Fermented Suint Method is a technique to clean wool fleece in preparation for spinning. This method was developed for the lower lanolin wools which have a lower wax content in their woolgrease. Primitive and longwool breeds specifically. If you’re new to fleece processing, this is one of the simplest ways for cleaning fleece and a good place to start. There is no heat involved in the process and therefor less of a chance of felting your wool. Plus it’s just darned intriguing to see a fleece practically clean itself with it’s own built in “soap”. Let me warn you though, the process smells bad. If you live on a farm, there’s nothing unfamiliar here, but if you’re in an apartment, you might want to think about finding a friend with a backyard :). I’ve put some FAQ’s at the end, which is just an excuse for me to ramble on more about the process ;).
The process is designed for cleaning large quantities of fleece, as each subsequent batch makes the FS mix stronger. It is a technique which has been used extensively on New Zealand wool farms to clean fleece without the use of heat or detergents. I first learned about this technique from reading an article by Judith MacKenzie McCuin “On Washing Fleece, in Spin Off magazine’s Fall 2008 issue. The issue is only available as a download now. Judith also mentions this technique briefly in her new DVD Three Bags Full, full of excellent information on selecting, preparing, and spinning a fleece. I can’t recommend it enough.
Suint is basically sheeps sweat. It’s made up of potassium salts which together with woolgrease, some rainwater, and a weeks worth of soaking creates a basic “soap” that will help to clean dirt and woolgrease from your fiber. While you will need a fleece with a higher grease content to start your FSM batch with, this method was developed to clean the lower grease fibers, i.e. Lincoln longwools and primitives (Shetland, Churro).
I will clarify right from the start that this method will not remove all of the woolgrease, and it will not dissolve or remove vegetable matter (VM). With the breed types listed above, you may find that you do not need to do a hot water and detergent (i.e. Dawn dish soap sans enzymes) wash after this process, as some prefer to spin with a bit of “grease” left in. However, your hot water washing will be a much shorter process when you use the FSM as your initial wash.
You will need the following:
- An unwashed wool fleece (of a higher grease content) this is your starter fleece
- Opaque container with fitted lid
- Large laundry bag
- Extra bin
- Window screen
We start with the container:
Mine is a 20 gal container that I fill about three quarters full with rainwater collected from a downspout on my house. I have found the best luck when the container is opaque and has a fitted lid, airtight is not important.
Put your unwashed, unrinsed fleece into the bin. The Romney here is a little shy of 3 lbs.
I put my fleece in large laundry bags I’ve found pretty cheap online, making it easier for me to drain the fleece when the time comes.
The “fermentation” takes about 5-7 days to develop. Keep the water warm–at room temperature if possible. You will definitely notice a strong odor, much like a barnyard fermentation/septic smell. The wash water will start to ferment and sometimes a slight white film and bubbles will occur.
One thing to remember is even without following up this process with a hot water/detergent wash, this smell dissipates completely once the fiber is dry.
After about 7 days you can pull the initial fleece out of the tub. You want to keep as much of the liquid as you can because this wonderful liquid is what you’re going to soak your follow up fleece in.
I pull my bag of fleece out of the bin and set it onto a screen with another bin under it to catch the FSM water. Pour what you’ve gathered from the draining back into the original FS vat.
The more fleece you run through your FS vat, the better it works. Try not to dilute it, but if you need to add a bit more rainwater to help keep the water level up that is fine.
Now you’re ready to put the wool you want to spin into your FS Vat. The process is pretty much the same as what you did with the first fleece with the exception that you will only have to soak it for 2-3 days. Soaking longer than that won’t hurt your fiber, but more time in the vat isn’t any more productive at this point. You can be more cautious about maintaining your lock formation by whatever means you find most suitable to the fleece at hand. Once you’ve pulled your wet fiber from your FS vat, take your time letting it drain. There’s no rush. The more that drains out the less you have to rinse away. Remember to pour the drained liquid back into the original FS bin.
You may use tap water to rinse your fleece. I have run water gently over the bagged wool from the garden hose. Primitives are more resistant to felting than the finer wool fibers. If you have hard water, a white fleece might turn a bit gray. The gray will wash out when you do your hot water and detergent wash on your fiber or finished yarn. Unlike soap, detergent helps to remove mineral deposits in hard water. If you have loads of rainwater, you can sink bagged fleece into bins of rainwater and drain, rinse and repeat.
At this point I like to spin the bag of fiber out in an old washing machine I use just for this purpose. It was an old one that stopped agitating but kept spinning. It drains into the garden. Perfect for a wool washer like me. 🙂
Lay your wet wool out and fluff it up onto a drying screen. This was a perfect day to dry. It was a warm early summer day, with little wind. I often will put another screen on top of the wool to keep it from blowing away in the wind. Shade cloth will do the trick as well. If you lay your wool on top of old towels that helps to absorb off some of the moisture too.
Now as you’re fluffing the wool apart so it dries better, you’re going to notice that that smell is still present, and you’re going to think that smell is never going to go away. It will, trust me it will. If you still smell the FS mix on your fiber, it’s not dry! Which happens to be an excellent indicator if your wool is dry enough to store. I once brought multiple fiber samples from my first FSM to Black Sheep Gathering to show people what kind of fiber you could expect to get from this method and nary a one noticed any residual smell. And when you wet the wool again, that smell is not present.
- Soak initial fleece for 5-7 days
- Drain fleece and keep the liquid from this soaking
- Put another fleece into the liquid
- Soak for 2-3 days
- Drain fleece and keep the liquid from this soaking
- Rinse fleece till rinse water runs clear
- Dry fleece till odor dissipates
That is the long and short of the Fermented Suint Method of washing fleece. Below I have included a few Frequently Asked Questions, and feel free to drop me a line with any questions you might think should be addressed on this site. Thanks for looking and thank you to all the fellow Ravelers and fans of the FMS that helped me with their input over the years.
More documentation photos here. Click on pictures to open and read captions.
I find that this method works well for those of us who:
- can’t put the grease into their septic systems
- have multiple fleece to wash
- want to use it as a pre-wash for high grease fleece
- have an area where they can work outside 🙂
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I have to use rainwater?
We’re making a soap (not detergent). Soap cleans best in soft water. Many have created a FSM with tap or well water, but the cleaning quality of the FSM has had mixed results. You can use regular tap water to rinse your fiber, however on white fiber you might notice some graying due to the minerals in your water. A final hot water wash (with a detergent, i.e. Dawn, Power Scour) of your yarn or fiber should remove that graying depending on how hard your water is.
Why a high grease fleece to start the vat with?
Higher grease content equals higher suint content. The more suint you have in the water the better the cleaning will work.
Can I spin the fleece that I started the FS Vat with?
Yes, there’s no reason you can’t process this first fleece as you would any other. The higher grease content will require a longer scouring process, and might require two hot water washings. I have also run the first fleece through the vat in smaller batches just to allow the FS mix to gain better access to the locks. You’ll note that more dirt and grime falls out too when you’re running smaller batches through the vat.
Can I use the FSM for just one fleece?
The process was developed for cleaning large quantities of fleece and might not be worth the effort to clean just one fleece. (See cold water soak below)
Can I skip the rinsing process after a FS soak?
Yes, you can drain out the FS Mix, spin out the fiber and go directly to your hot water and detergent washings. I usually do a rinse before spinning just to get out more of the dirt and grim that the fiber was soaking in.
Is the FS Method the same as a cold water soak?
No, a cold water soak is just allowing your fleece to soak in water overnight. However even if you’re not using the FSM to clean your fleece an overnight cold water soak will remove the suint, dust and grime from your wool and make for easier washing. I also find much fewer washings are necessary after a cold water soak, especially with low grease fibers. Basically wool has it’s own built in cleaning mechanism, and it was customary in rainy regions to spread the shorn fleece over rock walls and let the rain clean out the dust and dirt. The suint in the fleece did a good job of “washing” the fleece with this simple method, and was especially successful with the primitive fleece such as the Shetlands. “Spinning in the grease” is often a term used when spinning a fleece prepared in this manner.
Does this method remove vegetable matter from my fleece?
Wish it did, but no. That will require shaking out your dry fleece before and after any washing method, then a good picking or combing will help the rest drop out of your fiber before you prep it for spinning.
Should the subsequent fleece in the vat be rinsed first?
No, the addition of unwashed fleece to the vat is what makes it stronger. To quote Judith MacKenzie: “Use the fermented water over and over; the more you use it, the better it gets. Don’t worry that it looks dirty–use the water until, as they say in Montana, it’s too thick to swim in and too thin to plow.” That isn’t to say you can’t put a rinsed fleece through the vat if you have one, but you’re not saving any time rinsing it first and you’re losing the suint that adds to the cleaning properties of the FSM.
Why is my fleece still “sticky”.
This method was developed for the lower lanolin wools which have a lower wax content in their woolgrease. In your finer breeds, what is left behind are the heavy stubborn waxes. These will need to be removed with a hot water and detergent scour. Also try to spin the “sticky” fiber on a day when you can leave it in the sun to warm the waxes. I’ve often spun wool directly off a freshly shorn sheep, body heat and warm sun makes the fibers spin a very fine single. They seem to wash up very nicely once in a yarn despite the grit and grim you see in the fibers as you spin it. Try it for socks, or a hat, see what you think.
Does the temperature of the vat have to be warm?
The vat should try to stay “at room temperature”. There have been reports of bad batches occurring when temps get too warm. The vat temp should not get too much above room temperature, so if you’re doing this in the middle of summer you might have a harder time keeping the temp of the vat around 72 degrees. There is no time of the year I get full sun in my yard, so I am able to avoid a vat that is warming up to high temps in direct sunshine.
I haven’t had any freezing temps to deal with during my soaks. When I started mine in the early Spring I covered the bin with an old wool blanket, to keep the vat closer to room temperature.
I’m getting algae in my vat.
There is a good possibility you don’t have enough suint in your water, that your suint to water ratio is too low. The stronger the potassium salts the less likely you will get an algae bloom and I always recommend an opaque container with a fitted, but not air tight lid.
I’m getting “wrigglies” in my vat.
Some have complained of getting mosquito or fly larvae in their vats. You probably do not have enough suint in your water, or you don’t have a snap on lid to discourage insects (air tight isn’t essential though). I can only help you here by letting you know what I have never had to deal with wrigglies or algae in my FS vats. I also do not have issues in my rainwater barrels (opaque plastic garbage cans with snap on lids stored under trees in the shade).
Can I use my FSM after letting it sit for some time?
I’ve kept my vats, free of wool, for a year and found that it was just as good. I kept mine because I didn’t foresee me having multiple fleece to start a whole new batch over again. Keep it in the shade and check that it’s not drying out…(although I’ve reconstituted mine a couple of time ;P).
Is there an actual fermentation going on here?
I don’t believe there has been a definitive answer to this question yet. I use the term Fermented Suint Method based on the article by Judith MacKenzie in her original Fall 2008 Spin Off magazine article, as well as the common use of the term in most literature on the subject. Fermentation
Why do you do all this?
My doctor told me to maintain bone density I should lift heavy things. Hauling buckets of rainwater and heavy wet fleece seems to do the trick. This isn’t a sport for the feint of heart, but it’s entertaining and keeps you strong. If we wanted a quick way to do things, we wouldn’t be involved in this art at all, so take pride and carry on.