For our first experiment, our Experimental Archaeology class got to work turning freshly shorn wool into a piece of woven fabric. This experiment was challenging to record quantitatively, but gave us a great glimpse into the lives of women throughout much of history and the immense amount of work required to create fabric and clothing. This insight is especially valuable since we do not have much in the written record about the process. There is evidence about the process in art and Lysistrata’s metaphor in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (lines 551-597), which also indicates that this process was well known to everyone, not just the women most intimately involved. Additionally, many of the tools required for fabric production are wood and have not survived in the archaeological record. This means a fair amount of our knowledge and hypotheses about this process come from later pre-industrialization tools and techniques which have changed little over time. This experiment is not a perfect recreation of wool-working in any ancient Mediterranean context, but instead an experience to help us better understand the process and the amount of work and skill that went into a core aspect of life we often take for granted.
There were three main parts of the experiment: carding, spinning, and weaving. We were directed through all of these steps by local expert Alejandra Sanchez, the owner of A Woolen Forest Farm. We first learned to set up and use our drop spindles at the beginning of the class, before dividing into three groups to rotate through each step of the process every hour. Throughout all the stations we were expected to continue spinning unless we were absolutely unable to, in an effort to recreate the need to be constantly spin to produce enough thread to use for textiles. As we explore more later, spinning is one of the most rate-limiting steps of the textile-making process, which means it is imperative to be spinning whenever possible.
We used several different types of wool, all of which were heritage breeds rather than commercial breeds such as merino wool. We were lucky to have access to the wool of Alejandra’s heritage breed sheep, which, compared to sheep bread commercially for wool, are more alike to the sheep of the ancient world.
Some of our key research questions and end goals included:
- Learning the basics of all of these steps
- Gaining an understanding of the process from beginning to end
- Are these activities more suited to communal work or to individual work?
- What parts take the longest and “bottleneck” the whole process?
- Do any of the steps cause pain? If so, where? How might this pain be avoided or minimized?
- What would it look like to be “good” at spinning in the ancient world? What defines skill?
The first step in the process was carding. We were provided with wool that had been shorn and cleaned as well as the “cards,” large paddles that work much like hair brushes but with metal bristles. Two of these are used to detangle and straighten out the wool fibers to facilitate spinning. The wool was placed on one of the two carders so that it was attached but also hung off some (roughly ⅔ of the wool hung off the card). The other carder was used to brush through the hanging wool.. The carder ensures there is no metal on metal, so only the fibers hanging off of the initial card are processed. Once those have been effectively carded, the wool is transferred to the other card to expose the remaining wool and the process is repeated until all the wool has been fully carded. This produces fluffy, almost cloudlike, wool which can then be spun together.
The types of wool available to us to card included Jacobs, Leicester Long Wool, Cotswold, and Soay. Ruby, one of our data recorders, nicely summarized the different textures and difficulties we had while carding.
|Jacobs||brown, grey, tan||“clumpy” shorter fibers, fluffy, not very curly||somewhat hard to card,sometimes feels matted|
|Leicester Long Wool||white, grey||coarse, longer fibers,more of a hair-like texture||creates fluffy “cloud”when carded|
|Cotswold||white||very curly||hard to card, curls hard to break up|
|Soay||brown, grey, some bits of white||varied textures from soft fleece to longer hair-like texture||difficult to remove all the clumps, the fiber was unwashed which could contributed|
Carding requires a good deal of upper body strength, especially for the clumpy or very curly pieces or pieces with knots or dirt left over from the cleaning process. The arm movements and overall stance required were new to most of us in the lab, but we quickly got into a rhythm and found the work minimally challenging.
Likely due to the physical exertion this seemed to be the least social station. There was still a good deal of chatting, especially when reloading the cards or when taking short breaks, but it did not lend itself to chatter as easily as the other steps. We planned on spinning the wool we carded, and were therefore deeply focused on creating quality roving which would lead to easier spinning – it is possible this also contributed to the relative quiet of this step. We had already seen how much easier it is to spin quality, clean roving, and wanted to make future steps as easy as possible.
This station was very difficult to measure quantitatively so we have much more of the qualitative data. This lack of data may be to not being able to weigh the wool beforehand, the constant rotating of people due to there only being a couple sets of carders, or just the difficulty of measuring how much wool has been carded aside from in comparison to something else.
For spinning, we used a drop spindle with a whorl, used to add weight, near the bottom and a metal hook at the top. To begin, we were provided with a leader thread which we tied into a loop, attached right above the weight using a slip knot, and wrapped around the spindle in a clockwise direction until we reached the top. Then we wrapped the leader thread around the hook 2-3 times to secure it and left several inches of thread unattached. We were provided with machine made roving, wool that has been carded and formed into a continuous piece. We took some of this roving and drafted, pulling some out gently so as to have a smaller quantity to spin, and looped it through the loop of the loose leader thread. We then were able to drop the spindle and spin it clockwise. We then “parked” it between our legs to stop it from spinning while we pinched the top of the spun thread. We then drafted a bit more roving and pinched it a few inches along and then released the initial pinch. This process was repeated until we ran out of space and then we wrapped the spun thread clockwise around the spindle, rewrapped thread around the hook, and repeated the process. We discussed later in class that this is a very beginner way of doing this and that people who are good at it can keep the spindle moving and not start and stop as much as we had to.
This task was not initially as physically exerting as carding, however, it became increasingly tiring as time went on. Despite this, spinning arguably took the most skill of the three activities we tried. . Higher quality thread required good posture and sometimes odd and slightly uncomfortable hand and arm positions while drafting the roving. It is difficult to compare directly to carding, since we were switching off who was carding often and so no one did it for the same stretch of time, but spinning became quite taxing as each hour neared its end. This puts into perspective what ancient women, who were spinning nearly constantly, might have felt. We found it very difficult to spin consistent thicknesses of thread, which Alejandra explained was mostly impacted by the drafting and how much we were drafting at any point.
Another difficult aspect was not drafting in a way that broke the wool apart. The wool was not truly broken as it could be reconnected and spun together, but there was a significant learning curve to reconnecting it and it made the whole process more difficult. People had a variety of ways of reconnecting the wool. The most common were either spinning the ends together or smushing them back together, but some students also licked or otherwise moistened their fingers and then the wool to make it more clingy. There were also differences between drafting the machine-carded roving and our own hand-carded wool. The spinning station was right after the carding station so many of us got to spin the wool we had carded. This allowed the connected nature of the steps and the importance of doing each one well shine, but also showed us what it is like to spin wool that has not been neatly machine-carded. This wool was more cloudlike and took more connecting than the roving, which improved those skills but also slowed people down and could be frustrating.
The Leicester Longwool and Cotswold seemed to be the least breakable as they had the longest fibers and were clingier than other wool types, This allowed for a long and thin thread that was harder to achieve with other wools, including the machine carded roving. This emphasized something that Jake had discussed in class about different types of wool being used for different purposes and it all being separated out. This was just wool from different sheep but there are also different types and textures of wool on the same sheep, such as on Soay sheep, which card and spin differently.
The different wools, especially their coloring, also impacted the ability to tell when it was properly spun. The white wool was most difficult as it was hard to see the twists of the fibers whereas other wools, such as the Jacobs wool, created little stripes due to the spinning.
For most groups, this activity was also far more social than carding was. None of us were particularly good at it but it was fairly simple to pick up the basics and we quickly struck up conversation in our spinning circles. This may have also been partially due to the fact that most groups already had some spinning experience before reaching the spinning station of the lab; the first spinning group was notably less talkative than the last spinning group. Conversation, it was later noted, seemed to make the time pass far more quickly and also made the activity more enjoyable. It began with tips and tricks and comparing the different types of wool we were using but then in all groups, it turned away from that and into a more general conversation about topics ranging from life experiences at Carleton, sports news, amusing stories, the experience of these ancient women, and the idea of spinning being a “virtuous” activity from the story of Lucretia, which we had read about for a previous class. For some groups, this part of the conversation led into what was jokingly called a “virtue test” where the amount of spun thread after 1.5 to 2 hours was weighed as a form of measurement. There is some variation here because the different wool types weigh different amounts. One group weighed the rovings and found that the Jacobs roving was 28 grams and the Cotswold was 30 grams. The “virtue test” led to this data, some of the little actually quantitative data we were able to collect, which is incomplete as not all groups chose to weigh their thread and is also not representative of any actual historical spinning data as we are very much beginners:
|Name||Weight of thread in grams|
One student, Ann, also recorded how long it took to spin one roving of wool at different points. This shows that there is a lot of improvement over a short amount of time. Our data was never going to show how quickly someone who had been spinning their whole life could spin, but this does put into perspective how steep the learning curve might be.
|Beginning of lab||45m-1hr|
|End of lab||15-20m|
At the end of class, Ann also took the weight of the thread she had spun and compared it to the weight of a knitted shawl. She found that she had spun about 15% of the weight needed for the shawl.
Another group chose to measure how many grams of roving yielded how much yarn for different people and found that one person, Luisa, using Leicester Longwool spun 3 grams of roving into 26 inches of approximately 1/4 inch wide yarn while another, Samantha, using Jacobs wool spun 8 grams of roving into 38.7 feet of approximately 1/16 inch wide yarn. Interestingly Samantha’s yarn weighed less than the roving that was used to create it indicating some form of loss, however, they are very small numbers and could be due to differences in measuring and imprecise tools for this project. These different results show, despite the several changed variables, that there are a number of factors that can all drastically impact the finished result besides just skill and also demonstrate that the other groups’ pure weight measurement may tell us even less than previously thought.
Group D chose to measure the average thickness of the thread across different lengths to compare the two different types of roving we were provided with and found that the Cotswold Wool averaged 0.45 cm while the Jacobs Wool averaged 0.39 cm. This is hypothesized to be due to the Cotswold wool being more difficult to draft which is in line with other experiences, hypotheses, and Alejandra’s insights.
For weaving there were two looms that were set up with 57 warp threads ¼ inch apart resulting in a 36-inch wide loom. We were closely instructed by Alejandra Sanchez for the duration of the activity. She showed us how to separate every other warp thread, feed the weft thread through while leaving enough slack at the ends and in the middle so as to not misshape the weaving by weaving too tightly, and to comb the weft thread down flat against the previous row. The comb that was used was wooden and 3 and 7/8 inches wide. A longer comb might have been more convenient.
These steps were repeated for each row and we were instructed to experiment with how we combed the weft thread down. This resulted in different methods including from either side to the other and from the middle and then the edges. This last method was preferred by some groups as it seemed to result in the most smooth finish, but other groups found that starting at either end made the weaving more even because all of the excess was pushed to one edge.
The basics of weaving were pretty easy to pick up, but it was much slower than expected. The longest step seemed to be separating the weft and warp threads, and difficult to be good at. It is not a difficult task but it does take some precision and we also were not in a rhythm and so there was a lot of checking to make sure that we were going under and over the correct threads because each row had to be opposite. Not all groups counted their rows but the ones that did ended up with about 10-12 rows of weaving in about 30-45 minutes which corresponded to about an inch or just over of fabric. This of course is beginners and we were also switching on and off between people because there were only two looms for about 8 people to share. This meant that it was difficult to get better at weaving since nobody was able to do it for a significant amount of time.
As we were beginner weavers, we wove our yarn in a simple, alternating pattern. It is hard to say how long it would take a more skilled weaver to produce a woven piece of fabric; they would likely be weaving a more complicated pattern into the fabric, but also would be more skilled and therefore more efficient. Due to the rotation of our lab groups, groups A and B were able to weave the wool they had carded and subsequently spun, and found that this wool was of an inconsistent thickness, compared to the thread we began weaving with. The yarn we spun was certainly usable, but produced a variably textured fabric which was also less visually appealing than the machine spun thread. Groups A and B experimented with incorporating unspun and uncarded wool into the weaving which added patterns and textures to the fabric which were visually enticing but of questionable practicality.
Weaving was more conducive to conversation than carding but less so than spinning. The weaving itself took a good deal of concentration to avoid mistakes, but there were only two looms and therefore a lot of observation and continued spinning which allowed for pleasant conversation.
This lab provided great insight into the steps of wool working and the production of clothing in pre-industrial societies. As we improved our wool working skills, we gained knowledge and empathy for the women who spent much of their lives working with wool. We still do not know exactly how long any of these steps took skilled workers, but what competency we developed in 4 hours gives us a clue as to how long the steps took. When asked how quickly wool can be spun to maximize production, Alejandra told us that it takes about ten spinners to keep up with one skilled weaver. We saw how doing each step of the process carefully and well was essential to the production of quality wool – poorly carded wool was harder to spin, and poorly spun wool was harder to weave. As we spun and wove, it became clear how different types of wool would serve for different purposes and fabrics, and therefore why ancient shepherds would breed sheep for certain traits. Finally, we noticed and appreciated the social aspects of wool processing – conversation and collaboration came naturally, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time working with and learning about wool.