Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fleece to Fabric

Sorry about this post being so long, I just couldn’t help going into teacher mode.

I truly believe that wool is a miraculous fiber. It grows on sheep each year and we get to enjoy the company of sheep while this happens. Sheep are actually quite smart- at being a sheep. They have well develop predator avoidance instincts which make them appear less than “smart” as compared to other predatory species like dogs. But I digress; I want this post to be a description of how wool from a sheep becomes cloth.

The type of wool you get from a sheep depends on the breed of sheep. I have read that there are over 190 different breeds of sheep around the world. Each breed has come from people breeding the animals to select specific characteristics, fineness or coarseness of the wool, quality of meat, mothering abilities, disease resistance, etc..

Wool can be so soft that babies can wear it next to the skin, or so coarse that it holds up in rugs for many years. Wool has crimp or waves in the fiber which give it “memory” to return to its original shape. This allows us to knit garments which continue to fit for years. As long as we don’t change our shape ;)

Some sheep grow wool so long that they need shearing 2 times per year, but most get a haircut once per year. This shearing process is normally not too stressful for the sheep because skilled shearers know how to place the animal and can shear quickly and carefully. My sheep seem to remember the routine after a few times and just relax during the process. Plus, I have a really good shearer!

One of my black sheep being sheared.

The quality of the fiber is determined by many factors, the health of the animal, the timing of shearing, the skill of the shearer, and the skill of the shepherd during the year in keeping vegetation out of the wool.

Once the wool or ”Fleece” is off the sheep it is “skirted” which is basically a sorting and discarding process. The name comes from taking the dirty, poopy, contaminated edges or “skirt” of the fleece off the good parts of the fleece.

Family helping with skirting. It was rainy so we did it inside the shop.

The fleece then needs to be washed which is called “scouring”. This involves soaking the wool in very HOT water with soap to dissolve the lanoline off the fiber. For commercial operations all the lanolin is removed before further processing otherwise it would gum up the machines. Large processors can extract the lanolin, purify it and then it is used in all kinds of products ranging from rust preventative coatings to cosmetics to lubricants.

Scouring removes the grease (lanolin) from the fleece and most of the dirt, but it doesn’t remove any vegetation that is tangled in the fibers. Sheep acquire hay, seeds and other debris over the course of the year in their wool. The less of this vegetation in the fiber, the better the quality yarn and fabric.

Wool on the drying racks.

The wet wool is dried and then “picked”. Picking is the process of opening up the locks of fiber. It can be done by hand or by machine. I use a machine. As the locks are opened, debris falls out and the wool looks like fluffy cotton candy.

My Picker, designed and built by genius husband, Dave.

If the wool is going to by dyed, it can be done before picking and the fiber is said to be “Dyed in the Wool”. Of course yarn can be dyed and so can fabric, but the highest quality and best color comes from dying in the wool.

Now its time for carding the wool. Commercial carding is the process of using a machine with rolls covered in wire “brushes” (basically it looks like the rolls are coved with the ends of thousands of staples) to brush the wool, open up the fibers further and somewhat align them. Sort of like brushing your hair. If you have ever seen a dog slicker brush, that is what the carding surface looks like. Of course it is more complicated than this explanation, there are different gauges of wire, different types, and the distances between carding rolls must be adjusted depending on the type of fiber being carded.

Dyed picked wool on the in-feed of the card.

When we purchased our card which was built in 1925, we had no idea how to set up all the rolls. I searched out old carding manuals on Ebay and those helped us to set up the machine. There was also some trial and error involved in the beginning.

Dyed wool coming off the card as Roving. The roving maker is another Dave design.

Commercial carding for hand spinning results in a long thick or thin (depending on machine) ropelike collection of wool called “Roving”. The wool fibers are arranged somewhat randomly, not parallel so hand spinners can spin a fluffy “woolen” yarn. Further processing the roving in a combing machine results in “Combed Top” which aligns the wool fibers parallel to each other, eliminated all debris and stretches out the crimp of the fiber. Spinners can then spin a smooth “worsted” yarn from combed wool top. Commercial processors for the non-hand spinning market have other terms for the products coming off of the card- “pencil roving” or “sliver” (pronounced with a long “i” not like “river”).

One thing I notice quite often is the confusion between “roving” and “combed top” or “top”. Shops and their customers confuse the two and new spinners often don’t know what product they are purchasing or how to spin it.

Hand spinning involves taking the roving and twisting it into the thickness of single ply yarn that you want. You can accomplish this many ways, by rolling the fiber on your leg, by a simple spindle that you twirl, or on a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel comes in many varieties and is designed for different types of fiber or end yarn. (I won’t even begin to discuss plant fibers here, cotton, linen, etc.) Many wheels are versatile these days and will allow you to spin just about anything.

I use an electric wheel to save my arthritic knees, but the hand motions are the same only the power is different.

Some of my hand spun yarn.

Once you have yarn singles, then it can be plyed with other strands to make it stronger or thicker. It really depends on your end use of the yarn. Of course yarn is then used in knitting, crochet, needle point and weaving.

Weaving at its most basic is taking yarn and passing strands over and under each other. The Loom allows weavers to make more complicated patterns by raising and lowering Warp threads so that Weft threads can be passed between them. The number of types of looms is huge and each culture around the world came up with their own unique twist on the loom to serve their needs.

Front of the loom, you can see the cloth with the shuttle holding the weft thread.

The back of the loom, showing warp threads which go through "heddles" which can be lifted to lift the warp threads.

Our wool mill only processes wool to the roving stage, we do not commercially spin yarn or weave cloth. However, I spin yarn and weave for my own fun. I find spinning very calming and meditative, while weaving involves lots of math and calculations of yardage and thread interlacements. Weaving appeals to my scientific/math brain.

So this is the very simplified description of how wool gets from fleece to fabric. If you read this whole long post, Wow! Hopefully, I’ve not made too many errors and have conveyed some new information.

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