Welcome to A Woolen Forest Farm! The focus of our lab was to learn about the steps of wool processing which also involved the learning of the preservation of wool crafts and textile arts. Alejandra Sanchez, the resident fiber artist, shepherdess, and conservationist behind A Woolen Forest Farm, helped us to trace and understand the processing of wool through providing historical context of specific activities that make up the wool processing chaîne operatoire, touring the farm, and teaching us about the unique characteristics of the wool of specific heritage breeds (Soay, Jacob, and Leicester Longwool).
The design of the experiment involved four outdoor stations: dyeing area, carding area, spinning area, and weaving area. Each station was accompanied by a set of appropriate equipment and instructions. We began our introduction by collectively dyeing the wool. Then, Alejandra taught the collective group how to spin with a drop spindle. After we had learned to spin, we divided into groups that rotated to the different stations for the remainder of the lab.
This lab was highly experiential, and we were able to gather very little quantitative data. What we do have is bolded. Our experiences have left us with a great deal of qualitative takeaways, though, which we’ve expanded upon below!
Some of our research questions and goals included:
- To gain an understanding of the wool processing chaine operatoire.
- To better understand the environmental and social performance elements of wool processing.
- Which steps seem most fit for communal or individual work?
- Which station is the bottleneck of the process?
Dyeing wool is a longer and more labor-intensive process than we actually experienced in our four-hour lab, since Alejandra was kind enough to prepare materials for us ahead of time. For somebody making their own early Medieval dyes for the first time, the whole chaîne could take several years of hard work from growing and harvesting plants to aerating and fermenting the pigments. This was hardly Alejandra’s first attempt at dying wool, and part of the reason why we were able to perform the process so quickly was because she was an expert at her craft.
Alejandra provided us with dried weld, dried and powdered madder root, and a vat of already-fermented woad. The latter of these dyes is the trickiest to work with, since the dyer must keep it at a consistent pH and temperature while it ferments. Alejandra had heated it to about 190 degrees Fahrenheit and left it in the sun while she gave us a tour of the farm and introduced us to the sheep. The vat of woad gave off a livestock dung kind of smell, but with the quantity we had, it was only noticeable when a dyer was up close. We all put on plastic gloves to avoid having woad hands for the rest of the day, which made the experience slightly more pleasant. Dyeing wool in woad produced a gentle blue color with a hint of green.
We handled the weld and madder root in their dried forms and had the chance to mix them into vats of hot water ourselves. General consensus was that madder root smelled like a pleasant, aromatic tea blend, while the weld smelled like overcooked vegetables. We measured out 50g of madder root and 100g of weld. Both substances boiled in vats of water for an hour each before the mordanted yarn went in.
Once an hour had passed, we poured the contents of the madder root and weld vats into strainers to separate out the solid plant matter. At this point, these two dyes were finally at the same stage as the woad was when we arrived at the farm. While the vats were boiling, we dipped a skein of yarn into the woad three times, with fifteen minutes of drying in the sun between each dip. After every plunge into the dye, the yarn came out with a richer hue. When the madder root and weld were ready, we left a skein in each vat for an additional hour. Because of these long waiting periods (similar to the cheesemaking lab), dyeing was a lengthy project. But, as we experienced, it was easy to walk away from while we attempted other tasks, like spinning.
Everybody was impressed with the orange and yellow hues that the respective dyes created. Madder root would often be used to achieve a true red color, but several repetitions of soaking and grinding the dried roots would be necessary to deepen the color that much.
The carding process comes after the wool is shorn and washed, and has to be done in order to clean, separate, and align the wool fibers so they can be spun. In essence, we were brushing the wool out. The hand carders were large, wide paddles (quite similar, actually, to the kind of brush you might use for pet hair), with a beveled shape so they could rest comfortably against the thigh and with short, stiff teeth that were angled toward the bottom edge. As Alejandra instructed, we held one carder face-up against the thigh, placing a small handful of wool along the top edge of the teeth (on the opposite side from the handle). Then, with the other carder held face-down in the other hand, we started brushing the wool from the very edge, avoiding interlocking the two sets of teeth at first, but then slowly moving upwards to gently brush all of the wool on the first carder through. The two carders thus worked in opposite directions, the handles and teeth facing away from one another. Alejandra suggested that we keep the wool in the first half of the teeth of either carder, because using the full faces of the carders would be very difficult, as the teeth would interlock and make it much harder to pull them apart or brush the wool. Having brushed through the fibers, she then showed us how to transfer the fibers from one carder to the other so we could go through the brushing process once more, saying that twice was likely enough to fully card the wool.
Some of us found carding to be the easiest of the processes we learned today, but it did take some trial and error initially. The little “flick” that Alejandra showed us to shift the fibers from one paddle to the other looked much easier than it was, and some of us didn’t quite master it. It was also very easy to load the carders with far too much wool at first, especially the Leicester Longwool, because its curls made it look like a lot less material to work with prior to carding; once it started getting brushed out and fluffy, it would become clear there was too much to reasonably work with.
Those who carded the Soay wool found it much easier to work with than the Leicester Longwool, as the shorter fibers were less likely to get tangled and required less brushing in general. On the other hand, it seems like it was more difficult to brush out the debris and plant matter from the Soay wool. The Leicester wool was also quite curly, so carding involved separating these little ringlets and required more effort; often our carded Leicester wool was slightly imperfect, and one or two curly locks made it through the carding process.
Spinning your own yarn requires, in our case, a spindle and some fiber. We used a bottom whorl spindle that has a hook and worked with wool from the farm. We began by attaching a leader yarn to the spindle. To do this, we wrapped the yarn counterclockwise around the shaft near the whorl to secure it, and then spiraled it up the shaft. We wrapped the last spiral under the hook and led it out the center of the hook. Here, we picked up the wool and overlapped the wool on the end of the starting yarn. Gently holding the overlapped yarn and wool, we used the other hand to grasp the shaft and twist the spindle clockwise with our fingers. As the spindle turns, the yarn and wool will twist together.
It is important to properly understand how to draft, which makes all the difference in the product after you finish spinning the wool. As we kept spinning, we noticed that immediately above the yarn is what Alejandra called the “drafting zone” or “drafting triangle”. The zone controls many factors that affect the yarn. For example, if this triangle has more wool in it, the yarn will be thicker; if it has less, the yarn will be thinner. The triangle will shorten as the wool twists into yarn, and lengthen as new wool is drafted. The yarn is formed when fibers enter the drafting zone and are caught by the twist that is coming up the yarn from the rotating spindle. It is very important to not let the twist run into the drafting zone because it will make it difficult to draft. Another note is to trust and be conscious of the strength of the wool, which lends a lot of flexibility in terms of how well the product turns out when fully spun.
When the yarn became longer than was comfortable to work with, we wound the “excess” yarn around the base of the spindle and joined another piece of wool by fluffing out the end of the wool attached to the spindle and overlapping it with a handful of new wool. This process is continued until enough yarn is produced for whatever project the craftsperson has in mind.
In the end, with a spindle full of yarn, two balls can be formed. When finishing the yarn, although we did not reach this stage, we would have washed it in lukewarm water to “set” the twist, squeeze out the water, and lay it on a towel to dry out of direct sunlight (usually for a day).
For our weaving station at the farm, there were two simple frame looms set up on a table, already warped and with a couple inches of weaving started. Each loom had a shuttle with yarn to continue weaving with, a flat pick-up stick with a thin, rounded edge to make it easier to thread through the warp, a large needle-like stick to thread yarn through to consolidate the steps if we so chose, and a comb. From this stage, for a simple tabby weave, the weaving was fairly straightforward. Using the pick-up stick, we would begin picking up every other warp thread, taking care to go in the opposite direction from the last row (i.e., if the last row went over the end warp thread, the pick-up stick would need to go underneath it to alternate). Once the pick-up stick had passed through every other warp thread and reached the other side, we turned it on its side, so the flat side was parallel to the table and the shed was open. Then the shuttle could be passed through, the yarn pushed down flat against the weave with the comb, and the shed closed by pulling the pick-up stick out, at which point we would rinse and repeat.
We ran into a couple of problems or things to look out for with weaving. First, when starting out with the pick-up stick, several of us forgot to look at the most recent row and ended up having to redo the whole process because we picked up the same shed that the shuttle had last passed through. Even when we started out correctly, it was very easy to miss a warp thread or pass under two warp threads, both of which would result in only partially opening the correct shed. This was often quite frustrating to fix, especially if we didn’t realize the mistake until the shuttle had already been passed through. We also had to regulate the amount of slack to leave in the weft threads we set down, to keep the sides from pulling inward. Alejandra recommended organizing the yarn in an arch before compressing the thread down against the weave to keep from imparting too much tension; we also took care not to pull the working yarn and thereby remove slack.
In general, the class found this kind of work pretty repetitive and perhaps tedious, especially with how long it took to open the shed using a pick-up stick and having to thread the stick through anew for every row. On average it seems that one row took us around two minutes to complete––Group B reported completing seven rows in fifteen minutes, and Group C timed one person completing one row at a minute and 45 seconds.
Ultimately, going through several stages of the wool making process gave us a comprehensive sense of the chaine operatoire, and contextualized it among the practices we have already discussed over the past few weeks. Dyeing, for example, takes a fair amount of agricultural knowledge. The madder root would need to be grown, harvested, and ground in to a powder before the dye making process can even begin. Woodworking is needed for the formation of the drop spindles and the various pieces of the loom, and metalworking is needed for the teeth of the carders. The sheep themselves would also have been important, not just for their wool, but also for cheesemaking and as a source of meat.
Carrying out the wool making processes ourselves also became a necessary part of answering the questions we came up with during class. As we explored the materials before the lab, we were confused about the mechanics of each procedure. For example, we wondered at what point in the process dyeing occurred. We learned that dyeing can in fact happen at nearly any point, though the effect it has will be different depending on when it occurs. We also wondered how much work got done in how much time for spinning, carding, and weaving. These questions were much more difficult to answer, as even over the course of the fifteen minutes to an hour that we tried them, we all improved significantly. I am certain that as we became more proficient in these three particular processes that the time which each one took would be reduced greatly.
We came away from the lab with a couple additional questions as well. First, because we did not get a chance to work with Icelandic wool, we were interested how that might compare to the other types. It seems likely that it would be most similar to the Soay wool, as both are more primitive breeds, but being able to physically work with the wool would be necessary to accurately answer the question. Also, we wondered what the wool that we spun would be like to knit with. According to Elliot, who got to try knitting out, the tension needs to be kept tighter than it does with other yarn, which forced him to use a larger gauge of needle. It would be interesting to see, as we became better at spinning, what sort of effect that would have on the ease of working with the wool.
Group Data Reports
Sheep We observed four types of sheep at the farm. The first was the Leicester Longwool. The largest species among the ones we saw, the Leicester Longwool needs to be sheared twice a year as a result of selective breeding. Next is the Jacob Sheep. These have multicolored wool, and can have between two and…
It’s quite difficult to get the data. because we spent most of the time with hand on activities and learning how to do different processes of yarn making properly. However, we got to discuss in re-cap class on Friday about the lab and here are some data from my group members’ experiences and reflections. Raising…
The Sheep Leicester Longwool largest of the four types of sheep curly s-shaped/clockwise fleece; fast-growing; shorn twice per year only males have horns breed developed in England; rather domesticated Icelandic on the smaller side shorter and straighter fleece than the longwools; can be shorn twice per year both males and females have horns allowed to…