Just about every time I tell someone where I work they follow with a response like, “So… What do you do?” I’ll tell you.
About 95% of the wool we process is for other people; customers bring us their wool and we process it for them into different products such as batting, roving, and yarn. Some customers sell their yarn in shops or they’re individuals who want to use their own product. When a customer brings fiber we weigh it on our scale and if it’s wool we tell them to expect 50% loss, just from grease weight to clean weight. Fibers like alpaca and llama don’t have the oily grease that wool does so they don’t have that percentage of loss, but they will have some. The cleaner the fleece brought in, the better the final product will be. Some people coat their sheep, put jackets on them to keep vegetable matter at a minimum, but that’s not required. We often get fleeces full of matted wool, poop, “tags”, and weeds; but all that must be skirted and thrown away and thus the poor customer paid for poop weight.
The first step of processing is skirting, which means removing the interesting prizes aforementioned, a step that is seldom skipped since most customers don’t do this themselves. (In the future I’ll make a post for how to skirt a fleece acceptably for us) Once a fleece is properly skirted it is loaded into one of our two vintage washing machines:
We add a biodegradable surfactant which turns into soap when combined with the grease and lanolin in wool, and since we have hard water from our well we also add sodium carbonate, washing soda, to soften the water.
After the wool is washed we spin it in an extractor, which wicks away most of the moisture in a fleece and cuts down on drying time. Then the fleeces are spread out to dry:
Depending on the season this can take from a few hours, to a few days. In the summertime wool washed in the morning is dry before quitting time. In the wintertime every drying space is used and then some, however we recently constructed more drying racks that will be put to the test next winter.
After the wool is dry we run it through a picker, which untangles the fibers, removes some of the weeds and vegetable matter, and prepares it for carding:
At this point we spray wool oil onto the fibers, which helps cut down on static and aids processing; wool is extremely abrasive and wears down machinery making the oil beneficial to preserve our machines.
The wool is now ready for carding! First I’ll introduce you to our two carding machines. We have our “old card” from 1923, which makes batting:
Our two cards have many differences besides age but I won’t go into them in this post. Products made from our carding machines are batting, sliver, and fluff. Basically a card is made up of metal cylinders which comb the wool progressively finer, removing most weeds in the beginning and combing out fine lumps toward the end. Again, the quality and cleanliness of the fleece from the beginning determines the quality and cleanliness of your product. Some weeds show even after all steps of processing, which can be considered a good thing since we don’t ever use acids to burn away vegetable matter as commercial processors do.
If a customer has ordered batting, sliver, or carded fluff (pictured below) their wooly journey is now finished, however if their order was for yarn they’re only about halfway done. I’ll write about how we make yarn in my next post.