Processing Wool

Hopefully by now we are all more familiar with the wonderful animals and the skilled shearers that bring us WOOL from the fields! So far this WOVEMBER we have met some of the Bluefaced Leicesters whose wool is used by Laura’s Loom; some of Lesley’s Bowmont Merino sheep whose wool is used by Finisterre; Sue Blacker’s characterful Gotlands, whose wool is spun along with the wool of many other specific breeds, at The Natural Fibre Compay; Diane‘s beautiful little Ouessant sheep; Linda Scurr’s flock featuring various breed; and some of the sheep that Deb Robson has met in her wool and fibre related travels. We also heard from many skilled and generous folks about the difficult work of shearing that extracts the wool from these very animals over the last few days.

Bluefaced Leicesters – photo © Laura Rosenzweig

But how does this raw material which is covered in lanolin and which smells of sheep become something elegant which we would like to wear?

Ouessant Fleece, © Diane Falck

Natural stained glass hat, knit with Ouessant wool processed by Diane Falck, © Diane Falck

Diane wrote about the whole process here on WOVEMBER last year, and how the transformation from raw fleece to finished garment might be effected at home! This year we shall revisit this theme, also exploring how raw fleeces are turned into wool in more industrial settings.

Afterall, all factory machinery and industrial processes evolve from doing things by hand.

Could this machine at The Natural Fibre Company spin such tidy cones of Hebridean Wool yarn if hundreds of years of handspinning had not already perfected the exact balance of twist and draw required to bring out its better qualities?

Processing wool in big volumes at a commercial level is essential if the nature of the High Street is to be changed! To produce woollen textiles in quantities great enough to impact on the relentless acrylic tat that is purveyed in our country’s town centres, the knowledge that has been gathered through many centuries of processing wool by hand and several centuries of processing it with machinery must be retained and expanded.

In these wonderful photos by David Gray from Finisterre we see wool processing taking place precisely in this manner, at an industrial level. The photos are all taken from a photo essay by David Gray exploring the process of developing a yarn at Gledhill Mill where Lesley Prior’s Bowmont Merino fleeces are taken for processing, on their way to becoming wearable garments.

Photo © David Gray, Finisterre

In this first image, we see fresh cones of yarn being prepared at Gledhills for a new spinning process, where several strands of yarn will be spun at any time onto cones to produce plied yarns which will be strong enough to go through knitting machines.

Photo © David Gray, Finisterre

In this second image, we see the first results of the Bowmont wool after its first scouring; the fibre is still quite greasy and is yet to be combed and carded before it is ready to be spun into yarn, but already it feels soft and you can see the unmistakeable crimp – the wiggle of the yarn.

In both of these images we see the essential role that touch plays in determining the quality of wool and how truly essential our fingers are for processing wool! I first learned this at the Oxford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, when Carol Thorpe gave me a touching-tour of the fleece of a Cotswold Sheep:

WOOL begins with the shepherd touching their sheep in the field and considering the texture of their fleeces; then the handling of the animal by the shearer involves more touching and yet more tactile contact with the sheep and its fleece. Once off the animal, skirting the fleece (removing all the pooey bits, second-cuts, and felted bits) involves yet more exploring of the fibres with your hands. Then come the next stages – the sorting, the scouring, (cleaning) the carding or combing, then the spinning – all of which involve hands, whether the hands are stacking cones of yarn on the factory floor or working through each stage at home with buckets, hand-carders or combs, spindles or spinning wheels. It is perhaps no surprise that the word people use to describe the way a yarn behaves once you knit with it is “hand” – WOOL passes through hands many, many times before it gets to be in your hands, knitting needles, loom, or fine tweed jacket. Processing Wool on the WOVEMBER blog will be all about how woollen textiles develop their “hand” – i.e. how the many hands that sort, wash, comb, card, scour and spin yarns shape the character of the resultant textiles.

We must think about all these hands in terms of considering the quality and cost of WOOLLEN textiles as compared to manmade textiles. Every pair of hands that WOOL passes through on its journey to becoming our clothes adds expense – and value – to its production. For each bit of the process you pay for the practise that the hands involved have had; for the skill of experienced fingers and for the touch of experts like Lesley Prior (who reglarly tests and manages her flock of Bowmont Merino sheep to ensure consistent, provable fleece quality); like Oliver Henry (who sorts and grades fleeces for Jamieson & Smith); like Sue Blacker, whose knowledge of producing millspun, breed-specific yarns means that she is able to offer advice to sheep farmers on getting the best fibre from their flocks; and like Laura, whose experience both in hand-sorting the fleeces that she uses and in hand-weaving have allowed her to develop a unique product in her British Wool throws… I could go on, but you get the idea.

Part of the cachet value of the word “WOOL” is its evocation of touch and tactility, and the close associations between “skill” and “quality”. Wherever you are in the production chain that runs from sheep to shoulders, WOOL is a living resource which comes from changeable pastures, genetics, and weather circumstances; unlike with manmade fibres derived from petrol, there is no proven laboratory formula for consistent production quality – the only way to maintain consistency is to remain continuously “in touch” with WOOL. The need for this close monitoring, experience and skill at every level is part of what makes WOOL unique and also part of what makes it expensive when compared to synthetic textiles.

Photo © Laura Valenti Jelen, sent into WOVEMBER last year!

WOVEMBER believes that the bottom line is this: if someone hasn’t picked sheep poo out of it at some point, “it” doesn’t deserve to bear the label “WOOL”!!! During this section of WOVEMBER we will look at the stages between getting raw fleece off an animal and turning it into something that can be knitted, woven, dyed, spun or felted. We are moving from the skilled hands of shepherds and shearers to the hands of the people who process raw wool into something EVERYONE loves to touch, and we shall celebrate industrial wool-processing skills beside hand wool-processing skills, because without the latter, the former would not exist.

Combed Cormo locks, © Meghan Marshall and sent to WOVEMBER last year!

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

3 thoughts on “Processing Wool

  1. Brilliant, inspiring and thought-provoking as ever. I am learning so much from Wovember. I am increasingly concerned about how we get from a seed to the food on our plate and I am finding that the issues you raise about WOOL are very important for me in developing my thinking around how and what we eat, besides being absolutely fascinating in their own right.

  2. That’s funny, Joanna, I am having the opposite experience – thinking in this way about WOOL is making me think also in more depth about what I eat! I’m really glad you are enjoying the posts, I especially enjoyed writing this one and thinking about all the hands that wool passes through on its way to becoming our clothes.

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