Lab Summary Week 5: Wool Working

Adam Binzak, Trina Eichel, Lucy Neumann


Taking a break from data heavy experiments, on April 29th, 2021 ARCN 222 completed a series of experiential investigations into three of the main processes involved in wool production. All three experiences were taught under the guidance of Alejandra Sanchez, an expert in the preindustrial processing of natural fibers. Alejandra first taught how to drop spindle allowing for constant thread production throughout the lab. Students were expected to continue spinning unless actively engaging in other activities to replicate the conditions that Roman women lived. The second experience was carding in which the raw wool was processed, and the fibers detangled and aligned in the same direction. This made the wool easier to spin into a thread of consistent diameter. The last experience was weaving. Two small looms were prepared ahead of time and then were used under the direct supervision of Alejandra. 

Throughout the lab, students used three different types of wool. The first type was the Cotswold wool. This wool came from a breed of sheep believed to be the same breed that was brought by the Romans to Britain. Cotswold’s wool is a very rich white color with long fibers and tight curls throughout. The second type was the Soay wool.  Soay sheep were left isolated from humans after arriving on the islands of the St. Kilda archipelago. They are believed to originally have been kept by Bronze Age farmers but are a more primitive breed than the Cotswold. Soay wool has a darker brown color and has shorter fibers but fewer curls. The last type of wool used came from Jacob sheep which are also considered primitive and rare. Jacob sheep have the ability to grow as many as six horns simultaneously, a rare ability not found in more domesticated sheep. The Jacob sheep had patterns of patchy light and dark-colored wool and had shorter fibers more similar to the Soay sheep. 

The purpose of this lab was to try to better understand what the lives of Roman women were like through tasks that they would have completed daily. We know from such examples as the story of Lucretia from the Era of Kings that being the producer of wool products for the household was a main expectation of women. However, little was written about this process and due to most of the implement’s being wooden there are very limited archeological remains. Fortunately though, the general equipment and techniques for wool production have been heavily conserved and were still used up until the industrial revolution. Therefore, we underwent these experiences not necessarily to rediscover how wool production was done, but more so to try to understand core aspects of a woman’s daily life in the ancient Mediterranean.



Although often looked over in favor of the more glamorous processes involved in wool working, the act of carding is essential to produce uniform thread. Carding is done by using two paddles (cards) with a metal brush-like insert to straighten the fibers of the naturally curly wool. Wool was placed into the top rows of teeth of one card so that about half of the wool was hanging over the front edge and the other half was embedded in the brush. Then, the other card was used to comb out any curls or debris in the wool that remained after washing. Once the exposed half of the wool had been carded the wool was transferred to the free card and the process repeated on the newly exposed half of the wool. The transfer process was one of the more difficult aspects of carding as the wool needed to be aligned correctly before carding could be continued. Although the card’s brush surface was large, it was important to only comb the wool that was exposed over the edge of the partner card as to not damage the teeth of the brush and increase the card’s longevity. The final goal of carding was to reach a “cloud-like” state where the wool was very loose and fluffy with no curls or clumps. Also, wool could be carded more than once to achieve an even more uniform and separated product for use in thinner thread production.

The different types of wool that were available behaved differently when being carded. The Cotswold wool had very dense but light curls which made the carding difficult. If not careful curls could make their way to the middle of the cloud and not be discovered until it was being spun. This could be avoided by carding smaller batches of wool to ensure that there were no inconsistencies, however this made the process more time-consuming. The Jacob wool was a little more difficult to card because the fiber length was shorter than the Cotswold, but there were fewer problems encountered with the Jacob wool. The most difficult wool to work with was the Soay. Until this point all wool had already been cleaned thoroughly but the Soay wool had not been cleaned leaving it greasy and full of debris. The grease provided an unpleasant handling experience, and the wool had an obvious unpleasant smell. The debris often inhibited the carding process as it would cause the fibers to tangle, and the individual debris had to be plucked out by hand to ensure a more consistent wool to spin with. Overall, the Soay was the hardest to card into a nice, fluffy cloud which, in turn, made it difficult to work with in the spinning process. 


After the initial spinning lesson, some students got the hang of the drop spindle very quickly, while others struggled with even the easiest of the wools. The spindles that the students learned on were heavier and slower than spindles that women would have used in the ancient world. These spindles were for beginners and were probably most similar to those used to teach five or six year-old girls how to spin when they were just starting out. Older women would have used faster smaller spindles that allowed them to produce a lot of yarn throughout the day while they completed other tasks such as taking care of the herds or feeding their baby. As the students spent more time spinning and getting the hang of it, many commented that they would be able to keep it going while carrying out other tasks much like the women of ancient Rome. 

At the spinning station, students were able to work with Jacobs wool, well-carded and medium-carded Cotswold, and freshly carded Soay. All of the groups found the Cotswold easiest to spin due to its longer fiber length and thinner clouds. Most students found the shorter fiber length of the Jacob and the thickness of the machine carded clouds to be much harder to work with. However, some students found that the thickness of the Jacob wool actually made spinning easier because it was harder for the yarn to become too thin and break. 

“It was more difficult to spin than the Cotswold because it was thicker due to its shorter fiber length. [I] had a hard time getting it as thin as the Cotswold yarn”

Grace Brindle on spinning Jacob wool, via Group E Lab Data
spun Cotswold and Jacob
Spun Cotswold and Jacob

Spinning the Soay was a totally different experience than spinning the Cotswold and the Jacob. The Soay was thick, had short fibers, and stuck to itself due to the high lanolin content. It was difficult to draft due to how sticky it was which made spinning very difficult. The Soay was also difficult to card and did not turn into a nice fluffy cloud like the Cotswold which contributed to the difficulty of spinning it. It was very hard to get a uniform thickness with the carded Soay because you had to start with a thicker section of the wool when spinning or it would just break apart due to the short fiber length. 

Group B conducted a few experiments with the Soay wool in order to make it easier to spin. The first trial was to card the Cotswold with the Soay at a 70-30 ratio. The addition of the Cotswold made the wool much fluffier and easier to card. It was also easier to spin and to get a uniform thickness because you could draft it thinner since the longer Cotswold fibers would guide the Soay in. The second trial was the card the Cotswold with the Soay at a 50-50 ratio. This mixture was much harder to card because the Soay would clog up the carders and make them more sticky. This resulted in a much less fluffy cloud. However, the thicker cloud in this mixture was better than the pure Soay because although the yarn was thicker, it still held together better because of the addition of the Cotswold. After conducting this experiment, Alejandra informed us that this is a strategy that many modern spinners use to make Soay yarn in order to take advantage of its water-resistant properties but without the hassle of spinning pure Soay. 

The main takeaway for many groups from the spinning portion of the lab was the quickness with which they got the hang of the drop spindle. It became a mindless exercise that they could do while holding a conversation or walking around. Many students could be seen throughout the lab spinning and chatting together in groups, much like the women of ancient Rome. 

Astrid, Wendy, and Lucy spinning and chatting
Astrid, Wendy, and Lucy spinning and chatting


At the weaving station, Alejandra taught students how to use frame looms. Students used a shed stick to weave through the warp, turned it sideways to open up the warp, and then brought the shuttle through. Placing and maneuvering the shed stick tended to be the trickiest part of the process. It was more unwieldy as it was moved further from the bottom of the loom, and tended to flip back and let the warp strings close. It was also easy to make a mistake by missing a string when weaving the shed stick through, which would set off the entire sequence and meant that that row needed to be rewoven. However, Alejandra informed students that missing a string is not the end of the world—you can simply cut the yarn, weave in the end of it, and continue. It was important to leave an arch-like shape with the yarn when pulling it through with the shuttle. That way, when the yarn was pushed down with the comb, the sides of the loom would not be pulled inwards. Without the arch shape, the weft would become too tight and would pull in the sides of the loom to make an hourglass shape. To create the arch, it was helpful to keep one finger at the corner of the loom to hold the yarn down and keep it from lifting at the sides. Once the arch was made, the comb had to be used fairly forcefully to push the yarn down and achieve a tight weave. It was helpful to have a second person nearby to hold the skein of yarn, and with a bigger loom, a second person would have been useful for passing the shuttle back and forth as well. Multiple groups noted that the use of a frame loom made them consider how looms with warp weights might have made the warp easier to separate and weave through. Three different types of wool were worked with during weaving: an indigo dyed Cotswold wool, a peppery colored Jacob wool, and student’s own hand-spun white Cotswold. Generally, the Jacob and the dyed Cotswold were easier to work with than the student-spun wool because they had a more consistent thickness and did not fall apart as easily. However, using student-spun Cotswold wool did cause the loom to fill up more quickly as it was thicker overall.  

Weaving the shed stick through the warp
Bringing the shuttle through the opened warp
The arch shape needed before using the comb

For most, the general experience of weaving was frustrating and tedious at first, but became easier quickly. It was easier to learn than spinning, and had more concrete steps, but it was also fairly easy to make a mistake in the weaving. Most groups took a few minutes to do each row in the beginning, but by the end of their time at the station, they were able to weave at a rate of about one row per minute. Even for those that did not enjoy it by the end, they were able to see how it could become a faster and more peaceful task with more practice and experience. After weaving a row or two, confidence increased and most developed their own technique and rhythm. It was observed that it would not be too hard to get very good at weaving quickly on one loom, but changing looms might make it a slower process because the size and tension would be different. Overall, our takeaways as a class were that weaving is a skill that is not too technically challenging and can be easily developed with time and practice, and was also likely a task that was done communally with friends or family.

Two groups working at the framed looms


Through this lab, students gained knowledge and experience in the art of manual wool working that women in the ancient Mediterranean and in other places across the world spent centuries doing. The unpleasant and greasy sensation of trying to card the Soay wool taught students the importance of the washing step before carding, and attempting to spin badly carded Cotswold taught the importance of thorough carding. Experimenting with the three different types of wool in carding, spinning, and weaving gave students a better understanding of why sheep might have been bred for certain characteristics in their wool. Students learned what it meant for a type of wool to have shorter or longer fibers, and how that translated to how difficult it was to work with. The class discovered that weaving could be frustrating for beginners, but was not too hard to get the hang of with some practice. By spinning constantly, even when working at other stations, students gained an insight into the lifestyles of ancient women, who likely spun in most of their free time in order to create enough yarn to weave with. The class learned that spinning is just as tricky at first as it sounded in our readings, even though Alejandra made it look easy. And, after some practice, students got a sense of the communal aspect of spinning as they mindlessly spun together and chatted in groups.

Group Data Reports

  • Group E Week 5 Lab Data

    Due to the nature of this lab, most of the data I collected as data collector is qualitative and anecdotal to my experience and the experience of my group members.  Learning to Spin The first activity we didi in this lab was learn to spin using out hand spindles that Alejandata gave us. The spindle…

  • Week 5 Lab Data, Group F

    Introduction The nature of this week’s lab was experiential rather than experimental. As a result, the majority of data collected is observational (and, therefore, partially subjective). Times are recorded in some instances to measure efficiency, but there were no official constraints.  Learning to Spin At 1:45pm, each student received a drop spindle, a leader string,…

  • Week 5 Lab Data – Group D

    Because lab this week involved working with wool and making things with our hands, there were very few numbers involved and the data collected was mostly qualitative and subjective. Introduction: Learning to Spin At 1:50, we began lab by learning how to spin. We each received our own drop spindles, balls of roving wool from…

  • Group B Week 5 Lab Data

    Due to the nature of this lab, the data that was recorded is mostly qualitative rather than quantitative. Part 1: Learning how to spin At approximately 1:55 pm, Alejandra begins teaching us how to drop spindle. We are given a wooden spindle, a string, and a bundle of wool to start. We are instructed to…

  • Week 5 Lab Data — Group A

    Due to the nature of this particular lab, there is very little quantitative data recorded here — most “data” collected was subjective to our experiences. However, I did record times for some events, and these are included here on the off chance that they’re somehow helpful Learning to Spin 1:50 — Everyone receives a spindle,…

  • 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…

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