Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Spinning Blues!

"I knew they were crazy, those Finns, but blue sheep? Really?!", said boyfriend J-E when he came home yesterday and found me with an impressive fluffed-up cloud of blue wool. 

I told him, "The Finns don't have blue sheep, however, they've got Mervi" (of the Hibernaatiopesäke blog).

Jaala sheep's wool, dyed with woad.
I got this sample of wool from the Jaala sheep from Mervi this summer. She had dyed it with her own home-grown woad! The result: deliciously blue wool that was begging to be spun. 
The wool: very soft and short-stapled. And blue.
The dyed wool was very fine, with an average staple-length of about 4 cm. Since I wanted to be able to use as much of it as possible (preciousss fibresss...), I decided to make a proper effort preparing it. To get a nice, even colour I first needed to mix all the fibres thoroughly. I did this by pulling the staples apart by hand and turning the wool into the fluffy cloud of blue that my boyfriend commented on. In Swedish, this is called tesning. I then chose, rather counter-intuitively, to comb the wool rather than carding it. Combing wool this short is not the usual practice these days, but it's very probable that it was prepared in this way in medieval times. The use of wool cards in the middle ages is a rather interesting, not entirely straight-forward subject. The comprehensive history of wool cards goes something like this, according to John Munro (who sadly passed away recently):

Wool cards arrived in Europe during the later part of the 13th century, probably borrowed from the Islamic cotton industries in Spain or Sicily. Some historians argue that cards were being used as early as mid-11th century, but, according to Munro, it's unclear whether they refer to wool cards or fullers' cards, used to raise a nap on fulled cloth. Wool cards, as we know them, were quickly banned from use in many (not all) of the professional textile centres around Europe, at least for the production of high-quality cloth. In some places, carded wool was allowed in the weft yarn, but not for the warp (just like the use of the great wheel for spinning the thread). Later, in the 15th century, several of these bans were lifted, although many producers continued using only combed wool for their cloths. (Munro 2003, in The Cambridge History of Western Textiles).

This information is all about wool cards and their use in professional cloth production. But how widespread was the use of cards (and the great wheel, for that matter) among everyday spinners, who didn't spin for the big textile centres? When was the use of cards established in my native Sweden? Did we even use them here in medieval times?! I haven't managed to answer any of these questions. It doesn't help that in both English and German, the medieval word for cards/karden is also used for the teasel heads more commonly associated with raising the nap on fulled cloth. Some books (and about 10 million webpages) actually refer to teasels being used for carding wool, too, but I'm not entirely convinced. I've yet to see a reliable source, or someone who's actually carded a whole fleece with teasels. I have a suspicion that the strain of carding raw wool would be a bit too much for the teasels, but then again, I might be wrong.

(please prove me wrong! either with a good, solid reference or by a practical test. I have a bunch of teasel heads from Dipsacus sativus - the cultivated teasel that is used for finishing cloth - but no time to try them out myself at the moment...)

Anyway. The questions above, together with my general interest in trying things out, made me reach for my combs rather than my cards to prepare the very short Jaala wool. Here's the result.
The short and slubby leftovers and the combed rolled-up fibres, ready to spin.
Almost half of the wool ended up in the leftover pile. The very fine fibres had a tendency to stick together and form slubs, but once I had combed through a batch, it was easy to remove the slubs before pulling the rest of the fibers off the combs. To compare, I carded a tiny bit of wool too, but it turned out much more slubby and uneven. Even with fibres this short, combing worked wonderfully. It would have been better if my combs had had finer and more closely-spaced tines to match the fibre quality, but on the whole I'm happy with the result. Spinning the combed rolags was quick and easy!

Most of the leftover fibres are only a couple of centimetres or less, so I will first draft them into a fluffy semi-thread by hand before taking them to the spindle. It makes the short and lumpy wool easier to handle, but it also takes a lot of time and I have several hours left before I'm finished. So, back to work, and a great big thank you! to Mervi for giving me the spinning blues... ;-)
A spindleful of blue, and the beginnings of the last batch.
Edit 2014-01-31: In the comments below, Panth of the In My Lady's Chamber-blog linked to two post about teasels and cards. Read them - they're well-written and well-researched and sheds some more light on the subject of wool preparation!
Teasels for carding - a myth? 

Teasels: a quick note

Jenkins, David T. (red.). 2003. The Cambridge history of western textiles. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.


Anonymous said...

From what I've seen, carding wool with teasels isn't possible or too much hard work. The woolshed folk at Kentwell Hall in England, certainly haven't brought it up, and I've spent enough time hanging out with them.

Combing wool is a fearsome business, I've seen someone weilding a full sized authentic comb and it is hard work.

As for the use of cards, what did they do before they had them? It must have been a lot harder to get the wool into a spinable condition. As for the great wheel and hand spinning, from what I've read spinning with drop spinning continued into the 16th if not 17th centuries in England, because of the fact you could walk around with your spinning whilst travelling or rocking the baby's cradle or talking to someone. A great wheel of course is not so transportable. Whether the great wheel was used much outside those spinning for sale is a good question, perhaps answerable by reference to medieval wills. But making one that works properly is a somewhat skilled job so I expect many people would simply not have been able to afford one.

You're lucky having the proper teasel heads, someone I know grows them, but lost his crop in all the rain a couple of years ago. I tried myself but the seeds didn't come up, I shall have to try again.

Checking "English Medieval Industries", edited by Blair and Ramsay, page 326 of the paperback says that
"For several centuries after the arrival of the qheel, spinning wiht distaff and suspended spindle still continued for flax, for combed wool and for yarn intended for the warp. Included int he LIvre des Mestiers of BRuges (c. 1340) is a Picard French rhyme which says "... the spinner ... much values her thread which was spun on the distaff; but the thread which is spun on the wheel has too many lumps and she says that she earns more to spin warp at the distaff than to spin weft with the wheel."

It also mentions on an earlier page that the earliest illustration of cards in England is in the Luttrell Psalter ie the 1330's or so, and it shows a woman sitting carding beside one spinning on a great wheel.

On page 324 it says "Before the arrival of hand-carders, only combs were in existence, and it is possible that short-staple wools were simply tease dby hand before spinning. However it may also be that combs were used in a more general way on all fibres."
Well I think you've proven the latter point is entirely likely, which is one of the reasons to do it.

Interestingly, one of the notes at that point saus that "A bow was used to open out the fibres in Flanders but there is no evidence for it in England."

Alicja said...

Lovely, just lovely...

Arachne said...

Guthrie: Thank you for your comments!!!

There's also the Smithfield Decretals (, which is contemporary with the Luttrell Psalter and has a lot of combing, carding and wheel spinning in it (fols 137-148). I would love to know the context of those images; the British Library description says it might be a version of the story of the Wright's Chaste Wife, but the 15th century version I've read doesn't explain half of what's going on in the Smithfield manuscript...

I suppose the context of the spinning and carding in the Luttrell Psalter is the work that was going on around the Luttrell estate? I somehow find it easier to imagine that inventions like the great wheel and cards were more widely used England, being a such a big producer of wool in the middle ages. But it would be great fun to find evidence for those tools being used here in Sweden too. If/When I do, I'll get myself a great wheel straight away!

Martina said...

Åh så fint! Jättefin färg, jättefint kammat och spunnet. Och så kul med vejde också, alla är så indigofierade nu för tiden, tycker jag! Vad skall du göra med det?

Miriam said...

I did some reading about teasels a while back and came to the same conclusion as you: that they can't be used to card fibre and that it's probably a mix-up due to the word "card" also being used for fuller's cards. See here:

I have heard from Katrin Kania (of that one can 'bow' wool fibre to prepare it. I don't really know how that works, but I believe she has prepared and spun fibres with that method.

Arachne said...

Panth: Thanks for linking to you posts, they're really spot on!(I added the links to my original post, too; people should really read them!)