar to animals available at the time. In many ways, this is impossible, because humans have been breeding sheep for hundreds of years since then. Even if we pick “the same” breed, breeders are going to pick animals with the qualities that are appreciated at the time. One of the “primitive” breeds is Shetland. These sheep have mostly been left alone in the islands of the United Kingdom, except when they’ve been bred for different qualities. Originally, Shetland sheep had a dual coat with a softer, downy under coat and a more hair-like outer coat. Some modern Shetland breeders go for making softer, less hairy fleeces. Other Shetland breeders try to keep the sheep more primitive. For this project, I chose a dual-coated Shetland sheep from a breeder who is trying to maintain the primitive aspects of the breed. (https://www.facebook.com/WhitneyAcresFarm/) How the sheep is treated can also change the fiber quality. The same way your hair can change based on what you eat, how you care for it, stress levels, etc., the quality of the wool can change. If the weather is too hot, or too cold, if there’s a drought or too much rain, vitamin deficiencies, parasites, and many other variables can all have an effect on the fleece.
When you’re picking a fleece, you want to be sure that the fiber doesn’t have any weak spots. If your fiber has weak spots, it can break in your yarn. Minimally this causes your yarn to pill more, worst case, your yarn will have weak spots where it breaks. Many people pull out a lock or two from the fleece and snap it to confirm it is solid.
Modern spinners are lucky. There are a lot of breeders who are raising sheep specifically for spinning. This means they work hard to maintain the quality of the wool. Some breeders even coat the sheep to keep stuff out of the wool. Unless you were working in an area where wool production was a major industry (for example the breeding of merino sheep in Spain), sheep in period were multi-purpose. You could use them for meat, milk, and fleece. You would breed for hardiness, not necessarily wool quality.
Once you have made the agonizing choice of purchasing a fleece (or two)—wool fumes are heady and hard to ignore—the work begins.
All fleeces must be skirted. Skirting is the term used for laying out the shorn fleece and picking it over. If the fleece is well shorn, it will be in relatively one piece, and still vaguely sheep shaped. Minimally, you remove any of the really icky bits. The wool from the posterior end of the sheep is generally caked with feces and not worth using. Legs and belly can also be matted. There are also different qualities of wool from the various areas of the sheep. Depending on your project, you can sort your wool into the different qualities. For this project, I’m using the whole fleece as is. I intend to separate the two coats of the fleece. I may or may not mix up all the areas of the fleece to homogenize the quality. I also assumed that the breeder skirted the fleece before I got it. This is a foolish choice and I will suffer the consequences of my actions. I may discover chunks of fiber that I don’t want to use.
After skirting the fleece, it should be washed. I’m sure there are historical exceptions, but as a hand-spinner, I never, ever want to work with a fleece that hasn’t been washed. Sheep live in barn yards and barn yards are full of stuff. I really, really don’t want that stuff in my yarn. Minimally, there’s going to be dirt and dust. If I don’t wash that out first, that dirt will be spun into my yarn, which is going to degrade the quality of the yarn.
There is the phrase “spun in the grease”. Some people interpret this to mean unwashed wool. I (and others) respectfully disagree. When you wash wool, you can use different techniques and chemicals that will remove various amounts of “grease”. Grease is actually many things, a combination of sheep skin oil, sheep sweat (called suint), and a wax or wool fat (refined it becomes lanolin). It is possible to remove the dirt, but leave a quantity of grease in the wool.
Another theory is that even though wool may not have been specifically washed, it would have been dyed. Since the dying process involves the equivalent steps of washing the wool, people recording the process may not have separated out the washing steps from the dyeing preparation steps.
How you wash a fleece is a matter for much discussion. There are hundreds of videos, blog posts, books, articles, etc. all about how to wash a fleece. How you choose to wash a fleece depends on many factors including the type of fleece (for example different breeds have different quantities of grease), the quality of the fleece (was it coated or in a dusty farm yard), and what you intend to do with the fleece. Margaret Stove, a premier spinner from New Zealand and recipient of the Queen’s Service Medal, will actually wash individual locks of merino wool against a bar of soap for spinning for lace. This is not how I want to wash pounds of wool to make a dress.
In period, I have found 2 major washing methods. There is a third method that I repeatedly find labeled as “traditionally”, but I can’t figure out if “tradition” goes back to medieval times. However, as it is extremely convenient, I am including it.
However you wash a fleece, you need a lot of water. If you can dunk a fleece into running water and gently stomp on it, you’re going to get a lot of dirt and stuff out. As areas became more “industrialized”, factories/mills would build cisterns or giant buckets.
I do not live near running water, and with the drought this summer, I wasn’t willing to mimic it with a hose, so I haven’t been able to experiment with this method.
Wash is a polite term in Scotland and other parts of England for stale urine.
Today we laugh about it, but urine is pretty awesome stuff. It’s sterile when it leaves our bodies, and is full of all sorts of fabulous chemicals that can do all sorts of things. Urine is alkaline, and as you let it sit, it becomes more so. Alkaline substances are great at removing grease.
Pliny wrote about how the Romans used urine to wash wool and prepare it for dyeing. The Welsh wool industry in the 19th century paid a penny for a bucket full of pee. If you were a Methodist, you were paid two pennies. Many have commented through the centuries that the pee of healthier people was better for industrial purposes.
My dad was very kind and willing to assist me in this endeavor. Trying to collect urine in these days of flush toilets is a bit complicated, but possible. All the snippets I found describing using urine usually indicated stale urine, which is convenient since it takes time for two people to collect enough to fill a 5 gallon bucket (including fleece).
I pulled out a quantity sufficient of my white Shetland fleece and left the fleece to soak for two days. I then rinsed it in two changes of water. I then let the fleece dry.
Somewhere in the past, someone figured out if you take a dirty fleece and stick it into a bucket of rain water, a few days later you can pull out a fleece that’s clean. Today we know that the soft water reacts to the alkaline suint in the fleece and makes a sort of soap. Feel free to read Karla’s Fiber Blog which understands the chemistry better than I do, and has some great links to other scientific articles. http://sonomafiber.blogspot.com/2011/09/pseudo-fermented-suint-method-fsm-of.html.
In May of 2016, I collected rainwater in a Rubbermaid Tote from a downspout off of my garage. I put in an old Coopworth fleece to start it. I used an old fleece because if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I lost the fleece. Most directions say “a week at room temperature”. This year it was very cool, and life got crazy, so it was about a month before I took out the fleece. Yes, it was stinky. I rinsed it twice and then left it outside to dry.
A week later, the fleece was dry and had no odor. The fleece feels clean, but has a smidge of grease in it. As a spinner, it feels amazing and I am very much looking forward to spinning it. I had washed an entire fleece with very little of my time and effort. Considering the number of unwashed fleeces in my possession, very exciting.
The other wonderful thing about a suint vat is that you keep re-using it, and supposedly it gets better with age. I have also washed a fleece from the fabulous breed “Free”, a 2-3 year of Shetland fleece, and part of a year old mystery fleece before I started my 2 ½ lb brown Shetland fleece. I let the fleece soak for three days. I rinsed it twice and left it outside to dry.
I really love fleece washing options that don’t involve giant quantities of really hot water and lots of my time moving wool between 2-4 wash and rinse baths. I’ve washed more fleeces this summer than I’ve done in the past several years.
I am very happy with the Suint method. The quality of the washed wool is lovely. It feels clean, there’s no smell, and it was done with little effort on my part. I will say that Suint is STINKY. Occasionally I used Vicks Vapor Rub under my nose when I was working with it.
Stale pee smells better than Suint.
Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere by Sally Magnusson
The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning by Alden Amos
Woven into the Earth by Else Østergård