Category Archives: wool combs

Exploring Fibre Preparation Techniques – Fibreswest 2015

wool combing 003wool combing 005wool combing 009For more information about Fibreswest and how to register for class, visit here.

Exploring Fibre Preparation Techniques – Diana Twiss. Half day, Fri.Mar.13/15. 8:30-12:30. $65#106

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a carded roving and a combed top? A batt and a rolag? If you are keen to know, then this workshop is for you. In this 4 hour workshop, you will learn a variety of fibre preparation techniques that will help you understand one of the elemental factors in making the yarn you want to make – fibre preparation. You will learn how to flick card, hand card, comb and drum card a variety of fibres. In addition to learning how to use these tools and creating samples with them, you will also play around with fibre and colour blending.

Materials fee: $15 payable to the instructor

Skill Level: intermediate and beyond. Must be able to spin a continuous thread and be comfortable with plying.

Equipment required: spinning wheel in excellent operating order, lazy kate, three bobbins, any and all fibre preparation tools you may have – flick carder, hand carders, wool combs, drum carder.

Testing out some fibre

Here is some fibre – cria (baby alpaca) to be exact – that has been sitting in a bag in my laundry room for the last two, maybe even three years. That’s just crazy. Over the weekend I decided that I had to do something about it – spin it up or give it away.
The Backstory:
I’ve been on this de-junking spree lately getting rid of old magazines, clothing, household goods. It’s been making a difference and the house is looking tidy and much more spacious. I’ve also been semi-ruthlessly going through my fibre stash getting rid of things that I really don’t want, making better storage decisions about things I do want to keep. This cria (six bags like the one seen below) has been in my laundry room for a long while.
It was time to make a decision about this fibre so I took a bag of it onto the back porch and opened it. The staple are long, about 10 inches. The fibre was also full of VM – vegetable matter. It called for the combs. What’s seen below are the two test nests I combed. Each nest took four passes of the combs. The total weight of both nests is 11grams, and the total weight of the waste was 5 grams. That’s a lot of work to lose 50%. One strike AGAINST it.

Then I spun up these nests into a 2-ply yarn measuring 20 yds or 18 metres. You see it below. The first picture of the test skein is before it was washed. You can’t see any sheen and it looks decidedly creamy.

2014-05-19 07.10.36 This next photo is the skein washed up. The wash water looked like chocolate milk after the first wash. And here you see the sheen coming through. It’s really lovely stuff. A mark FOR.

2014-05-19 07.38.02

Despite the fact that it really is lovely fibre and spins up to be beautiful yarn, I made a difficult decision. At our annual guild “swap and shop” I gave it all away – for free. I don’t have a lot of time, and what time I have I don’t want to spend it on the amount of fibre preparation that this requires. I know the fibre folks who walked home with this fibre and it’s in good hands.

Now whenever I walk into the laundry room, I just see an empty space on the floor, and not a bag of fibre that gives me stabs of guilt.

The wonder of tools

It always amazes me what you can do, or how much you can get done when you have the right tools. I have owned my wool combs for at least seven years now and I have finally purchased a wool comb clamp.

What on earth is a wool comb clamp? It is a simple tool that holds your wool comb in place so you can pull the fibre off the comb using two hands, and not one. It’s a luxury item if you comb fibre once a year.  It’s a necessity if combed fibre is an essential aspect of your workshop materials — and you are doing it weekly.


This is a specially made clamp for my wonderful, hard wearing Forsyth mini wool combs.

In addition to the clamp, I have also added the diz to my repertoire of necessary tools.

In the past I have dissed the diz, thinking it a finicky and unnecessary tool for pulling wool off the end of a comb. But with my hands freed by the wool comb clamp, I suddenly saw the benefit of having a tool that helped to determine the amount of fibre that came off with each tug. And really, why not?

A diz is neither a high-tech or expensive tool. In fact, in my case it’s a large button.

I use that dental floss looped stuff to help feed the sliver of wool through one of the four holes. And man oh man, it makes life so much easier.

What was I thinking? Some kind of Puritan I-don’t-need-fancy-tools, I-can-do-it-the-primitive-way approach.

Well bollocks to that.  It’s nearly magic. I was able to comb up three times the amount I usually do in a sitting, and I wasn’t tired and sore.  When you have the right tools you can get the job done efficiently and effectively.  In so doing you can also minimize wear and tear on your body.  What’s not to like about that?

Back to the 100-Mile Skirt

After fiddling round for a while with various cabled yarn experiments, I have finally decided which one I want to make for the 100-mile-wear version of the Claudia Skirt

The one on the far right is the prototype.  It is a cabled yarn.  This cabled yarn is constructed from a 2-ply grey alpaca single and Placid Waters (50% merino, 25% bamboo and 25% silk ) single.  That 2-ply yarn is then plied again to make a 4-strand cable.  It’s a lovely yarn.  It has a wonderful drape and from a distance looks a bit denim. 

So I devoted last Sunday afternoon to combing alpaca nests, and here is what I got  — 22 grams of combed nests.  I haven’t yet done the complex math to figure out how much I need to make the skirt, and therefore how much I need to comb, spin and ply and cable.  Part of me just wants to comb up all the grey alpaca that I have and hope for the best.   It is extremely fine fibre and is to be spun up fine, so this amount, small as it seems, will go a long way.

I am going to comb up another serious batch of it and start spinning.  Here’s to lazy, rainy Sunday afternoons and a challenging fibre project!


Don’t waste the waste

I love combing fibre as a way to prepare it for spinning.  Several of my blog posts can attest to that.  However, the one thing that really bothers me about combing is the waste.  Last weekend I prepared some fibre for an upcoming workshop I am teaching.  I made a series of lovely combed nests.  After 70 grams worth of combed fibres, I weighed the waste that was left on the combs.  31.5 grams!!!  So — of an approximate total of 100 grams of fibre, I can get 70 grams of finished ready-to-spin stuff and approximately 30 grams of stuff I have to find something to do with.

This is not good.

I usually stuff the waste into the bottom of a sock I find in the laundry.  It goes through a wash and dry cycle and out pops a lovely felted ball.  These balls make great kitchen hockey balls, kitty play-thing balls, and base balls on which to wind spun singles.  However, there are only so many one needs in one’s life.

I knew that some people card this stuff up and use it in their spinning.  It just seemed so uninspiring — all those short bits, random second cuts, fibres of multiple lengths.  But what’s the harm in an experiment?

I took the bags of waste I had collected from the combing — one series was dyed Dorset (green/blue) the other bag was undyed, beautiful white Montadale.  I put them through my drum carder three times, blending the colours and creating two decent sized batts.

I’ve been brushing up on my spinning techniques in preparation for some workshops I’ve proposed for Fibreswest. This batt of fibre was an excellent candidate for the woolen spinning technique. Woolen spinning — is where you allow the twist to enter into the fibres and while it is doing that, you slowly and intentionally pull away.  When you have as much twist as you want — and for a lofty yarn you just want the fibres locked — then you let the whole piece run onto the bobbin.  And then you start again letting the twist enter the fibre source and pulling back.

For those of us who are more familiar with the worsted technique, where you never allow the twist to enter the fibre source — you feed the fibre to the twist — the woolen technique takes some getting used to.  It also takes some getting used to because it doesn’t look all that great on the bobbin. There are bumps and funny bits that you are tempted to remove.  But don’t.  That’s all part of the package.  Apart from the spinning technique, the real magic with woolen spun yarn happens when you wash it.

Here’s a photo essay of my yarn, from bobbin to finished skein.

You can almost hear the yarn moan as it expands, relaxes, and blooms.  I let it soak for few minutes in very warm soapy water and beat it up a bit while it was in the water.  I squeezed it and roughed it up.  And then I did something that I have read about, but never had the nerve to do with yarn.  Right after this warm soapy bath, I squeezed the water out and then filled the sink with ice cold water and threw it in.  While in there I continued the beating.  The point of this is to try to slightly felt the yarn.  Not so much that it loses it’s elasticity, but enough that it will hold together and those shorter bits won’t quickly find their way out of your stitches.  ie. pill.

So here is the lovely skein — my experiment with wool-stuff that would either be a felted ball or just thrown into the garbage.  It is 46g and 82m.  I couldn’t believe how light it was, especially after it dried.  
I can’t knit anything up with it yet because I want to use this skein as a sample — if my class runs.
I’ll just have to make another one.

Nasty Alpaca Made Nice

I call this “nasty alpaca” but let me assure you, it has nothing at all to do with the animal, only the fibre.  I never had the pleasure of meeting the beast, but if I did I would ask him/her why he/she insists on rolling in blackberry brambles.  Those are difficult and painful things to remove from fibre.

Here’s the story of it.  At our last guild executive meeting before the summer break, a member of our guild was given a dozen bags of alpaca fibre.  Apparently there was an alpaca enthusiast in her network who finally decided to shear his animals, and when he learned that the fibre was good quality, donated it all to our guild. 

I selected a grey fleece — see below. It’s a lovely cool grey that will look fine on its own, but grey fibre dyed is magic.  Tones down the colour and adds a depth that’s hard to obtain on white fibre alone.  At least for rookie dyers like me.

It’s a good sized fleece and the staples are long.  Really long — between 10 and 12 inches.  My first experiments with combing the fibre were so frustrating, I left it in a bag (unwashed) on the backporch.  I deliberately left it right where I would see it every time I walked into the house.  I knew the guilt would build until it became action.  The guilt trip worked — just in time.  When I finally opened the bag to tackle the fibre, out flew several moths.  If I had left it any longer, those lovelies would have laid eggs and the larvae would have started munching their way through the fibre.

I threw it into a bath of very hot water with Orvus paste.  Let it soak for 1/2 hour and then did that again.  Then I did hot water rinse baths with a bit of white vinegar.  It dried in the sun over two days and then I assessed it.  Much better.  No moths, no more “wet dog/old animal” smell.  Time to tackle this fibre.

The staples are long, much too long to deal with comfortably.  There is so much debris in this fibre, I decided I needed to comb it with my wool combs.  The debris is what makes this fibre so nasty: pieces of blackberry bramble buried deeply enough that you can’t see it until you grab a handle of fibre and stick yourself with it;  some kind of seeds that have nestled themselves deep in the soft down of the fibre; and of course sticks, hay and other mysterious grasses.  No problem, this is a job for wool combs.

I solved the problem of the length of the staple by cutting it.  I cut off the tips where most of the embedded seeds were and then cut the rest of the staple in half, resulting in a 4 – 5 inch staple.  Quite manageable indeed.

Here it is loaded on the combs.

First pass with the comb.

After a couple of passes, it was lovely and clean.  This is it being pulled off the comb.

Here is the result.  From a couple of locks of fibre, here’s what I got.  A 3.3g nest of clean, combed fibre and 1.9g bundle of waste fibre.  Not the ratio I like, but I’ve got tons of this stuff — I don’t care.

A half hour later — and not a very effecient one as I did each lock one by one and stopped to do “photo-shoots” — I had a total of 28.6g (one ounce) of combed, clean fibre ready for spinning.  And 17.6g of waste fibre.  I also had stab wounds from the brambles and a severe dislike for this nasty fibre.  I will feel differently when I spin it up — so I won’t throw it into the compost quite yet.
We’ll see.

Cleaning fibre with wool combs — Rambouillet

As I was leaving the Lower Mainland Sheep Grower’s Association annual sale several years ago, a small bundle of fibre caught the eye of my youngest — who was about seven or eight at the time.  It was a small bundle, a 3.5lb lamb’s fleece from the Rambouillet breed. The development of the Rambouillet breed is a wonderful story for those who love history.  As found on the net, “The Rambouillet had its origin among the Moors of North Africa during the Fourteenth Century. Distant ancestors of today’s Rambouillet accompanied Moorish conquerors to Spain, and their descendants were left behind when the Spaniards drove the invaders out.”  The Rambouillet descends entirely from the Spanish Merino. In fact, it is the French version of the Merino developed when Louis XVI imported 386 Spanish Merinos in 1786 for his estate at Rambouillet.  To read more of the fascinating history of this breed and how the Spaniards gave up their monopoly of Merino sheep and inadvertently helped create/maintain the Rambouillet, visit here

The fleece was soft with a 2.5 inch staple — and it was only 3.5lbs!  I had just purchased a 12lb Romney fleece and was feeling a bit overwhelmed.  But my daughter wanted this one.  Always the one to enable a budding fibre enthusiast, I bought it.  It washed up easily enough, but there was vegetation in it that I couldn’t seem to get out with washing and usual carding methods.  The dirt was mostly in the tips, but because the staple was so short [and because I didn’t know any better at that time] I didn’t consider cutting the tips. 

So it just sat there, soft, dirty and un-spun.  Here’s a small clump of it.

A while later I attended one of our guild “spin-ins” — a monthly gathering of spinners hosted at a member’s home.  At this spin-in I shared my frustration about this fleece and how I couldn’t seem to get the fine vegetation — turned out to be ground up alfalfa — out of the fibre.  A friend suggested I try using wool combs as a way to prepare it.  I had never used wool combs before, so we agreed to meet, me with my fibre and she with her combs and see if it could make a difference.

Wool combs are frightening looking things, even the Mini comb style.  They have two rows of long steel spikes that don’t bend.  The result was stunning.  So dramatic that the next day I ordered my own [locally made] set. 

Here’s how you use wool combs for fibre preparation.  You load the fibre onto the combs by sorting out the staples.
Staple anatomy and definition:  a staple is a chunk of wool fibre.  There are two ends to the staple; the tip — usually dirty and sunburnt for it is the oldest piece of fibre and the butt end, the end that was cut.  This end often has a lot of lanolin in it because it was closest to the skin.
Load these onto your wool comb, tips out and butt end secured into the comb.  See above and below.

Then using a gentle stroke, you comb the fibres.  Each hand holds a comb — doesn’t look like it in the photo because the other hand is holding the camera.  The right hand comb spikes point upwards.  The left hand comb spikes face you.  Crazy but true.  As you make each a pass through the fibres, the right hand, which is facing upwards, moves in a more upward direction; and the left comb which is facing you, moves towards you and then curves to the left with a twist of your wrist.  These combined actions help to move the fibre from one wool comb to the next.

You comb, moving through the fibres until all the fibres from the right hand comb are onto the left one.

Then you do it all over again, moving/combing the fibres from left comb to the right one.  Not all the fibres will move over.  What will be left is the shorter fibres and lots of dirt and vegetation.  Magic.
After a few passes, you will pull the combed top off the combs.  At this point, the fibres are pretty much all the same length. Gently stroke them out to a beard shape and start pulling.  Not too much; pull about half the length of the staple.  Then reach up and grab another section, and gently pull that again.  When you do this, your right hand will be holding the comb securely in place.  This is a gentle tug-o-war.  Tug too much and oops, you have a bundle of fibres in your hand.  Tug gently and steadily, moving up the fibre and you will have what is called a combed top.  A spinner’s dream to work with. 
Here’s the family of Rambouillet I played with today.  On the left is the dirty, uncombed fibre.  Right top is the waste from combing.  This waste contains shorter fibres and all the vegetation that I couldn’t remove with my hand carders.  On the bottom right is the finished, clean and smooth, combed top of Rambouillet. 
It may seem like a lot of work, and in some minor ways it is, but the result is amazingly soft and clean fibre that practically spins itself.  Additionally, it is a great work out for your arms, particularly your upper arms.  And who at this age isn’t concerned about that?