Processing Wool at The Natural Fibre Company…

Earlier this month TEAM WOVEMBER member Felicity Ford launched a knitting pattern called Layter, a copy of which – plus the yarn to knit it – is one of the prizes for our WOVEMBER photo competition. One of the many things that inspired this design was going to WOOLFEST in 2009 and encountering the Blacker Yarns stall. Such an array of natural shades! It was an ovine rainbow of such magnificant proportions that – like a brand new box of crayons – it evoked an immediate desire to try out ALL the colours.

Blacker Yarns have many, many different shades of sheep to knit with…

Cones of breed-specific yarns in natural, sheepy shades, photo taken by John Eveson © Blacker Yarns and The Natural Fibre Company and used with the kind permission of Sue Blacker

Blacker Yarns in natural, sheepy shades, photo taken by John Eveson © Blacker Yarns and The Natural Fibre Company and used with the kind permission of Sue Blacker

Blacker Yarns are the in-house yarns produced by The Natural Fibre Company. In addition to producing this unique, multi-breed range, The Natural Fibre Company process other people’s fleeces, offering advice on how to get the best results from your fibre animals. Sue Blacker runs both companies as well as keeping her own sheep and we shall hear later in the month about her own work designing with breed-specific yarns! For now we thought you might enjoy learning a bit more about how wool is processed in the mill. The text is mostly taken from one of the helpful advice sheets which can be downloaded from the Natural Fibre Company here and the photos unless otherwise stated were taken by Felicity Ford during a recent trip to see where all her favourite knitting yarns are produced.

What happens to my fleece? What products can I get from it?

Your fleeces should be shaken to remove second cuts, loose vegetation, etc., and then skirted to remove short, very dirty bits. Dags, cotted/matted areas or those contaminated with vegetation should be pulled off. Also, while raddle will wash out, most market sprays will not, so please either avoid them or remove areas of fleece covered in dye. The remaining fleece should be open, like a veil, or in locks. It should only contain dirt, sweat and lanolin, with the minimum of vegetation and no pesticide.

Wool on the hoof, in this case, coloured Bluefaced Leicester fleece

We sort and grade fleece by hand on a high table with a netting top, which helps our backs and also allows dirt, short fibre and dust to fall through. We can sort by colour, grade and/or remove coarse fleece if required. Sorting and grading is included in our set-up charge, except for colour sorting. At this stage, we may contact you: this might be to recommend adding fleece to make up the quantity or soften the results, or to de-hair alpaca.

Each batch from each customer is sorted separately, stored separately and processed separately. All sacks are labeled and each batch is accompanied by its own production sheet and dockets and labels.

Don’t you want one with your name on it?!

We normally scour paler and finer fleeces first, following them with darker and coarser ones. Scouring removes dirt, sweat, grease, some short fibre and vegetation, also sometimes sand and salt from North Ronaldsay fleeces!

Scouring tines for dunking wool in and out of hot water, to get all the muck out of it

The scourer is a series of massive baths with pronged mechanisms above them which move up and down to agitate the fibres in the water, and loosen dirt away.

Wool-washing water

After scouring, we spin and then tumble dry the fleeces. This leaves them slightly clotted together but not felted. Some fleece will felt if very fine and we can air dry small batches if necessary. Dried fleece can be stored indefinitely and we always have a store of suitable breeds and colours, along with silk, nylon, flax, etc., for blending or adding to batches if required.

Once it is dry, we can tease apart and blend the fleece. This is the opportunity to add other colours or fibres to a basic batch. We also add 10% by weight of a blend of around two-thirds water and one-third spinning oil (except when producing carded fleece) to enable us to control the fleece through the processing. We use a GOTS organically accredited oil for organic processing. The fleece is now basically a big pile of slightly damp, very slightly oiled fluff.

The next stage is carding, or, to be precise, scribbling (i.e. putting the fleece through the first part of the carding machine).

Lots of images of the giant carder, which has big rolls with tiny needles on them and through which the fleece is passed to begin smoothing the fibres out

This makes the scoured and carded fleece ready for felting or hand spinning. We can either lap it into a box or coil it into a bag in a tub or “can”. The fibres are smoothed out but are not aligned, so this will make a woollen spun yarn.

If we are making worsted spun yarn, the fibre is removed after scribbling in the cans and taken for gilling (sometimes called pin drafting) and combing in preparation for worsted spinning.

“Canned” scribbled lengths of yarn feeding into a gilling machine, which will align the fibres in preparation for worsted spinning

If we are doing woollen spinning the fibre carries on into the second half of the carding machine and emerges as fine slubbings (finer and much weaker than pencil rovings) ready to go to the woollen spinning machine.

Second phase of carding machine, in which the carded fibres go over yet more spiky rollers, to be filtered out at the end as fine pencil rovings

The pencil rovings emerge!

The pencil roving is very delicate because there is no twist in the fibre at this point to hold it together

There are big racks of pencil roving everywhere, ready to hook up to the wool-spinning machines

Carding can permit adding neps (small knots of fibre) for feature yarn and gilling can permit adding fibre such as nylon. Both carding and worsted preparation also work on precise settings to define the final thickness of the yarn to be made.

The third option from the scribbler part of the card is to take the fibre off by letting it wind around a large roller to build up a thick mat, called a batt. The batt will be around 60” (1.53m) wide and can be made in varying thicknesses using from 1kg to 5kg of fleece.

A big fat batt!

To remove the batt from the batt roller we simply cut along from end to end and it comes of as a fat mat of fleece. This will pull apart relatively easily, so could be used for hand spinning but the main use is for wet felting or needle felting.

After can-coiling part carded fibre, it is made into tops, by gilling (pin-drafting) and combing. Tops are ready for hand-spinning into worsted spun yarn and are also sometimes used for felting. To make our worsted yarns from tops, after re-gilling, we auto level and bi-coil to make the thinner bands of fleece ready to go into the worsted spinning frame.

Fibres going into a gilling machine

Bi-coiled fibres emerging out of the bi-coiling machine

Bi-coiled fibres going into the Worsted spinning machine

The spinning machines – whether woollen or worsted – make a single yarn on a tube which is slid over the spindle. Single yarns tend to kink but this can be removed by steaming or by plying into doubled or plied yarns. Single yarns are often used for weaving, particularly woollen spun yarns for blankets, throws, scarves, and tweeds, as they will brush up after weaving to make a soft, fluffy surface. Worsted spun yarns may be single or 2-ply for weaving and will make smoother, stronger and finer fabric.

Blacker Swan over-dyed Falklands Merino singles being worsted-spun, and on cones

Hebridean yarn being woollen spun into singles

Knitting yarns, apart from single lace-weight yarns, are usually plied to make from two – to five or more plies, and the plies may be combinations of plies to make thicker yarns or to achieve greater stretch or smoothness. Generally more plies tend to make for smoother yarns as they usually start with finer single yarns.

Hebridean singles lined up for plying

Woollen spun yarns are both spun in the singles and then plied to make as low a twist as possible to retain the softness while holding the yarn together. Worsted is more tightly spun and plied but may feel softer as the surface fibres are all aligned.

Newly spun yarn after plying, whether then finished in skeins/hanks or on cones, will still have the spinning oil on it, so will be flat and dull-looking and may feel quite hard. In this state it is useful for machine knitting or weaving as there is a minimum of fluffiness from fibres sticking out. The yarn may be steamed to reduce the propensity to kink, and this will also remove most of the spinning oil. To prepare for machine knitting the yarn can also be waxed as it is wound onto cones.

After washing out the spinning oil, yarn becomes paler, softer and also “bursts”, enabling the individual fibres to remember their form and become fluffy, elastic and resilient. Washed yarn is now ready to be packaged in its final format, or dyed. Woollen spun yarns will continue to soften and felt slightly over time whereas worsted spun yarn remains closer to the state when it was first made, gradually wearing thinner and sometimes harder. Hand knitting or crochet will also soften all yarns.

If the yarn is to be dyed it is left in large un-weighed skeins, but we can also make weighed skeins at 50g, 100g, 200g or for a set length or weight as required by the customer. Each hank is tied in 4 places, once to tie off the two ends and three more times to hold the threads in place. Skeins are relatively easy to knit from if you can keep them around a chair-back or your neck but most people find that hand-winding into balls makes life easier. Twisted skeins take as much work to make as balls as we twist them all by hand.

Susan, Sonia, and Sue making twisted skeins of yarn in The Natural Fibre Company, photo taken by John Eveson © Blacker Yarns and The Natural Fibre Company and used with the kind permission of Sue Blacker

A cone is the most dense package for finished yarn, so makes the least bulk for storage or transport. You can also knit or crochet direct from a cone, which avoids making joins in the yarn, but at 300g to 1kg in weight they are less transportable than balls. We dye our yarns in hanks/skeins but wind them back onto cone for storage or before winding into balls.

Beautiful Manx Loaghtan yarn on cones

Our ball winder will make 25g, 50g, 100g or larger balls and can also customize the winding design! The balls may be left long or flattened into doughnut shapes. They are then packaged into grip-seal polythene bags, normally 10 or 12 to a bag.

Beautiful Manx Loaghtan yarn in balls

Some customers will have a mix of hanks, cones and balls as their finished order. It is relatively easy to make ball-bands with details of your own farm or flock but please remember that if you are selling these you will need to comply with Trade Descriptions, Weights and Measures and possibly GOTS organic requirements.

The somewhat easier approach is to send us your logo and we can prepare bands including the required information together with your own farm/flock name, breed of sheep and contact information. We also customize our ball-bands for yarn shops. Balls with ball-bands are relatively labour intensive but are also, along with twisted skeins, the form in which most people are used to purchasing their yarns. Each band will state the yarn type, composition, how to wash, whether natural fleece colour or dyed, spinning mill, animal type and contact information.

Please see our other information sheets about the aspects of yarns: both the thickness and the length are important considerations, along with the number of plies. Yarns can be designed using particular types of fibre or blends to perform in specific ways: to be bulky, fine, soft, highly insulating, lacy, drapey, shiny, hard, strong, smooth, fluffy, stretchy, high definition and crisp. It is possible, although we do not have the equipment (yet?) to make boucle or roving yarns. We can add coloured neps, ply different shades to make marls or blend to heathered shades.

We try not to waste anything! Our reject wool fibre can go for felt making, while alpaca goes for duvets. Waste created between batches or falling out of the processes can go for carpet underlay, felt or mixed blend basic weaving yarns. Noils – the short bits combed out of worsted preparation – can go back into woollen spun yarns, as can neps. Card waste and chopped up spinning waste can be shredded to make loose fluff suitable for stuffing. This is not to a British Standard, and is thus quite cheap. It is also compressed for storage and posting so will need fluffing up before use.

Thank you Sue for explaining the whole process of having yarn spun up at The Natural Fibre Company! All words © Sue Blacker and The Natural Fibre Company and used with the kind permission of Sue Blacker

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

6 thoughts on “Processing Wool at The Natural Fibre Company…

  1. This post makes me want to go find a giant pile of wool and then jump in it like leaves. Thanks for all the yarny goodness in this post, it’s making the end of my work day quite delicious!

  2. Anent the language we share which, as Churchill says, divides us. From Amurica some questions:
    What means GOTS, pliss?
    I have seen “muck” used to mean barn manure and, coarsely, semen. Here it is used to mean – poop on fleece? Or crud in general?
    What does “skirted” mean for a fleece?
    The mind just boggles here:
    We can either lap it into a box or coil it into a bag in a tub or “can”.
    What does lap mean?
    Is the tub a can? Is it a tub or a can?
    No, seriously, what is it?
    Wait, you’re scribbling it in the cans? I thought you were running it through rollers like a pasta machine, with fine needles.
    If we are making worsted spun yarn, the fibre is removed after scribbling in the cans and taken for gilling (sometimes called We can either lap it into a box or coil it into a bag in a tub or “can”. The fibres are smoothed out but are not aligned, so this will make a woollen spun yarn.
    And, gilling or pin drafting would be what? Why does worsted require gilling? Smoothed out fibers which are not aligned would make a worsted spun yarn, certainly, as well as a woolen spun yarn? Of course even if the fibers were aligned, it would be a woolen spun yarn, yes? But not perhaps a worsted?

    I could go on. I want to understand and to learn. I can’t imagine this is any clearer to a Brit-speaking lay person. Please help.

    • Hi Jeanette,
      Sorry this post proved so frustrating for you, we are publishing the posts as a series, so most of these words are explained elsewhere throughout “Processing Wool”, though from your comments it sounds as though we should have organised a glossary to go with this one individual post?

      GOTS – Global Organic Textile Standard –
      muck – dirt, poo, mud, crud in general
      skirted – I briefly described what this means in the introduction to “Processing Wool” – – in the UK we say “skirting around the edge” to mean going around the edge of something. Skirting a fleece means going around the edge of it, taking off all the felted locks, pooey bits, matted, clumpy bits, bits with loads of straw in, etc.
      Raddle – the thing you stick on a ram with dye on it, so you can see which lady sheep he has ridden!
      Lap it into a box in this context means “to place or lay in a way where it overlaps itself” – – scribbled fibre can come off the carding machine in very long lengths, so it would be in this case carefully folded over itself for transportation and storage (I think)
      Tub or Can – the tub is a tub, i.e. a large plastic container. However it is shaped like a giant drinks can (cylindrical, tall) and therefore described as a Can so in this case they are really interchangeable and used to mean “tub shaped like a can”
      Scribbling was described in this post – – As I understand it (I may well be wrong) it is the simplest and most basic form of carding, and the preliminary stage in producing yarn; to scribble yarn it is put through exactly as you suggest through the giant pasta-like machine with rollers featuring fine needles. These “scribble” the fibres or rather begin to align and organise them so they are more workable; to scribble them into a can simply means that from this process they are “canned” or rather folded carefully into large tubs, ready either to be shipped as is, or further processed into yarns.
      Worsted spun yarns require gilling because woollen spun yarns are “organised” but they do not lie parallel. Pin-drafting or combing the fibres forces them to lie in straight lines, parallel to one another. This means the yarn will generally be smoother and shinier, but it will also have less air in it. Woollen spun yarns have been carded or “scribbled” so that they are teased out and semi-organised, but not necessarily all lying in perfectly straight lines. Carding for woollen spun leaves more air between the fibres; combing for worsted spun leaves less air between the fibres. Think of a girl’s hair that has been combed over and over again so that it lies in shiny, flawless sheets, and that is sort of how worsted-spun fibre is.
      I hope that helps a bit? Perhaps I should do an FAQ post to follow up on this one… if anyone else has questions about the vocabulary in this post, please leave them here and WOVEMBER will do our best to clarify!

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