Week 5: Woolworking – Group C Data

Because this lab was more experiential than experimental, this report is more observational than data-driven.

Beginning of lab

It was made very clear from the start that we, like many women in the ancient world, were expected to spend all idle time (and, if possible, busy time too) spinning. As such, we were each given a drop spindle and some machine-carded wool, and Alejandra instructed us in the basics of spinning. The entire class was producing yarn in pretty short order, though when we unwound our work from our spindles at the end of the lab, we noticed that the later yarn, on average, showed a marked improvement.

Station 1: Carding

Group C began with carding some raw wool, beginning with the long, curly wool from Cotswold sheep. We quickly discovered some of the pitfalls of carding. Firstly, the texture of the wool changed the carding experience. The curls of Cotswold wool were difficult to comb out, as they got stuck in the base of the comb’s teeth—there were often a few stubborn curls that would have to be put back with the uncarded wool. The Soay wool was hard to card, and didn’t produce the “cloud” of wool that carding usually does. Second, it’s more difficult to card when the wool is farther from the front of the comb. It’s important to carefully line up the wool at the front of the comb to limit the contact area of the brushes, which causes a lot of friction and makes the task that much more difficult. As it is, carding seems to require a good deal of arm and shoulder strength if one wants to do it for a while.

It’s also an activity that kind of begged company, or at least entertainment. We were happy to chat with each other, and Jake played some Cretan shepherd music to bring us into the right mindset.

Station 2: Spinning

After 45 minutes of carding, we moved outside to focus on our spinning with Austin. We worked with several different wools—Cotswold, Soay, and Jacob—and three different levels of carded-ness: one smooth, one with some curls (perhaps 5–10%), and one with more curls (20–30%). There were also some dyed wools. Several of us also brought wool that we ourselves had just carded, which was on one level very satisfying to work with, as it feels more completely one’s own, but on another was somewhat frustrating, because any missed snarls were taken very personally. Comparing different types of wool, we found that wool with remaining curls was more difficult to spin smoothly because they added unexpected thickness or jutted out. Though a bit frustrating, they did add some striking visuals when spun alongside darker wool: silky loops leaping out from a smooth and dark central column, a bit reminiscent of mushrooms on a tree.

It seems appropriate to address the spinning we were doing throughout the lab in this section. First, the learning curve of spinning, while not steep, is not quite linear. Many of us had something of a spinning streak where we produced smooth, even yarn, which was (seemingly) inexplicably brought to an end by an unwelcome lump of wool. Second, different people had different preferences for wool: some enjoyed the Cotswold the most, while others favored the Jacob—nobody expressed a preference for spinning the Soay, however. Third, spinning becomes more difficult as the yarn starts to take up more space and disrupt the weight. We adapted to this by rolling the spindles against our legs rather than letting them spin freely in the air. Finally, spinning while trying to multitask is difficult, but not spinning when idle was even harder. At least one of our group members expressed feeling guilt when they stopped spinning to watch other group members work at the weaving station. As note-taker, I felt very torn between trying to take lab notes and do my spinning (the spinning usually won).

Station 3: Weaving

As a group, we added between five and ten rows of indigo-dyed wool to one of the two looms. Though it initially seemed like it would be slow going, each person grew faster as they gained more confidence with the process and figured out more efficient techniques. The type of loom we used—a frame loom—gave us a greater appreciation for not only more modern looms with the warp nicely separated for ease of the shuttle passing through, but also for ancient looms with their warp-weights. Creating any sort of pattern or image on the loom still feels very much beyond us, though not unattainable if we were to practice. That seems to be one of the major takeaways of this lab: that all these skills are ones we could develop, or would have, had we been born even a few hundred years ago.

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