It’s all a bit woolly!

Most of the blog posts so far have been about books and bookbinding but that’s not all we do here at The Old School! To mark the announcement of another course this summer (this time on crochet) we thought it would be good to focus on textiles and in particular wool this week.

We like to understand the history and traditions of crafts and that certainly makes you appreciate the easiness with which we have access to materials nowadays. In order to process wool from being on the back of a sheep in the field to wearing a nice knitted jumper or wrapping yourself in a warm scarf it takes time and a large number of processes.

One of the ways that wool is graded is determined by the length of the hair or ‘staples’. The longer the staple length the stronger the final yarn as there is more length of wool in contact with other bits of wool. Lincolnshire Long Wool sheep, as the name suggests, were famous for their long staples and much of the wealth of mediaeval towns such as Boston in Lincolnshire came from the export of high quality wool across the world.

In the Iron age and possibly afterwards too, wool was probably collected from the hedgerows as it naturally came off the sheep. However, we will start with it being sheared from the sheep. When have collected quite a few fleeces over the years in this raw form. The first job is to wash it and get as many of the twigs and sticks out of it as you can. It is possible to spin wool ‘in the grease’ which produces a very waterproof, if rather smelly, wool! A wet full fleece is extremely heavy and takes a number of days to dry.

Following this the staples need to be lined up, all going in the same direction, so that it can be spun. This process if called carding and can be done either with hand carders or we use a hand cranked carder. Whichever method is used this is a slow process and leads to bundles of fluffy wool, rather like clouds which we call batts but there are a variety of other names for them. At this stage they are ready to be spun.

Before the invention of the spinning wheel, this would be done on drop spindles which are basically a stick with a fly wheel (either made of stone or lead) which twists the wool fibres together and you then use the stick to store your spun wool. A spinning wheel does the same thing only more quickly.

Zoe spinning in a busy shopping centre at a craft fair.

Once the wool is spun it needs plying together into two or three ply to provide extra strength and thickness. This is again done on the spinning wheel and at the end of that process you have a yarn. However, it isn’t yet in a state to use as it is all wound around a spinning wheel bobbin.

In order to get it into a skein and then ultimately a ball of wool the wool is taken from the bobbin onto a niddy-noddy which is a device used to add a twist as you wind the wool onto it. It is quite magical to see it curl itself into a skein of wool when you slide the wool off the niddy-noddy.

At this stage you can dye your wool. In the past they would use natural vegetable dyes such as onions or nettles or of course you can leave it the colour that it came off the sheep.

Finally you might use a nostepinne to wind your skein into a ball of wall.

Simple! If you have gone through all of those processes, and don’t forget you haven’t yet made anything with it that is useful, you will certainly look after it and use it wisely.

There are some other great devices around the processing of wool and phrases that we perhaps don’t realise where they came from. For example, when people, normally women, were being paid to weave wool by the yard, they would use a wool winder. This has a strip of thin wood attached which is caught by a metal pin as the wool winder turns. Every 12 turns or so the strip of wood snaps back to count the yards that have been produced. The piece of wood is called the weasel and when it snaps back we might say, ‘pop goes the weasel’.

Recently we bought a rigid heddle loom here at the Old School and have been weaving some lovely scarves which you can find in our Etsy shop, link to be found in the Shop banner on this website or just click here.

Removing a scarf from the loom

You can of course also knit your items or crochet them. Zoe much prefers crochet and we have a half day course as an introduction to crochet coming up on the 4 July, details can be found here which is a link to our shop here on the website.

So next time you put on a nice warm woolly jumper or scarf it might be worth stopping and thinking about just how many processes that wool has been through. And if it gets a hole in it perhaps you might consider getting a darning needle out before throwing it away; I think the sheep would prefer that.

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