Have you ever tried to process your own fleece and ended up sweating and cursing? Have you repeatedly filled your bathtub with filthy sheep water, spent hours scouring and rinsing? Has your partner ever nervously suggested you do it 'outside' so the house doesn't smell like a wet shearing shed?
Well my friend if any of these scenarios sounds familiar I have an amazing suggestion for you...try a suint bath!
Now I'm certainly not about to promise it won't smell, cause holy moly does it smell like a shearers singlet after 3 days of hard yakka, but it does not take anywhere near the amount of time and it can be done all outside of your house!
First up what is it, this stinky outdoorsy bath I speak of. Great question!
It's essentially a method of cleaning fleece, of removing the dirt and the lanolin, by way of fermentation.
So in a nutshell you stick a dirty fleece in a tub of rainwater and let it stew in the sun. Nice I know! What happens inside the tub is some amazing little microbes get to work and do the heavy lifting for you, leaving you with a fleece that is way cleaner with far less time spent actually working with it.
Sheep live outdoors yeah, they graze and wander around, they poop and wee, and they sweat. So this sweat naturally has to go somewhere right, and that somewhere is the fleece.
Now add to this some dirt, from dust and windy days, from laying on the ground and from literally just existing outside in a paddock your whole life.
By the time the sheep is shorn you have a fleece that is very sweaty and dirty, having hitched a ride with this little outdoorsy sheep for roughly the past year.
Traditionally the fleece is skirted, ie all the poopy daggy bits and rough belly and neck parts are taken off the fleece, and then it's scoured, washed, carded, combed, spun etc.
For hand spinners we can step in and buy a raw fleece, a dirty, sweaty fleece just waiting to be spun into something amazing! If only we could get through all the wet sloppy parts of cleaning it with less wasted water and less time spent stinking out your bathroom.
Full disclosure I dropped science as a subject at the earliest possible moment back in high school, so this is going to be a super basic look at why and how a suint bath works.
Suint is made up of two different things.
One is potassium chloride, which sheep draw into their bodies from the grass they eat. Potassium chloride is a form of potash, and potash is the 7th most common element in nature, so there's loads of it in the soil available to the plants.
The second contributor to suint is the sheep's actual sweat, which comes from perspiration and is made up of water and trace amounts of urea, lactic acid and other minerals. Urea is also a naturally occurring compound that the sheep absorb through grazing.
So once you have a sufficient build up of actual sweat and potassium chloride you have suint, a soluble salt, and this is where the magic begins!
If you're anything like me lanolin has saved your life at one point in time, from chapped hands to cracked nipples, (yep motherhood is all kinds of fun isn't it!) lanolin has the most amazing way of nourishing skin.
Lanolin is a wax secreted from the sebaceous glands of wool bearing animals, and it's role in their life is to help protect them from the elements. Lanolin will help a sheep's fleece shed water keeping it dry and warm.
Depending on the breed of sheep the weight of this lanolin can be quite high, anywhere from 5-25% of the weight of the fleece. Typically the finer the fleece the more lanolin present.
This is why when you choose a fleece for your suint bath a super fine fleece is ideal, to really get it going well.
So now we know about what suint is and what lanolin is it's time to tackle the main question, how does it work!!
When you fill your tub with rain water, submerge your dirty, sweaty, greasy fleece, and close the lid a whole bunch of little microbes get to work.
Microbes that were present on the fleece begin to activate in the water, they are in fact anaerobic, meaning they will die when exposed to air.
So the lanolin suint mixture acts as a soapy solution and the microbes start to work on removing the dirt.
I couldn't find any really detailed explanations on this part of the process, like does the suint feed the microbes or do they eat the dirt? Does the lanolin help them thrive or simply act as a natural soap?
As I said I'm a science drop out so if you know any more about how the microbes actually get the work done please leave me a comment because I'd love to learn more about it!
In the end what you have is a super, and I mean super, stinky dirty vat of water with one very wet fleece in it. So how to remove it!
You can either put your fleece into the bath in a net curtain bundle, line the tub with net curtains first or use laundry bags. Or you can get another tub and put some mesh or a grate over it, pull the fleece out of the stinky vat and collect the run off.
Essentially you want to keep all the yukky water because that will be used for the next bath you make. The more you use the bath the more 'active' it becomes and the quicker your fleeces will be cleaned.
I used several buckets my second time around to soak the fleece in for a few hours instead of rinsing under running water. That way I can save the water and use it on the garden.
Once the fleece has been rinsed a couple of times let it dry completely. This will ensure all the microbes are dead and the smell will totally disappear, I promise!
I then did a final rinse in wool wash to remove the last of the sticky lanolin feel, then it's on to carding or whatever fibre preparation you choose.
I hope this makes your raw fleece journey a little bit quicker and less labour intensive! If you'd like to listen to me talk about all of this amazing stinky science then click here to listen to the podcast episode I made just for you.