Rainwater and a Suint Bath

Wool fleece soaking in a kitchen sink

Last weekend began with blessedly heavy rain and ended with a fermented suint bath for a sheep fleece I sheared almost one year ago, a souvenir from my first week of shearing school. I hear you’re supposed to wash a fleece within six months of shearing it, and I had every intention of doing that… last May.

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Saturday’s heavy rain meant that I’d finally captured enough rainwater to start processing my fleece via the fermentation suint method (FSM), which I recently learned of from the fellow Farm Club members of Meridian Jacobs. While out at the farm, I saw two new-to-me methods of processing fleece with rainwater.

First, I saw Robin Lynde’s Jacob fleece spread out on a wooden pallet and tied down with a piece of wire mesh to prevent dogs and other critters from running off with it. The wire mesh had wider than average spaces to allow for rain to wash the fleece, and pallet slats enabled excess water to drain through to the ground. I was impressed: the fleece appeared scoured from rainfall alone. Later, I saw that the underside was less clean, which could probably be solved by flipping the fleece midway through the rain or scrubbing it with a grease-cutting soap like Dawn afterward.

Then, I watched as another Farm Club member plopped an entire fleece into a large plastic garbage can full of rainwater and put the cover on. As someone who learned that two to three water baths, a de-greasing soap AND a good scrub are required for fleece cleaning, I was stunned. How was a fleece supposed to get clean just sitting in a rain barrel?!

The wise women of Farm Club enlightened me with the science of the fermentation suint bath method, which most everyone appears to have learned from either the Three Bags Full DVDs or this blog post or both, neither of which this novice had ever heard of. This biology lesson was brief:

“Oh, suint is the sweat from the sheep, which is in your dirty fleece, obviously. Suint is made of potassium salts and, when added to lanolin and water, sort of creates its own soap that, over a week or so, washes the fleece. The fleece just sort of washes itself.”

Oh, sure, OK. The fleece just washes itself. No big deal.

As if it were the most normal thing in the world, this low effort, water conscious, fleece cleaning miracle!

I was gobsmacked but decided to try it, as I needed to do something with my filthy Targhee fleece. I’d previously scoured small parts of the fleece experimentally, but felt too guilty about how much water it used to continue: one sink full to soak it, one with Dawn in it, and one to rinse. This sink felt like a Scarlet Letter:

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In a serious drought year, I couldn’t bring myself to use so much clean water for washing a fleece. So I didn’t.

For the past few weeks, I’ve collected both rainwater and tap water with an eye toward my FSM experiment. I am pretty extreme in my tap water conservation methods, but am also pleasantly surprised at how low our water bills are and how much I am able to save for fleece washing and plant watering.

I keep two, gallon size pitchers beside the kitchen sink. I fill them with every scrap of tap water I can muster: water from the salad spinner soak, leftover bits of water from our guests’ drinking glasses, the rinse water from the coffee pot and lightly soiled dishes. This water is used to water our plants or, if clean enough, to wash the car (which gets a rinse anyhow).

I also have a bucket that captures excess shower water. You know that period of time when you start the shower water and wait for it to warm up? I keep a bucket in the bathroom and capture every drop. It’s a LOT of water.

This means that — in a departure from instructions — my suint bath is not comprised entirely, or even primarily, of rainwater. Mine is perhaps 20-25% rainwater and 75-80% tap water. I’ll report on how this works. San Francisco water is supposedly soft enough that it should be fine, but we’ll see.

Today I spent several hours picking vegetable matter out of my fleece. The predominant plant matter is pickers like these, though there is a depressingly high number of plastic bits as well:

2014-03-30 13.29.26Husband sneaked up on me, conveniently enough for this post. You can see several rain capture vessels in the background. The covered blue tub contains the suint bath:


The first suint bath is supposed to take about one week, so I’ll let you know how it’s going (or if it’s “going” at all) next Sunday. I think it may be too cold outside for fermentation to get going, but we’ll see. From what I read, the FSM is not something to be attempted indoors: the already stinky sheep fleece and the fermentation combine to produce a pretty substantial stink. More soon!

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