Keeping the wools organized, part 1

A couple of days ago, someone asked me how on earth I am keeping all of the wools for The Project organized. It’s a great question, and although I gave her an overview I thought others might be interested. The answer will involve two posts.

When I began The Project of researching and writing the next phase of what I want to learn (and share) about wools from different breeds of sheep, I knew that keeping the fiber samples organized and identified throughout the long process would be crucial. There’s not much point in having demonstration locks and skeins of specific fibers if you don’t know which is which. While I can’t do anything to guarantee that fibers are correctly labeled when they reach me, I can control what happens after they’re in my hands. For that, I needed a system and I have needed to follow it. Always.

With years of experience working on books and magazines behind me, I knew where and how things could go wrong. The system I set up at the very beginning of The Project took into account my vision of what resources I wanted to have while I was doing the thinking-and-spinning part of the work and also what we’d need to have when we reached the point of taking the final photographs. I know how hard it can be to remember which piece of white fluff is which. It’s even worse to have to try to figure out which photograph of a piece of white fluff is which. Especially when you took the photos months earlier.

Here’s how I keep track of things.

When I receive a package of fiber, I hope it comes with identification. Usually there’s at least a solid clue. If not (because the sender thinks I have only ordered one type of fiber at a time from one source, like a normal person would, and that I will, of course, remember what it was that I ordered), I track down that information as quickly as I can and tape a temporary label on the box or envelope.

Then I log its arrival in three electronic databases (kept in OpenOffice, Excel, or Numbers, depending on whether I am, or was, using Linux, Windows XP, or the Mac . . . The Project has been going on for a while) :

  • the master list of fibers and their sources (including name, address, phone, e-mail, and website of the supplier)
  • the list of missing fibers (the arrival gets logged here by removing its name from the list)
  • the processing status list (each breed is at this point marked “received and in processing”; other phases include “missing,” “spun and ready to be written up,” and “spun and written up”)

I send updated copies of these electronic files to my co-author, Carol Ekarius, who is doing most of the fiber acquisition while I’m labeling, washing, and spinning. This Project is not a one-person job.

I also print out two sizes of address labels, ten each, that show the name of the fiber, whether it was received raw (in the grease) or processed, its color, and the source. If I have five colors of a single breed, or even same-color samples from different sheep, each gets processed as a unique item from this stage on (the electronic databases are not as fine-tuned).

One of the large labels goes on an index card that is kept in a small plastic box, which has turned out to be the easiest way to keep track of exactly what I have received and whether it has been spun or not:


Inside that box are 5×8 index cards cut in half. I was keeping this file in a small, open cardboard box. Then I found the more protective box, in a perfect size, at the Container Store on one of my trips to the city.

Sometimes I have notes on the cards, but mostly I take notes directly into my writing files on the computer. (I’m using Scrivener since I moved to Mac. Scrivener has saved my sanity, and likely the entire Project, many times over.) The simple existence of the labeled card means I have the fiber available. The big green dots mean I’ve spun samples. No dots? Still to be spun. The file box works much better for these two tracking tasks than any electronic database. Plus if I have any computer problems, I still have these baseline records.


Here’s the organizing set-up for a new fiber arrival:


The only difference from reality here is that I do all but the clean-lock portion of this labeling and packaging with the grease wool, and the photo shows the materials with a wool that’s been washed.

  1. Fiber – the point of it all
  2. Large labels – start with 10 (breed, raw or clean when received, color, source)
  3. Small labels – start with 10 (same info)
  4. Two large bags (gallon-size) with large labels, one for the working fiber and one with SAMPLES for the materials that will travel to photography
  5. Two small bags (either sandwich or, for the long wools, quart size) with large labels, one for the RAW lock samples and one for the CLEAN lock samples
  6. One card with a large label: this card travels with the wool whenever it is away from its bags—for example, during the washing sequences and when it’s on the drying rack (these are old business cards)
  7. One hang tag and one small card, with small labels: the hang tag is labeled on both sides (so it won’t need to be flipped over when we are handling hundreds of samples during photography), and the small card goes in the corner of a photo to be cropped out before final printing; if I spin more than one sample, I use some of the extra small labels to make hang tags for the extra skeins

I use clear packaging tape over the labels on the bags. Otherwise the
labels don’t stick to the plastic long enough to do any good.

Here’s a demo of how the small cards in 7 are used. Although this is just a reference photo for my working files, it’s the same idea that will be used in the final photographs. The identifying info is in the frame but can easily be cropped out.


One more small label goes on a post-it note that is used to catalog what’s in the main working file boxes, which are white:


A blue background means the fiber came in processed (top or roving). A green background means it arrived raw. Bright pink with a red dot means for some reason the sample is not adequate (there’s also a red dot on the corresponding card in the small file box). There’s extra tape holding the stickies in place because they take a beating when the boxes are moved around.

Handwritten yellow stickies help me see from across the room what breeds are in a box and handwritten pink stickies help me keep groups of breeds organized (these are longwools in the two top boxes—there are more than two longwool boxes!—and Cheviots in the bottom one). The big black checkmarks mean the fiber is clean (either was received that way or I’ve washed it). While it doesn’t seem to make much sense to mark the blue-background items as “washed,” because they’re clean by definition, I found that it was easier to skim for to-be-washed items if I put a check on everything that is clean. Yes, the blue-background (clean) items have light yellow labels and the green-background (raw) items have bright yellow labels. I use all the color-coding I can get. The blue dots on the upper box indicate items that we wrote up as sample chapters, before we really got down to business.

[part 2 just before this—I managed to post these out of order]


7 thoughts on “Keeping the wools organized, part 1”

  1. Did I say you are amazing? It makes my eyes cross just to read this–what a project! And what a wonderful book you and Carol are making. Can’t wait to hold it in my hands….

  2. Ay, life in the wool padded cell!!! I have gotten way better and now include the year of an acquisition and detailed percentages, but this is really too much. More power to you. Keep on keeping on.

  3. Thanks, Anna. Keeping on keeping on is what it's about. Fortunately, I enjoy each piece of the work. And I do my best not to think about the whole thing all at once!

  4. Susan, I appreciate your encouragement. My eyes are crossing right now, but that's because it's time to quit for the day. I spun six samples today. I'd hoped for more, but there's tomorrow. . . . I, too, can't wait to hold the book. Guess I'd better get it written!

  5. I LOVE organizing tips.
    I have a similar (more protean) system for my WIPs of fiction. They are currently languishing, but are starting to rattle their cages a bit. I usually write most in Springtime.
    Ideas take up a lot less space than wool, but aren’t quite as much fun to play with :-}

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