Deb Robson on Processing Wool…

Having shared some perspectives on processing wool on a commercial or industrial scale, we thought it would be nice today to show the stages involved in turning raw sheep fleece into wool yarn on a smaller scale. Anyone who reads Deb Robson’s blog will know of the work that went into producing the Fleece & Fibre Sourcebook. In the intro, Deb writes;

For many animals, we obtained raw fiber that I processed and spun in an effort to discern subtle differences between fibers that on paper seemed interchangeable. Later we decided to photograph the results.

– Deb Robson, Fleece & Fibre Sourcebook

In the way that The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook is laid out (you can read about how fibre and yarn samples were photographed here) it seems evident that one can glean a lot of information from a fibre by processing it from scratch. Reading and consulting the book conveys the notion that processing wool is not only a practical way of turning it into a knitting yarn, but also a way of getting to know the character and identity of an individual fleece or the wool from specific sheep breeds. There is something truly lovely about Deb’s photos of washing wool in her own kitchen, and her observations on processing wool from scratch attest to the intimacy with your craft that is possible when working with WOOL at close quarters;

I actually like washing wool, for a lot of reasons. One is that I get to experience the transformation from raw material all the way through to finished object. That’s mildly magical. Another is that the fiber I end up getting to work with—spinning and then knitting, weaving, or whatever—is livelier than mechanically processed fiber. There are other reasons, but those are the biggest.

Deb Robson, Washing wool: Moving to micro-industrial scouring

Working with wool in your own kitchen/house also exposes some of the challenges facing folks producing WOOL commercially, as we shall hear later on in the month. Lesley Prior of Devon Fine Fibres has written a wonderful sequence of posts (here, here and here) about how crucial it is that for the purposes of her work with Finisterre, the fleeces of her Bowmont Merinos are as consistent as possible. It can take a couple of hours to sort through a nice, characterful Boreray fleece at home, with its huge variety of different fibre types (kemp, hair, wool) and different colours, but what this joyful DIY project is to the handspinner is problematic for scouring plants, spinning mills and clothing manufacturers whose operations are devised for consistent throughput.

Still, along the whole exciting spectrum of micro to macro processing, skill is required at every level and whether you are washing, carding or combing and spinning wool in your own kitchen or scouring, carding or combing and spinning mill in your mill, wool specialisms of all kinds are needed. Also, in both contexts much great work with WOOL is possible! Here is Deb Robson on processing WOOL domestically…

01 – First wool needs to be washed, to removed the dirt and some of the plant material that the sheep has collected in its life outdoors. This is Leicester Longwool.

02 – Once it’s clean, the wool is generally prepared in one of two ways: carded, as in the cigar-like forms at the back, which produces fluffy yarn, or combed, as in the coiled forms laid on top, which produces smooth yarn. This is Dorset Horn wool.

03 – A pair of cards (only one is shown here) can be used to prepare fiber for spinning into woolly, fluffy yarns. This is a mix of wool of an unknown breed, but it contains the three types of fibers that sheep may grow: wool (the familiar stuff), hair (longer and smoother), and kemp (short and stiff and brittle). Some sheep grow all three. Some grow wool and hair. Some grow only wool, and breeds that are primarily kept in hot climates and grown for meat grow mostly hair.

04 – Combs can be used to prepare wool for smooth spinning. These are tiny, handheld combs: traditional wool-combers use very large, heavy pairs, one of which is mounted on a bench or table. This is Boreray wool.

05 – These middle-sized combs, with one mounted on a bench, are being used here to prepare Suffolk wool for spinning. The fibers are arranged so they are parallel, which results in smooth yarns.

06 – Next comes spinning. In this case, a spinning wheel is being used to insert twist into the fibers, which holds them together in the form of yarn. The wool shown is Racka, quite a coarse fleece, to demonstrate the transformation from a mass of loose fiber into sturdy yarn.

07 – This shows the wheel, but my spinning position was a little unusual, with my hands held high. That’s because. . . . (photo by Judy Fort Brenneman)

08 – I had a diligent helper. (photo by Judy Fort Brenneman)

09 – Here’s another spinning photo. (photo by Carol Ekarius)

10 – The goal, of course, is yarn. This is Dartmoor Whiteface. The samples came from two different fleeces, so they vary slightly in color. Both are white, but one is creamier and one is snowier. I’m using coarse wools because it’s so much easier to show the structures.

All words and images (except where otherwise noted) are © Deb Robson and used with her kind permission

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

One thought on “Deb Robson on Processing Wool…

  1. An absolutely beautiful post. I had been wondering about the process behind the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Seeing it all laid bare is magical and makes me want to pick up a pair of combs and a drop spindle first thing. Thank you!

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