Spinning Basics – Washing/Scouring Fleece

Spinning Basics: Washing Your Fleece (Scouring)

As with many things craft related, there are many ways of doing the same thing and washing fleece is no exception. The main aim of scouring is to thoroughly clean your fleece by removing the dirt, some lanolin and sweat  from the fibre.  However, there is no reason why you cannot use your fleece ‘as is’  straight from the sheep and spin it ‘in the grease’.  There is a strange pleasure in handling and spinning wool in this way but be prepared to get yourself and your equipment (and anything near it) very mucky.  

Depending on the fleece and how you’ve prepared it the greasy lanolin will help to hold your fibres together as you put in the twist to make your yarn.  Indeed, it is a must for me personally not to remove all of this precious lanolin when I clean my fleeces.  A super, squeaky clean fleece can be very dry and not a pleasure to spin and in some cases I’ve had to add oil back in using a spritz of water and mineral oil to make it more manageable.

If I put my Anglo Saxon head on for a moment, it is my belief that our ancestors would not have had ready access to the amount of soap (which they would have had to make or obtain from plants) and fresh, clean water to wash the amount of fleece they probably would have processed in one way or another every day. But this is a subject for another paper and leads me to my preferred method of ‘washing’ my fleeces and the way I’m sure it would have been done many moons ago:

Suinting – a Suint Bath or the Suint Fermentation Method (FSM).


suint[ soo-int, swint ]SHOW IPA

the natural grease of the wool of sheep, consisting of a mixture of fatty matter and potassium salts, used as a source of potash and in the preparation of ointments.

Suint basically is the sheeps’ sweat.  Without getting too scientific, it contains salts and organic acids which dissolve in cold water and, along with bacteria, act as a natural soap and cleaning agent which eats through most of the solid matter (mostly poop) in a very efficient way. Leaving a dirty fleece soaking in this way and reusing the same water for the next fleece, and the next fleece, uses water very economically and as the ‘mixture’ gets stronger the faster it works.  The bonus is that the bacteria involved in this process are anaerobic, which means that once the fleece is out of the water and in an oxygen rich environment, they die and therefore the smell goes away; and it does!


Best done OUTSIDE.  It will SMELL.  Works best in warm to hot weather.

  • Get yourself 2 tubs of some description (one for rinsing). I use one of the largest size trugs from the garden centre but you can use a large plastic storage box with or without a lid.  Some say put a lid on but I usually only cover it with some netting or mesh to stop any wildlife from falling in.   You just need a container large enough for the amount of fleece that you have and be able to cover it with water.  If you can leave it out to collect rain water or have access to rain water, this is the best to use.  If not ordinary tap water will do but I find rain water gives a softer end result.

The dirtier and more greasy your first fleece the better.  Subsequent fleeces can be cleaner but getting your first suint bath off to a good (dirty) start helps a lot.  

Top tip:  I use net laundry bags to divide my fleece up into manageable amounts.  A large wet fleece can be very heavy and the net also makes it easier to remove the fleece from the water and put it to drain, rinse and dry.

  • Add your fleece to the rain water and leave it preferably in the sun but if the outside temperature is warm to hot that will do perfectly.  Leave it for a week.  You can put a lid on if you prefer.  It does keep out flying bugs but I don’t bother. However I do cover it with a grill of some kind or even a piece of wood to stop birds from falling in.

Now let the magic begin.  The water will become brown almost tea-like and after a few fleeces have been in the same water it may also get sludgy and thicker.  This is good.  You may see some bubbles or a film on top, this is also a good sign that things are working but don’t worry if you don’t notice this.

  • After a 5 days or so (not a critical amount of time) remove your fleece and squeeze as much water from it as possible.  I find it easier to let it drain on some wire mesh, letting the water drain back into the original container.  If you have another fleece to clean, put it in the same suint bath you can top it up with water if necessary.

Optional Step 1:  Rinse the fleece (just once) in some clean rain water in a separate tub.  This is not necessary but I find it helps to remove some of the accumulated dirt. Again you can use tap water.

Optional Step 2:  After rinsing I spin the fleece ( in the net bag) on the spin cycle of my washing machine.  Some people use a dedicated spin dryer (old fashioned type).  Again not necessary but it removes a lot more water and speeds drying time.

Optional Step 3: If the fleece is exceptionally greasy or dirty sometimes I have soaked it for 15 minutes or so in some warm to hot water with a little soap added. DO NOT AGITATE! Then rinsed and dried.  This is really only necessary in a very few cases when I’ve either not been able to soak it for long enough in the bath, been short of time, the weather has turned colder or if you prefer to have less lanolin in your wool. 

Warning!  Unless you know your fleece will not felt easily be very careful not to agitate in the water or put it through a wash cycle in the machine! 

After draining/rinsing/spinning, I lay the fleece out on a sheet or bench (depending on how much you have processed you can even hang the net bag up on the washing line) to dry and turn it every hour or so to give it a good airing and make sure it’s dry before storing or using. There may or may not be a faint smell to the fleece.  It will disappear completely eventually but will definitely not smell bad!  Let your fleece dry before you bring it back indoors, wet fleece is not the nicest smell!

The water you have used to rinse your fleece makes a good fertiliser for your garden as does the suint bath when you no longer have any fleeces to soak but I recommend you dilute it first before adding to your prize veg!

If it’s too cold to soak your fleece outside I recommend washing it in small batches by:

  • Running a bowl of hand hot water (you don’t need soap unless it’s exceptionally dirty or greasy) let your fleece soak for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Rinse in the same temperature water.  Move the fleece as little as possible to avoid it becoming felted. Again leave to soak for 15 to 20 minutes then drain and dry.
  • Don’t let the water cool too much before removing your fleece ot the lanolin will settle back into the fibre.

Again, lots of videos on Youtube on washing and preparing fleece but be careful, some are better than others.  Experiment and choose a method that works for you. Be prepared for a disaster or two, accidents happen and there’s always more fleece!

After scouring, your fleece/wool is ‘clean’ but any vegetable matter that was in there will mostly still be there.  So, on to Step 3  preparing your fibre for spinning by combing and carding.