Posted by: Silver | September 16, 2010

Spinning a Yarn

So, this week, it was Grow Your Own Clothes. There was a veggie garden too, but my host’s main passions were spinning and knitting, so I was quickly introduced to the menagerie of sheep, goats, alpacas and a lone llama who helped to feed this passion. Unfortunately, this was the wrong time of year for shearing, so I wasn’t able to be present at the very birth of the future yarn, but my host had a wonderful room stuffed full of previously garnered fleeces, so I certainly didn’t want for material to work with.

A llama fleece was the one my host needed to spin next, and so the process began. First was ‘picking’: sending small clumps of the entirely untreated fleece through a contraption that, on a larger scale, would doubtless serve very well at a demonic fun fair – the top section swung back and forth exactly like a pirate ship ride, whilst the underside and the base were equipped with row upon row of vicious metal spikes. These spikes pulled the fresh fleece apart into fluffy wisps which could then be sent to the next machine, the carder. ‘Carding’ involved feeding the wisps of fleece onto a revolving drum covered in many, many more (but much, much smaller) metal spikes, the purpose being to line all the fibres up in the same direction for spinning.

Two things struck me as a result of my carding experience: first, I was amazed at how a frankly fairly icky-feeling fresh fleece could be transformed into something so soft and silky-feeling without any washing or similar treatment. But mainly, I was dumbfounded by just how long it took! Even with an electric carding machine, I spent hours and hours processing just one fleece, and a question to my host confirmed that it wasn’t just because I was an incompetent amateur: she generally reckons that each 100g of sheep’s wool yarn takes 2½ hours to produce, and llama wool is lighter so takes even longer. Suddenly, the true depth of the impact that the mechanical spinning and weaving machines of the Industrial Revolution must have had, became clear to me in a way it never quite had before.

Indeed, the process was so time-consuming, and the length of my stay so regrettably short, that I never even got as far as trying my hand with the spinning wheel, but perhaps that’s as well, as I feel sure the ‘incompetent amateur’ description would have found an accurate home if I had…

Picker (left) and carder, the machines you need to transform...

... this (untreated fleece) ...

... into this (picked fleece) ...

... into this (carded fleece, ready for spinning!)



  1. Very perceptive remarks on the Industrial Revolution – too true!
    Yours in Solidarity, Ned Ludd.

    P.S. ‘Llamas’?? Some funny new-fangled breed of sheep, I suppose. Didn’t have the likes of them up our way.

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