Hopefully, everyone has painlessly sheared their flocks by now. Lovely, pillowy bags of fleece sit in sheds while dainty looking sheep enjoy the summer fields.
Shearing is a necessary process but often people can’t imagine what to do with this valuable resource, fleece. Many Ouessant owners are wary of washing fleeces themselves as it can seem to be an arduous, smelly task. Sending it to a mill requires a large amount often at a great expense.
The suint or natural/organic method of cleaning fleece is quite painless, requires minimal equipment albeit still smelly.
This method is light on water usage and chemicals, instead depending upon the natural process of utilising the existing lanolin and suing present in the fleece. Suint, is the name for the sweat or bodily secretions expelled via the sheep’s skin into their woolly covering. It helps to prevent the fleece of the sheep deteriorating into an excessively grubby, irritant mass. Adopting this process when preparing washed fleece, results in an organically and ecologically kind end result. It is suitable for and sought after by spinners and crafters.
All that is needed to wash fleece this way is a large bin or watertight box which can be covered, plus some soft water.
Our neighbour here in West Wales, Jin Talog, use fleece washed this way in the packaging for their gin and have helped us immensely. Before this, we often felted rather than washed our fleece and much was wasted. Our dear friend Margaret selflessly hand washed many fleeces for shows and craft events for us. Now, we can enjoy and share time with her instead of using it up and save her energy.
If using a black plastic bin, fill it halfway with untreated water (no chlorine). Rainwater, borehole or spring water works perfectly. Make sure the bin has a lid and is placed in a warm environment. An animal shed, outhouse or garden shed is ideal. The process may take two weeks in the summer. Often, it is too cold in winter for this method to be effective. Remove dags and V.M. ( vegetable matter).
Next, place the fleeces in the water, making sure it is immersed. A bin may take up to six Ouessant fleeces or two of a commercial breed type. If the bin is at a constant, or mostly non variable warm temperature, after two weeks of being left alone, remove the fleeces from the bin. Try to preserve as much of the steel water as possible to re-use in the next batch. As the enzymes from the fleece create a cleaning agent, this brew is precious. If as much of the wastewater can be used for the next batch, it will be stronger and full of helpful bacteria.
Next, immerse the fleeces in a separate bin of clean, soft water for 24 hours. This is a rinse. This stage can be repeated a few times, depending on what needs to be rinsed out, how clear the water becomes. As this rinse water is less strong, it can be used as a fertiliser.
Once happy with the rinsing, spread the fleeces out to dry naturally. A rack is helpful, as the gaps allow air to circulate. Once dry, the odour should be minimal. A few drops of essential oil can be added to the final rinse.
The fleeces can now be carded or teased into locks. There are many helpful and far more descriptive online tutorials as each person may tweak their own method depending on the fleece being cleaned. Ouessants offer small, different coloured fleeces so maybe using smaller bins would help to avoid tangling or merging colours. Once you have such a valued washed fleece, especially if from a beloved pet, you may wish to learn to card or spin. When safe to do so, a visit to a local craft group or event may inspire. Hopefully, the Ouessant Breed Society will soon be able to offer free tutorials and opportunities to learn woolly crafts and skills.
If washing fleece seems too difficult, it can be mulched into your garden. Breeders can always sell washed and unwashed fleece to spinners and weavers. Etsy is a wide reaching online marketplace. Ouessant fleece is highly valued and scarce.
And if you’d like to donate your fleece to the Society, we will arrange for them to forwarded to craft groups and Jin Talog. In return Jin Talog have agreed to include some OSS publicity in all packages containing Ouessant fleece (see pic, above), it may help to promote the breed and in turn increase membership. If you are interested please email Morah on firstname.lastname@example.org
Do value and enjoy your fleece. It is very special, both on and off the sheep.
Author: Morah Etchells