Preparing Wool For Spinning

“To speak then first of the making of woolen cloth, it is the office of the husbandman at the shearing of his sheep to bestow upon the housewife such a competent proportion of wool as shall be convenient for the clothing of his family;

which wool, as soon as she hath received it, she shall open, and with a pair of shears (the fleece lying as it were whole before her) she shall cut away all the coarse locks, pitch, brands, tarred locks, and other felterings, and lay them by themselves for coarse coverlids [coverlets], or the like:

then the rest so cleaned she shall break into pieces, and toze [tease, e.g. flick-card] it every lock by lock, that is with her hands open, and divide the wool so as not any part thereof may be feltered or close together, but all open and loose;”

– Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (1615)

It would be nice if we could get wool directly off the sheep that was immediately suitable for spinning. Spinning in the grease is the preferred method for some spinners, but is only practical if the sheep has been specifically raised and cared for with the future spinner in mind. Rarely does this happen, so we are usually forced to clean and prepare our wool before we can sit down with a drop spindle or at a spinning wheel to spin it into yarn.

Skirting the fleece

Skirting the fleece is a first attempt to clean it of dirt and fibers that will not be suitable for spinning. When you examine a whole fleece, directly off the sheep, you can see that it has distinct regions, some of which are made up of wool that is coarser or finer than other areas. Usually wool from around the tail area and wool at the outer extremities is discarded because it is too dirty or has too many short, broken fibers or too much kemp caught up in it to make it worth cleaning. The wool from the shoulder area, the back and the sides is usually first grade wool, with an even staple and less vegetable matter caught up. Wool from the rump and haunches is normally coarser fiber, and will be of a lower quality, though still suitable for cleaning and spinning. Any second cuts places where the shearer made a second pass with his clippers that left short fibers behind that are found as the fleece is examined would also be discarded at this time.

Washing Wool

Washing wool, believe it or not, is really not all that difficult a project. The main rules are 1) use water as hot as you can manage, and 2) don’t agitate the wool

Washing quickly

If you plan to comb or card your wool later, and simply want to get it washed and dried as efficiently as possible, I suggest washing in your top loading washing machine, using the hottest water you can manage (disconnect your cold water intake hose, and use at least 120 deg., 140 deg. if possible). Put up to 6 lbs. of unwashed wool into your washer, add a detergent or shampoo of some sort – some people recommend ERA, while I have used a combination of Orvus Paste (an animal shampoo) and Dawn dishwashing detergent. Then fill the washer with the hot water. I recommend wearing a rubber glove, so that you can gently work the detergent into the fleece. Do not agitate the wool — you could wind up with a very large doughnut of wool felt in your washer if you do.

Let the fleece stand for 10-15 minutes in the hot water, then spin out the dirty water. You will be amazed at how dirty it can be, too! Fill again with plain hot rinse water, gently move the fleece around a little, let it stand a few minutes, and spin out again. Repeat all of this, with a couple rinses at the end, then put the fleece on a screen to dry, so that air can flow both above and below the wool. In the summer, I put the screen, braced between two chairs, on our covered deck which is protected from the heaviest breezes; in the winter, I set the screen in the laundry room so that a fan (on a low setting) can circulate air both over and under the fleece. Usually, the wool is dry within a couple days.

Washing while preserving lock structure

If you prefer spinning from the lock, and would like to wash your wool while preserving the natural lock structure, this is certainly possible. You will need to carefully placing the locks onto a piece of netting, then fold, roll and tie the wool into a secure package. You will need to hand wash using several tubs of hot water, in order to thoroughly wash out all of the dirt, oil and wax buildup in the wool. Plan on two washtubs of decreasing soap intensity, and a rinse tub to get the last of the soap off.

This method takes longer than the one described above, but can produce results equal to, if not cleaner than, the faster method, and will preserve the locks so that you can spin directly from them — something many spinners prefer to do. If you are interested, you will find a fairly thorough chapter on fiber preparation in The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning.

Oiling the Wool

There are those who advocate putting lubricant (5% to 10% by weight olive oil is often suggested) back into the wool, after you have scoured all of the grease and contaminants out. I can understand their logic, as lubricant would help produce smoother spinning, but I will say that I have never tried this, and there are many others who see no need for it, either. This is another case of personal preference governing your choices in the end.

“After your wool is oiled and anointed thus, you shall then tum it which is, you shall put it forth as you did before when you mix it, and card it again over your stock cards: and to then those cardings which you strike off are called tummings, which ye shall lay by till it come to spinning.”

– Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (1615)

Combing and Carding

Combing and carding wool, once it is washed, helps organize the wool fibers so they draft smoothly and produce an even thread easily. There are several possible methods, which we will review below.

Flick carding

Flick carding uses a small brush, shaped much like a dog brush, to open up the locks and allow for easy spinning from the locks. Take a lock of wool, hold it at the base of the fibers, and flick through the tip of the lock with the brush to spread out the fibers and allow for a more smooth flow through the drafting area while you spin. While this won’t align all the fibers in the lock, but it will be easier to control the fibers as you draft.

Combing

Wool combing is an ancient way of processing wool, and the remnants of combs have been found in archaeological digs. This is a fiber preparation technique that depends on having a well-preserved lock structure, as the locks are placed on the wool combs in such a way that they can be pulled off by the second comb. Wool with fairly long staples, at least 4″ – 5″ or more, is often processed using combs, and the thread produced is usually a smooth, solid worsted. Expect to lose a lot of fiber using this method, as shorter fibers will be left in the combs. (These shorter fibers can be carded and will produce a more woolen yarn that can be used for another project.)

Wool combs have tines that are several inches long, and can be either straight or slightly curved. They are rated by the numbers of rows of tines they have, with more rows being used for finer wool. Usually, one comb is either held with the tines pointing up or clamped to a solid surface with the tines upright. This comb is loaded, by taking locks of wool and sliding them down the tines, with the cut ends facing the handle. When the tines are one half to two thirds full, the second comb is used to pass through the free ends of the wool, with the tines pointing at a 90 to 180 deg. angle from the clamped tines. Combing through the wool this way catches the longer fibers onto the free comb, knocking out much of the dirt and kemp that might be caught in the locks, and leaving behind fibers too short to be considered usable for worsted spinning. Several passes may be needed to completely clean and align the fibers, with the shorter fibers being discarded on each pass. Switch off which comb is clamped or held stationary each time. Once the fibers are sufficiently combed, they are normally drawn off the comb through a hole in a disc or through a small funnel like device, a “diz”, so that a very thin roving, called “sliver”, is produced. Laying the slivers out so that they are aligned produces the top that is spun for worsted wool.

Wool combs are not toys, and anyone experienced with using wool combs knows the need to be alert to everything going on around them so that nobody is injured while the combs are out and in use. The tines should never be interlocked, and while you are combing, you need to be careful that the tines are not bent by the pressure of the wool being pulled away.

Carding

Carding is the most common way of processing wool, although it took the technological innovation that allowed the drawing of much finer wires more accurately to allow cards to be produced. Carded wool fibers are not nearly so precisely aligned as combed fibers, and the fiber loss due to carding is much less than that lost to combing. On the other hand, it’s much easier to handle a set of hand cards than it is to handle a set of wool combs. Carding may be favored now because so much of the yarn produced by handspinners is used for knitting and crochet.

The tines on hand cards are fairly short, and the bend in each wire points toward the handle. These tines are meant to hold the wool on one card while the other card drags the wool off. This action doesn’t completely align the wool fibers, as combing does, but does blend the different locks together, and knocks much of the remaining dust and dirt out of the wool.

To card wool, you first need to charge (load wool onto) the cards. Sit down with one card in your off hand. Take a small wad of wool in your dominant hand, and brush it across your card, away from the handle. Cover the face of the card moderately well with wool — you want to be able to see the tines of this card, but you don’t want to see too much of the card surface. Take the other card and, holding the cards flat with handles pointing in opposite directions, draw the tines of the empty upper card gently over the face of the other card, catching some of the wool from the full card into the tines of the empty card. (Try not to mesh the tines of the cards together as you brush across the wool, or you risk bending them out of alignment.) Repeat these actions 4-6 times, gathering more wool each time onto the upper card, until you feel the wool is sufficiently well mixed and cleaned.

Once you reach this stage, you need to get the wool off the cards and into a form you will be able to spin from, a rolag. Hold the cards with the tines sides facing each other and both handles pointed down. Brush one card s face upwards, across the other card, so that all the wool is caught on the other card. Then draw that card down, across the card holding all the wool, and roll the wool into an egg roll shaped tube. As you do so, take the opportunity to pick out the most annoying bits of straw and dirt you will find in your wool. (There is always more.)

Once you have your rolag, it is ready to spin. Card a few more rolags, so that you won’t have to stop your spinning to go back and card more wool.

Drum carding

In period, it is often noted that it took up to ten spinners to keep one weaver fully occupied, and at least three carders to keep one spinner spinning. We no longer have the luxury of a small cluster of people carding wool for us, so having access to a drum carder can do much to relieve the back up for the modern day spinner. There may be a few illustrations showing what could be drum carding during our period, but for our modern day purposes, it is so much more efficient than hand carding or combing that a drum carder can prove very valuable to any spinner.

Drum carding is hand carding on a much larger scale it organizes the wool into a semi regular alignment, while knocking out much of the remaining dirt and dust. Drum carders produce large batts of reasonably organized wool fibers, which can be easily ripped into strips of roving for spinning.

A drum carder has two different sized drums, covered in carding cloth with the same bent tines seen on the hand cards, sitting on a frame just slightly apart from each other, so that the tines of the drums barely miss each other as they turn. The drums are connected by a drive band, fitted in a figure eight manner so that the drums turn in opposite directions, producing the same carding effect as we saw with the hand cards, only on a much larger scale. The wool is fed in slowly under the smaller drum, and the larger drum catches all of the longer fibers, leaving the shorter fibers and second cuts on the small drum. Again, quite a lot of dirt and dust will be knocked out during the carding you may want to put something under the carder to catch all the dirt.

Tweezers are very useful for plucking out the worst offenders that don’t want to come out otherwise.

To remove the wool from the carder, you need to use a doffing rod of some sort. Run it along the seam of the carding cloth, gently lifting the wool up every inch or two, and gradually peeling it back off the tines of the drum. Pull the wool off the drum and either lay it flat, to be split into roving strips or roll it into a large rolag to be spun from as is. One batt is generally the equivalent of seven or eight hand card rolags for spinning.

Conclusion

Ultimately, what modern tools you use as you process your wool for spinning are your choice. We no longer have family members who can be dedicated to the processing of fibers, the spinning of thread, or the weaving of cloth, as were available back in medieval times. We need to use the modern tools, sometimes, to compensate for this. Just be sure you know how it was done in period, and explain how the changes you have made impact the product you produce. And have fun while you are working to create new thread with your hands.

Further Resources

Amos, Alden, (2001), The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning, Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 495 pp. ISBN: 1-883010-88-8, OCLC: 45873594. A fairly thorough and totally opinionated view of handspinning and how it should be done — he has his opinions and is not afraid to share them. Fortunately, he also has a lot of experience to back them up, both as a spinner and as a woodworker building wheels. A great browse, and worth hunting down.

Markham, Gervase, (1986), The English Housewife: Containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman; as her skill in physic, cookery, banquetting stuffe, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household, edited by Michael R. Best, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, lviii+321 pp. ISBN: 0-7735-0582-2, OCLC: 17550420. One of the many books on housewifery to come down to us, this work gives us a good feel for how typical chores were handled in Period times.

Reeve, Jo, (2006), The Ashford Book of Carding, New Zealand : Ashford Handicrafts, 92 pp., ISBN:1-877427-00-4, OCLC: 123027377. A nice overview of carding, along with a discussion of dyeing fiber to be combined by carding; liberally illustrated, and with some nice projects for the reader to try out with their new yarn

Teal, Peter, (1976), Hand Woolcombing and Spinning, Poole: Blandford Press, 184 pp. ISBN: 071370814X, OCLC: 3224228. More information about hand combing than you ever thought you would want, but a valuable resource if you want to do it properly.

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