Working with imperfect fleece: part 2, carding

Once the grease and most of the dirt are out of the way, I can get a better look at what I’m dealing with. The biggest problem in this fleece is not its length (very short, 1.5 to 1.75 inches, or 38 to 45mm) but the second cuts and other neppy bits.

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The red Xs show discrete bits of short fiber, mostly second cuts, that can be pulled out. Not easily pulled out, because this wool is fine enough that every fiber grabs onto its neighbors and tangles up with them. On a coarser wool, the second cuts often stay discrete and just drop, or can be brushed, off. The purple X is smaller but presents a bigger problem. It’s short fiber but a tiny bit and ill-defined, it’s hard to see within the fiber mass and even harder to remove: it also snarls with all the adjacent fibers, and it truly doesn’t want to leave. It will make a bump in the finished yarn . . . not a large bump, but also not an avoidable bump. (Note also the tiny scattering of debris that has fallen out of the sample as I picked the wool apart . . . it’s quite evident in the lower right corner of the photo. After five washes and three rinses, there’s still "stuff" in the wool. I figure it’s clean "stuff" by now, though.)

The whole fleece looks like the sample above. If I try to get all the stray bits out, I’ll go nuts and I won’t have much wool left to spin. If I try to pull loose the neps, I’ll also scrumble up the relatively clear parts of the locks, creating problem areas that don’t exist now.

It’s time for a zen approach to these neps. I won’t ignore them completely—the short bits don’t help either appearance or durability, and not making at least an attempt to get them out is against my nature—but I’m only going to pay attention to the obvious ones.

Now it’s time to pick a preparation tool. The wool needs preparation. I would like to see exactly how much regularity I can coax out of this
fleece. I want to show it at its best, whatever I think that is.

Spinning from the lock isn’t an option; the locks aren’t well enough defined. Simply picking and spinning won’t minimize the effect of the neps. The wool is too short for any type of combs, and the locks aren’t clear enough for that approach anyway. Flicking’s out of the question . . . again, flicking wants locks.

So I turn to carders.

I’ve been at this long enough that I have a variety to choose from.

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  1. "Cotton" carders, or carders with fine teeth.
  2. My first "wool" carders, bought unfinished many years ago. I coated them with the same finish I used on my first wheel. They have fairly fine teeth, and have been broken in so thoroughly that the teeth are very flexible.
  3. My replacement "wool" carders, newer, with slightly coarser teeth that are pretty stiff. They are also much heavier than my old carders.
  4. Not a carder but an old dog brush that I use for cleaning all of the carders when I change fibers. The teeth are splayed from use, but it still does its job just fine.

The neps will probably snag in the teeth of the fine ("cotton") carders, which I normally use for fibers as delicate as this wool. I’d feel like I was fighting to get the work done.

I think the new "wool" carders will be too harsh for what feels, under all the weight of grunge that it’s carried, like a fairly delicate batch of fiber.

I’ll use my old favorites: they win on account of their relatively fine teeth and pronounced flexibility. I also like them best, possibly because I’ve used them the most. (I’d like to find another pair that’s as lightweight and has the same density of carding cloth. I’ve been looking intermittently for a number of years.)

I charge one carder with wool. "Charging" the carder means, ideally, catching one end of each lock in the teeth and spreading wool evenly across the surface; it’s not a precise process, but you don’t want to embed the wool in the teeth, just snag a bit there so it holds momentarily. The amount of wool on the carder matters a lot. Too much or too little makes the work harder; too much is worse than too little.

This is when the wool actually looks the least promising that it will in this whole start-to-finish process—even more dismal than it did when it was dirty, because all the imperfections are glaring at me. I can see all the neps. I can’t charge the cards cleanly because of the jumbles and varying lock lengths. I pull off a couple of second cuts that pop to the surface. I leave the others that are more entangled.

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I card the wool. As it turns out, three passes does the most good without belaboring the wool and potentially snarling it. The results will never be perfectly even; that’s impossible here. I pull off a few more neps that show up on the surface of the fiber.

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After the three passes, I lift the wool out of the teeth of the carders and roll it into a rolag. Because the fiber is so fine and short, this rolag almost looks and feels like a puni (I linked to Joan Ruane there; she knows a whole lot about cotton; punis are a traditional preparation for cotton spinning).

Puni-like or not, this wool does not feel "cotton-y." It’s quite airy and offers the promise of some bounce . . . "bounce" in the fine-wool sense, which is a subtle thing. These qualities hint at the character I remember in the yarn made from this breed’s wool by a spinner who entered it in the Save the Sheep contest.

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There’s another easy-to-remove second cut at the arrow. I pull it off the surface.

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I made four rolags at the end of the evening and went to bed somewhat depressed.  I know the potential of the wool that this breed produces, and it’s going to be hard to demonstrate that with this fiber. There was clearly something special about their wool if I’ve remembered one encounter for years.

At the same time, these sheep are so seriously at risk of extinction that the caretakers of the few animals that remain—in several small flocks, geographically separated—are focusing their efforts on just keeping the animals going in an appropriate breeding population. Wool is the least of their concerns. Wool regrows. As long as the animals are alive and healthy, the wool can receive better attention in future years.

Yet if we can show how wonderful the wool is, then growing and selling the wool (carefully tended) produces another, fairly strong, economic force to support this conservation effort.

I almost started spinning to see how the fiber would look as yarn, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t even hint at the potential, but I didn’t want to do that when I was tired. I went to sleep wondering if I’d ever experience that magical hand again, or if the sum of efforts to maintain the bit of biodiversity that this breed of sheep represents would all be inadequate.

But the questions of breed survival are all topics for another day, and I knew better than to spin when I was feeling this discouraged. I’m rarely so discouraged. So I chalked it up to fatigue and quit for the day.

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In the morning, I spun one rolag. I’ll talk about that in another post. Imperfect as it was, it gave me enough hope to move forward again, and soon I had six more imperfect rolags . . .

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. . . a total of ten from my small colander-full of wool.

Plus a bunch of clots I pulled out. This isn’t all of them, but it’s a representative collection—some more dense, some less so:

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Three rolags before I was done, something unfortunate occurred:

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The back of one of my favorite carders split, all the way across. They’re curved-back carders and one was suddenly a floppy flat-backed carder. Using it gently and making the other half of the pair do the hard work, I completed the rolags and headed home (where I wasn’t at the time) for a meeting with the wood glue.

I found the glued carder a place to sit without pressure on the curved back while it dries, and a way to keep the join in the curved wood secured overnight.

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I hope the mending line holds.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about spinning imperfect yarn from imperfectly prepared imperfect fleece.

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Copyright 2008 Deborah Robson

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6 Responses

  1. Joanne

    First, my favorite cards are your favorites too, I think. (and sadly unavailable, too these days, I fear.) I hope your mending fixes it! I love your series here–I have done this process many times. I find that imperfect wool can sometimes still result in very usable textiles in the end, with exactly this kind of loving preparation. I have two sweaters made out of yarns with these kinds of serious flaws-short staple length, neps, etc.. Both sweaters are nearing the 8 year mark. I love wearing them; they haven’t died! I must admit that I am now very curious to know the breed you are working with…especially since you mentioned the Save the Sheep project. Not Portland, is it?

    Oh, and thanks so much for your b-day wishes for the professor! He appreciates it. 🙂

  2. Joanne

    DOH! Just saw the “Santa Cruz Sheep” tag on the bottom of your post. Of course. Sorry to be so thickheaded about this one!

  3. Angie

    I am really enjoying this series of posts. I really appreciate the detailed descriptions and photographs since I have not yet carded. Thank you so much!

  4. Janice n GA

    My mouth fell open when I saw your split carder. It has never occurred to me that something like that could happen. If my faithful old Ashford carders (circa 1985 vintage) cracked, I’d probably have a heart attack on the spot.

  5. Kathy B.

    This is not a comment to this post, but rather a thank you for your inspiration. Back in 1994 you wrote an article in Threads magazine on seed beading which inspired me to embark on my own craft adventure designing my own amulet bags. This was particularly helpful while “standing guard” during my young daughter’s hip surgery — I beaded throughout her surgery and this was a great comfort. Eventually my eyes could no longer focus on the tiny beads and my beading career was finished. Now almost 15 years later I have found you again while pursuing the art and craft of knitting (just not fine gauge knitting). I recognized your name in some knitting context, found your blog, and decided to write you. I enjoy knitting (which I learned from my mother at age 12, but turned to only after beading deprived me of a portable handicraft) even more than beading and decided to write to tell you that your encouraging, motivating words in Threads so long ago found me two new outlets that brought new friends,new creative adventures and some wonderful means to help me navigate life’s ups and downs. So far however you have not led me down the road of spinning. I have enough obsessions so I am resisting that!

  6. Joy

    Thanks for a most interesting series! Your #2 cards look very much like my Clemes, which i believe are also no longer available.

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