Washing wool – the Cold Water Method, Part One

I first heard about the cold water method of washing wool on the Ravelry forums. The poster was referring to an article in Spin-Off Magazine by Judtith MacKenzie-McCuin that details a fermented suint wool bath.

I’ll admit that I didn’t attend to all of the instructions, figuring that it couldn’t be all that hard, could it? Seems logical – wash dirty fleece outside in a tub or somesuch with water from the hose, letting it sit for a number of days to dissolve the dirt, rinsing as needed. Sure, it would take more time than using the sink and hot water inside, but it was also a pretty hands-off method, and I had a lot of raw Romney fleece to get washed and we all know that soaking is the key to washing wool without felting and speed isn’t necessarily advisable. The instructions didn’t even call for soap!

I have a crawfish cooker that Mom picked up somewhere years ago that has a removable insert with drain holes that seemed perfect for the job. It holds 32 gallons and is black to help soak up the heat of the sun.

First, the fleece needed to be skirted –

This fleece comes from a herd of registered Romney sheep that was bred by a spinner who is sadly now gone. His son is keeping the flock genetics going but is not really interested in the “wool stuff.” Happily, this means he sells the fleece pretty cheap for the quality of the wool, but it also means that the fleeces have more than their fair share of VM, poop and tangled, dirty bits. The picture above shows the fleece after skirting – about 60% remains, but I’m not too worried about the high loss percentage – what’s left is really Good Stuff.

The fleece looks very brownish-yellow, but it will wash up to be a sparkling white.

Out to the back yard and into the cooker –

You can better see the much cleaner butt ends of the wool locks. I just stuffed it all into the pot and used the hose to add water.

The wool will float to the top, so push it down until it’s all under water –

Put the lid on and walk away for a few days. When I washed this particular fleece the daytime temps were in the 70’s and the pot got pretty warm sitting in the afternoon sun. I didn’t worry about the temperature changing from day-time warm to night-time cool as the change would be slow and there would be no agitation to felt the wool.

After 5 days, the pot was smelling pretty bad and I was becoming worried that something was wrong. I mean, it was really bad!

I lifted the insert out and set it on the lawn. This is what the water looked like in the pot –

Yikes! And the stench! The wool did look much cleaner and didn’t seem to smell – only the water had that awful odor. I dumped the water out…

::A word to the wise, if you’re doing this sort of thing in leather sandals, do mind where you dump the water – water flows downhill – and try to keep your feet dry. If you don’t, you will wonder, hours later, where that foul smell is coming from::

and rinsed the pot well with water from the hose. I also sprayed the fleece in the insert with water, then put the whole thing back together and filled with water. I let it sit for a few more days, rinsed again and put it all in for one more soak.

So, a total of three soaks and I was ready to be done with this experiment – I still had a lot of wool to wash and very little time to get it done.

The main problem with this method is that the wool is very wet right out of the pot. I couldn’t use my washing machine to spin out the excess water because it wasn’t working reliably, so I had to come up with something else. In the end The Beast and I set the wool on on old sheet which we then rolled up the long way into a tube with the fleece in the middle. We then began to twist in opposite directions and watched as the water was wrung out of the fleece. I would have liked to have been able to get more water out, but it was better than nothing.

The fleece sat on a dry sheet in the yard for a couple of days before it was dry. I noted with relief that there was no trace of that awful smell in the fleece.

Here’s the finished fleece –

Not as Bright White as I’d hoped, but the lanolin hasn’t been washed out and it should card up nicely. It doesn’t feel dirty, and the locks separate easily in preparation of drum carding it.

Here’s a closer look –

Generally speaking, white fleece that I’ve washed in the past has gotten cleaner using hot water and soap, but this isn’t bad. I don’t buy much white fleece because I prefer the natural colors, even for dye experiments, so maybe I’m not the best judge.

After this experiment I washed some natural gray fleece the same way and it came out cleaner feeling, but of course there couldn’t be a dramatic color change to show how much dirt might have remained in the fleece. When I start carding it I’ll report back.

My most recent experiment involves a nice black fleece with *lots* of tiny VM in it. I added a splash of blue Dawn to the water and will let it sit for at least a week to see if the VM truly dissolves as the fermented suint fans say it will.

Tune in for more adventures in Cold Water Wool Washing.

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