#1year1outfit: well-oiled… and waterproof?

Halfway through my week long suint soak, I heard from the Montgomeryshire Spinners, Weavers and Dyers. They were more than happy to teach me how to card and spin my wool but if I wanted to use any of their equipment to process my own wool, I’d need to wash out as much lanolin as possible to avoid leaving deposits that are nigh on impossible to get out. Feeling a bit hangdog, I fished a portion of my festering fleece out of its bath, subjected it to a very thorough hot washing, and the next evening had a delightfully unfragrant and fluffy cloud of wool resting atop my airer. As I nuzzled into it, I spared a thought for its soggy sister, still hanging out in the polytunnel…

suintThen realised I had the perfect ‘compare and contrast’ experiment on my hands! To suint or not to suint: soon to be decided…

After 2 weeks my suint bath looked like this (see above). It first developed a milky film, which I’ve read it should do… and a bit of a smell (but nothing like as bad as I’d expected) …then an alarmingly RED algae. This might be because I didn’t have enough suint in the first fleece, but whatever the reason, I can’t deny it made me feel momentarily like throwing in my towel. Composure reclaimed, I decided to cold rinse the now rather pink fleece and see what happened. I should say at this point that I was operating almost in the dark… (I’d gone out to check on things just before bedtime, panicked at the red bloom in the tub and couldn’t rest until the issue was resolved.) So I rinsed until the pink seemed to have gone, and in the fresh night air the suint soaked fleece didn’t smell too bad, but when I brought it inside there were disparaging remarks. I shrugged my shoulders, spun the fleece in the machine and set it to dry knowing that we’d be away for a few days camping…

When we returned a few days later, there was no significant smell – only a faint whiff close up – and here, ladies and gentlemen, are the results:



Can you tell which is which? Admittedly a little more cold rinsing could have taken out the last of that pink cast. The suint fleece is top right and bottom left… and apart from the definite feel of lanolin in the suint washed fleece, both are nicely clean except from the last bits at the tips which should come out with carding.

So, what now? You may have detected a little ambivalence on my part in relation to washing generally. I have to admit I tend to adopt the ‘less is more principle’  when it comes to washing, and the suint method certainly seems to fit that mould. It seems sensible to use the gift of suint and lanolin naturally present in the fleece as a sort of permaculture fleece washing, just one step up in labour intensiveness from forebears who slung a fleece over a dry stone wall and left it to be washed by the rain.

I’ve also read with interest about ‘spinning in the grease’ and the fact that lanolin in unspun wool can make spinning easier/smoother on a freshly shorn fleece, as well as being good for your hands. (Or is it? One spinner admits she is never quite sure of the currency of her tetanus jab, and because of this she prefers to work with scoured wool, just in case.) These issues aside, the same spinner writes a useful explanation of cultural preferences when it comes to the order in which wool is spun, scoured and/or dyed, the inference being that everyone has a strong opinion on spinning in the grease but that all garment wool is scoured at some point. So does suint washing count as scouring?

Dirt, or no dirt, the real difference here I suppose is lanolin.

The women on my mother’s side of the family have always been reluctant to wash their woollens, backing their (familiar) wash-aversion up with claims that each wash diminishes the natural lanolin content of the wool, which they assert is desirable and has the effect of a kind of beneficial waterproofing. I realise now that most wool in garments will have been subjected to hot water, if not before spinning, then during the dyeing process (which in fact might happen before spinning in the case of Scottish ‘dyers in the wool’). As a result, the lanolin content in most woollen garments will not be huge. However, faced with an oily fleece, I realise that matrilineal opinion runs deep: This lanolin/waterproofing thing is important to me. My mother and grandmother are Scottish, and Gran was known to knit authentic Aran jumpers – the type worn by traditional fishermen working off the coast of Scotland. It is said that the original Aran jumpers were indeed waterproof by virtue of being knitted from unscoured undyed wool… but when I check this, according to today’s producers, ‘traditional’ Aran jumpers are no longer made this way, supposedly for health and safety reasons.


Diappointed, I turned to a book that I treasure, ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’, written by Gladys Thompson in the 1950s. She undertook a comprehensive survey of traditional hand-knitted Guernsey/Jersey patterns, recording them for posterity, memorising the stitches straight off the back of fishermen as they varied port to port and between families. These garments were weatherproof, well-made and most poignantly, designed to identify any fisherman who fell to their death in the cold, wild seas. The logic of this textile vernacular fascinates me, especially when it relates to my own habitat. (So what if I’m not a fisherwoman? I live in Wales and I see a LOT of water.) However, on close reading, I learn that a Guernsey jumper, which is blue (i.e.. dyed at some point… in hot water?), “gradually fades to the lovely grey blue, only seen after years of exposure and the effects of wear, weather, washing and salt water. They are waterproof, and knitted in thick worsted on fine needles they turn a large amount of water”. The implication here is that the waterproof qualities of such a jumper are down to the high degree of twist in the yarn and the density of the knitted fabric, not the high lanolin content of the wool.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that yes, suint fermentation does seem to take the dirt out of a fleece, but leaves much of the lanolin intact. Spinning in, or out of, the grease is largely a matter of preference. Lanolin does have a waterproofing function (especially for a sheep!) but is greasy to the touch… and there are other ways of manipulating wool to maximise water resistance. Which is not to mention that wool is also rather good at absorbing water and actually warms up when it does so…

Better acquainted with my wool, I have decided to employ a mix of washing techniques depending on the end purpose of each part of my fleece. I think I may have found one very useful role for that lanolin…


  • fliss

    I can almost smell the woolly jumpers as you write… loving these posts.

  • Mummy

    Gosh,I think you could put this research up for a PHD!! Fascinating personal journey in textiles.xx

  • Mummy

    Me again! I have a feeling you were attributing the Scottish Island of Arran with the Aran sweatet patterns. I believe the origin was Aran off the Irish coast.

    • zoequick

      Reading back through I can see how the Arran/Aran connection might come across a bit confusingly. For anyone reading: my Gran did live in Scotland, quite near the coast and the Isle of ARRAN… but the Scottish tradition in fishermen’s sweaters actually migrated to the Scottish coast from the IsleS of ARAN (the largest are Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer) off the West coast of Ireland. The book I’ve referred to above has some fascinating facts about the origins of the Guernsey/Gansey/Jersey tradition and the Aran tradition… and how they relate to location and each other… enough for another long post one day!

    • I got married in September 2007 and 3 of my mo#m7821&;s friends made my bridesmaids dresses. They cost about $ 80 each. It’s way cheaper to make them if you can. It also gives you alot more options because you can find anything you want as far as fabric goes.

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