May newsletter: Considering hand carders

If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ve already received this discussion, along with extra links to upcoming workshops. Although as I put this together, I added a couple of update sentences.


Considering Carders

I just spent two pleasant days hanging out at Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins in Boulder, Colorado, with a bunch of other spinners convened by Elizabeth Johnston and Martha Owen. I first met Elizabeth in Shetland, where she lives, and welcome any opportunity to see her here. I’ve known about Martha Owen and her work for ages but we hadn’t met. The fleeces I’m supposed to be preparing for upcoming workshops had been sabotaged in transit by the postal service (where someone opened the box or boxes for inspection and then was unable to repack them), so I took advantage of the opportunity to give myself a diversion from fretting about that. As I wrote this last Friday afternoon, a good percentage of the group was still at Shuttles continuing their adventures, but I was supposed to get a fleece delivery (via a different carrier) and needed to start washing ASAP.

The subject of hand carders came up

In the course of the two days, there was a lot of discussion of carding, and subsequently of carders. I overheard Maggie Casey, one of Shuttles’ co-owners, mentioning that Schacht’s current carders are lighter in weight than their older ones. I contributed a comment about my favorite carders, which don’t travel with me any more because I don’t want them to be out of commission. (They split across the back a few years ago, but fortunately were salvageable with wood glue.) I’m pretty sure they’re Finnish. I got them from Straw into Gold, probably in 1973.

Because I have some hand issues, I have to be careful about how much carding I do, at what intensity. (I have tenosynovitis, or inflammation of the sheaths around the tendons, plus arthritis. Actually, a kind hand therapist who is a spinner told me I’d be wise to avoid hand carding entirely, so I now only engage in it for demos. Although I do like it. Replacing my old drum carder is on the list of future projects.)

Several other people in the room mentioned issues that they have, and we decided to do an unscientific but possibly useful evaluation of some hand carders.

Between what was in the shop and what I have at home, our survey included eight pairs of carders. They are all curved-back carders with about 72 points per inch (“regular” or “standard,” not fine). What our overview may offer you is a set of baseline measurements and concepts with which to compare any carders you may have or be considering.

Here’s my collection of carders. The “really mine, nobody else touches these” ones are the old Finnish set. The others have all been acquired for teaching and/or travel, and I both use and share them.

Four sets of hand carders
Even hand carders of the same basic description (standard or regular, curved back) vary in dimensions, shape, and weight.

Weighing carders

I weighed one carder from each set on a gram scale (and converted to ounces, for those more familiar with that system). When I got home, for the sets that I own I also measured the head of one out of each pair, and also calculated the number of grams per square centimeter of the head.

Chart comparing weights of single hand carders.
We gathered some data for a number of hand carder sets that all have the same basic design.


It’s true that the new Schacht carders are lighter than the old version, by 29 grams or 1 ounce per carder (58 grams or 2 ounces for the pair; total old pair weight 592 grams or 20.8 ounces, or a little over a pound and a quarter; total new pair weight 534 grams or 18.8 ounces, or a little over a pound and an eighth).

My favorite Finnish pair is just over 3 ounces lighter than the old Schachts per carder or 6 ounces per pair, for a total of 416 grams or 14.6 ounces, just over 7/8 of a pound.

The lightest by far, at 298 grams or 10.4 ounces per pair, are the Ashford student carders. I’ve listed them as “old” because my research suggests that the currently available Ashford student carders have deeper heads than mine do (their proportions are more like those of the other carders).

It was the disparities in both size and weight between the two lightest sets—the Finnish and the Ashford student—that led me to make an additional set of calculations, yielding a grams-per-square-centimeter data point. I was only able to do this for the four types in my house, but it still seemed productive.

Both lighter pairs came up at 0.9 gram per square centimeter. The old Clemes & Clemes came up at 1.0 and the old Shacht came in at 1.2. It’s likely that all four of the newer carders would be around 1.1.

[Clemes & Clemes currently offers carders in six different woods, which will affect the weights of the tools.]


Other aspects

Weight is not, of course, the only criterion for choosing carders, nor is light weight always a good thing. For some carding techniques, additional heft may be an advantage: if you can let the tool do more of the work, it’s always better, and I can envision situations where weight could enhance productivity for carders.

Comfort is another factor, and that’s primarily influenced by the handle shape and the balance point—as well as by whether you prefer curved-back or flat-back carders, a fundamental decision!

Packability sometimes determines which carders are “best.” The Ashford student carders win the packing sweepstakes. Their comparatively flat profile means they take the least space in my luggage. They have adequate handles that work fine—and are quite comfortable, given their minimal but graceful shaping—but would not be my choice for production carding.

Someone with large hands could very well find the older Schacht carders perfect. Their handles are hefty and have a near-rectangular cross-section that some may prefer.

I find myself using the Finnish pair at home and the Clemes & Clemes at other times. Their handles are similarly shaped and they are relatively close in weight.

Other carders

There are other hand carders out there, but—pricing being what it is—I don’t own one of each type. If other people have other models, I’d be willing to add measurements to my chart. Because you’ll be using different scales and measuring devices, our data may not be absolutely comparable, but it should be close.

Games to play with carders

Hand carders are extremely useful tools and make blending exercises quick and fun. On the first of our two days together at Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins, we had six natural dyepots going with the intention of producing something approximating the six primary colors. Because of variability in dyestuffs, water, altitude, and other factors, we got close. The green and the blue were toughest. The “special mordant” on the dark logwood included iron and copper, in addition to alum and cream of tartar (COT). The green took a lot more iron to get the shift than we thought it should require (and in my opinion, yes, the iron supplement did modify the hand of that fiber, making it slightly more harsh).

Martha Owen (top left with dyed fibers), and Maggie Casey and Elizabeth Johnston (right, with cameras), as well as dyed fibers from six natural dyepots.
I’d never be able to have six dyepots going at once. But in a group, that’s not so hard to do! With what Elizabeth Johnston and Martha Owen set up for us (they had mordanted all the fibers), we spent a day coaxing diverse colors out of cochineal, madder, osage orange, and logwood. Martha Owen (top left with dyed fibers), and Maggie Casey and Elizabeth Johnston (right, with cameras), as well as dyed fibers from the six natural dyepots.


Then each of us played with blending colors and then making gradients, using however many of the dyed colors we wanted along with an almost-black brown and a white (all Shetland fleeces).

I started with about equal portions of the green and the orange, and sparked the mix with a bit of yellow. The goal was, I think, five gradient steps, but I was having a good time (I do love color), so I ended up with nine.

My blending experiments, using the orange and the green, with just a touch of the yellow.
Sure, you can spin colors straight, and with these dyepots that would yield lovely colors. But blending gives a lot of dimension to the results, and shading makes for compatible variety. My blending experiments, using the orange and the green, with just a touch of the yellow.


The center skeinlet consists of my basic color mix. It and the two end skeinlets (pure dark and pure light) are twice the size of the gradients’ skeinlets, which have increasing amounts of light to the right and of dark to the left. My results are tweedy because I wasn’t supposed to be hand carding at all (I couldn’t resist and I did go slowly and take breaks).

I love this kind of blending and got into some of it at the spring Explore 4s. We’ll be doing more, of a different type, in a fall 2019 session (not this year but next year).

Awaiting UPS

Those fleeces for Iowa are scheduled to be delivered this afternoon. Then I’ll be doing my best to get a lot of wool clean and dry in time for the Iowa Sheep & Wool Festival—this batch is for the “Love the One You’re With” workshop on locally available fleeces. Wish me luck! And maybe I’ll see you there.


P.S. The boxes of wool finally arrived (they were HUGE), and I’m washing and washing and washing. A few images are getting onto my Instagram feed, where I’m independentstitch. None of the fleeces are jacketed. Some of them are gorgeous. There’s a wide variety of types. Way to go, Iowa shepherds!


1 thought on “May newsletter: Considering hand carders”

  1. Well well, its been months since we were together and I didn’t know you had written so much about our day together. It was an honor to meet you and to be a part of your hand carder research. Next time we can blend color with out carding…did we forget to mention that ? Oops! Until we meet again. If you are in the east look up John C Campbell Folkschool. We have at least 15 pairs of carders, some typical of the North Carolina mountains, some from Sweden and some tow cards that weigh about 10 pounds each…that would be how many grams…..? bbaaahhhh!

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