A Short History on Wool Carding
On Tuesday we showed how to wash a fleece. Yesterday we talked about the history of one way of preparing the wool for spinning by combing it. So today I want to talk about the history of the other extreme of preparing wool: carding. Again, there are plenty of instructional videos to be found on the internet, like this one here by Longdraw James.
So, what is carding? Carding is a fibre preparation for a spinning method called woollen spinning, sometimes called longdraw spinning. Carding arranges the fibres in an orderly but random way into a uniform mass of even density. Unlike wool combing, carding does not remove any short fibres, but is does do mechanical cleaning (lots of dirt and vegetable matter will fall out of the fibre mass,) and it will also do a very good job at blending different coloured fibres, and fibres of different lengths (or even different origin,) although it is most suited for short-stapled wool, say, 3 inches or shorter. When spinning with a woollen method, twist is added during drafting (the pulling out of fibres from the fibre mass to turn into yarn.) This traps more air between the fibres and results in a woollen yarn, which is lofty and soft and makes for a warm garment. It emphasises a fibre’s softness and ‘woolliness.’ It’s good for warm sweaters and blankets.
Making Wool Carders, image from Die Hausbuecher der Nuernberger ZwoelfBruederstiftungen, circa 1440
Carders are first recorded, in France, late in the thirteenth century. Carders are used in pairs, like combs, and may even have been developed from them. The name is presumed to be connected with the Latin carduus, a thistle, whence it is now often asumed that thistles (or teasles) had been previously used, though it seems equally like that carders received their name for their resemblance to thistles. Attempts by Patricia Baines* to card with wild teasles, dipsacus sylvestris, prove unsatisfactory since the spikes stick to the wool and do not pass through it. If thistles or teasles had been used, it seems more feasible that it was more simply for opening up, teasing, or picking wool in preparation for carding or combing; even so, one feels that fingers do the job better.
As an aside, the fuller’s teasle dipsacus fullonum, has hooks on the ends of its spikes and is equally ineffectual for carding. When used for nap-raising, several teasles, forming a thick surface of spikes, were fitted into a frame with a handle. Sometimes these can be seen in a museum today and should not be mistaken for carders. Teasles were later fitted into the cylindrical drums of a nap-raising machine called a gig-mill.
The carders are made of two flat pieces of wood, each with a handle and varying in size. On one side of each of these carders are hundreds of small wire hooks set in leather (or more likely rubber nowadays,) the hooks bent towards the handles though early illustrations (see last image in the linked post, lady on the left) show the wires quite straight**). Small tufts of wool are placed on one carder, which is held in one hand resting on the knee while the other carder is drawn across it several times, the hooks therefore going against one another. The wool is transferred from carder to carder and finally eased off the hooks. The fibres, all adhering together,m come off as a sheet of wool which is rolled into a spongy cylinder, called a rolag. The fibres are thereby coiled and when they are drawn out by the spinner they go into a spiral so that the maximum air is trapped (see video linked in the introduction.)
An improvement on the hand carders were the carding benches or stock cards. The lower card slipped into slots on the raised sloping top – the stock – and the oiled wool was kept in the recess underneath. The person carding sat astride the bench to manipulate the second card by hand; alternatively, some benches were constructed so that the sloping stop was attached at the bottom to a stool which allowed the person to sit with knees together facing the fixed card (in Wales, for instance, and also Holland,) a piece of carding cloth being nailed to the stock. Because the lower card was fixed it was necessary to change the grip on the hand card to transfer the wool form one card to the other, which need not be necessary with ordinary hand carding.
From a section from R. Watt’s poem The Young Man’s Looking Glass (1641,) we see that the stock carders were worked by men and that hand carder were still used afterwards to make smaller rolls, but in the eighteenth century heavier and more elaborate stock cards were also used; the lower card was fixed to the stock and the upper one, because of its weight and size, was suspended from the ceiling and worked by a cord, pulley and conter-weight system. It was said this doubled a man’s output.
Hand-carding is still popular today, although one could use a miniature version of a carding machine, called a drum carder. These are often operated by turning a crank, which in turn rotates a small and a large drum, which are clad with carding cloth. Lastly, it is also possible to buy machine-carded wool in a preparation called roving.
On the left, man carding wool, 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
- Amos, A. The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning, 2001, Interweave Press, Loveland, CO.
*) Patricia Baines reports on this carding with thistles attempt in her book referenced above
**) 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