A Short History On Wool Combing

Yesterday’s post was about washing fleece. So, what’s the next step? It depends on what kind of yarn you would like to make, and today I (that’s me, Tom) had planned to talk about combing wool, which is one of several ways to prepare the fleece for spinning. However, there’s a lot of information out there on how to comb wool. For instance, this excellent video, which goes into great detail (please note, this links to the first of four videos.) So instead, I did some research on the history of wool combing, which I will share with you today.

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Image from Die Hausbuecher der Nuernberger ZwoelfBruederstiftungen, 1442AD

First of all, what is combing? Combing is a fibre preparation for a spinning method called worsted spinning. Combing arranges fibres in a parallel fashion, and removes noils (tangles and clumps of fibres,) short fibres and stuff like vegetable matter. True worsted spinning (there are many variants) generally means using long fibres (over 3in long,) in a combed preparation, and drafting the fibre without twist, i.e. the twist is added after drafting (drafting means: pulling out fibres from the fibre mass in order to twist them into yarn.) This results in a yarn that is dense, resists abrasion, has more-than-average tensile strength, shows lustre well, and does not felt easily. This is just the kind of yarn you would want to use for socks, for instance. It would not be so good for blankets, where you want a lofty, airy, fluffy yarn which creates a fabric that traps lots of air and keeps you nice and toasty (keep an eye out for tomorrow’s post, where I’ll talk about carding!)

Combing as a fibre preparation predates carding by 1000s of years. Indeed, it wasn’t until the mid 1300s before metal workers found a method to create (easily and cheaply?) the thin wire in sufficient quantity needed for the making the small teeth on the carding cloth. Wool combs, on the other hand, could be easily made from wood, bone, or metal and be serviceable. Wool combs come in various shapes and designs, and older combs sometimes resembles the hackles now more commonly used for preparing flax for linen spinning.

Wool combers were journeymen and seemed to have been a law unto themselves. According to the Book of Trades from 1815 ‘The business of the wool-comber is different in different counties; some, as the wool-combers in Hertfordshire, prepare it only for worsted yarn &c; others, as those in and near Norwich prepare it for weaving into camblets and other light stuffs.’ The combs weigh about 2-4kg each, the teeth, made of highly tempered steel, are set into horn at an angle of around 80deg to the handle. The number of rows of teeth vary from three to nine according to the type of wool being combed. The teeth of each row are progressively longer, increasing from about 10cm to 30cm. The width of the comb is approximately 18cm. The stout handle usually made of ash about 30cm in length, has two steel-lined holes, one at the side and one at the end.

The combs were warmed on a charcoal stove with a stone slab above leaving sufficient gap for the teeth of the combs to be inserted. The stoves held four combs, for it was usual for four combers to work together (according to the Book of Trades), each with his separate gear, so there were four pairs of combs, four benches, four bins to hold wool and another four for the noils. The combs were heated so that they would slide through the oiled wool easily and not damage the fibres. The heated comb was first put on a jenny, a wooden ledge attached to a post which held the comb with the teeth pointing upwards. The wool was lashed on by the comb, and when about half full, the comb was transferred to a pad (a metal bar) also attached to a post, which had to metal spikes corresponding with the holes in the handle, to hold the comb in a nearly horizontal position. The comber took the second comb, also warmed in the pot, and with both hands, swung it, rather like a chopper, into the fringes of the wool, each time getting deeper in and nearer to the stationary comb. This was known as jigging (see the videos I linked to in the introduction.) When sufficiently jigged, the comber drew off the wool into a continuous ‘rope’ called a sliver. After this, the fibres left at the front of the comb (milkings) and those at the back (backings) were added to the next lot of jigging (the noils being discarded and placed in their bin). The process was repeated until all the short fibres were removed.

Wool combing was done in rural areas in places as far apart as Scotland and Greece, not as an organised trade, but by women holding the combs one in each hand (rather like carders). These combs were of a much lighter construction than those used in the trade, and with a single row of teeth set in horn and either straight or curving slightly towards the handle. One was used to comb the wool and the other to hold it; in Denmark they sometimes fixed the comb holding the wool on a bracket attached to a post. In Greece, however, one finds combs with two rows of teeth.

The patron saint of wool combers was Bishop Blaise (c.289-316) who had no connection with textiles but is said to have met his death by having his flesh torn with iron combs similar to those used by wool combers. In Bradford, Yorkshire, a festival took place every seven years to commemorate the saint. This started there in 1769 (there had already been one in Leeds in 1758) and continued until 1825. It was a colourful procession on horseback with an abundance of wool, some of it dyed, being carried. Riding along were wool staplers, worsted spinners, wool sorters, charcoal burners, dyers, cvomb makers, apprentices and wool combers weraring full-bottomed wigs made of combed wool. Bishop Blaise himself was represented surrounded by shepherd and shepherdesses, Jason and Medea and a company of guards.

Combing as a trade was carefully controlled, e.g. to keep the numbers of men employed in the trade down, only the eldest son of a wool comber could be apprenticed. Combing proved difficult to be mechanised and continued to be done manually long after other processes were mechanised. Indeed, it wasn’t until Lister perfected his mechanised combing device in 1850 before the trade declined rapidly, and in just a decade it saw its complete eradication.

Royal 20 C.V, f.75

Detail of a miniature of Gaia Caecilia or Tanaquil at her loom, while women spin, card, and comb (on the right; on this hackle-like comb, the locks were combed individually, and the distaff was dressed witht the opened locks). FRirst quarter of the 15th century. Image from the British Library.

If you would like to read more about wool combing, then here are some of the books I used for my research:

  • Baines, P. Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, 1982 edition, Batsford Limited, London
  • Teal, P. Hand Woolcombing and Spinning; a Guide to Worsteds from the Spinning-Wheel, 1976, Blandford Press, Poole.
  • Amos, A. The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning, 2001, Interweave Press, Loveland, CO.
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This entry was posted by tomofholland.

5 thoughts on “A Short History On Wool Combing

  1. Pingback: Wool Types; or, What I Learnt About Spinning | tomofholland

  2. I love combing and touching the fiber. Spinning and weaving on the coast of oregon .
    This is a very informative and interesting site.

  3. A wonderful succinct article. I am scheduled to give a program for my Fiber Arts guild in November. Is there any way I could get a copy of your article on wool combing for it?

  4. “Combing proved difficult to be mechanised and continued to be done manually long after other processes were mechanised. Indeed, it wasn’t until Lister perfected his mechanised combing device in 1850 before the trade declined rapidly, and in just a decade it saw its complete eradication.” Lister like Noble comb was a dead end. The perfection in combing occurred with advent of the French Comb. Mechanisam of Lister bears no resemblance to a French comb. England was not center of wool innovation although they did hold monopoly on combing on pain of Death – French just simply invented their own – current technology.

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