Handmade Wool Combs and Raw Fleece Adventures

Today I wanted to show some new pieces of spinning equipment I have been enjoying and some new spinning territories and techniques I have thrown myself into.

Ever since I got into spinning my mum would sometimes ask if I was on the lookout for any other equipment that she could have a look out for on her second hand store adventures that she frequently undertakes (that is – when it’s safe to do so, so not so frequent in pandemic times). So I tried to describe as best as I could some things I was looking for, mainly fibre prep tools (specifically combs and carding tools) and described the use and function of various tools as best I could. It’s always interesting to figure out how to have these exchanges of information as someone who is *ahem* super into a niche subject. At university I once launched into a sweater construction discourse to my uni folks after I was (kindly) asked about it and it was only after I looked up from the table minutes later and looked my peers in the eye one by one that I realised that nothing from the first word to the last had landed (it was fine, we had a good laugh about it). Anyway my mother was a good sport, and not totally blind in the land of textile crafts, so she went on her merry way, numerously cautioned by yours truly that the field of spinning is incredibly niche, so to not expect to find much or anything at all.

This was at a time when covid spread was at it lowest and I would get regular reports back how she was getting on with it (she found lots of nice tables and plant pots but no spinning equipment). My mum, true to her Leo sign, is not one to be easily dissuaded and came back with a new plan of attack: why not see if we or one of our crafty friends can (and is willing) to make some wool combs? I will admit that it had crossed my mind before to just try to make some, but I swiftly crossed it of the list as I lack a lot of the equipment and power tools that would make that a serious option (the idea of making myself a tablet weaving loom was dismissed part way into it because I ran into the same problems).

Which brings me to the combs you see pictured here. My mum looked around in the nooks and crannies of ye old internet for tips and advise on how to make a set of these yourself and imagine my surprise when she found a pretty good basic description written in my mother tongue! She enlisted the help of one of our family friends, who I’ve know since I was born. He is not a textile crafter but he has made and built things with his hands his entire life and has always been interested in and supportive of all my craft and make endeavours. In fact he made me my first Turkish spindle and my niddy noddy of leftover wood as well. Happily he was up for trying to make a set of wool combs to add to my spinning equipment collection!

He made me a set of two wool combs with an clever system that neatly does two jobs; it hides away the combs when not in use and it fastens the combs. When not in use, the combs nestle in the wooden block you see pictured with the teeth of the comb worked away in the wooden case. Mounted on top of the block are two clamps in which you can place and fasten one of the combs so you can use one hand for combing and have the other hand free to work the fibre. The wooden block has some weight by itself as to not move around too much when combing in this way, but I often mount it to the table for more stability when combing.

In addition he made me a hackle. Whereas the combs are ideal for working wool from sheep and other animal fibres, hackles work best for plant fibres. To use it I mount the hackle on the table with two separate metal clamps. I haven’t been able to truly test this hackle yet as I need some flax for that, but I’m eager to hopefully do so somewhere this year.

All tools were made using only leftover wood and other spare materials that were already present in one of our houses or houses of friends (or friends of friends), even the metal pins and the metal clamps for the hackle! One of my favourite bits are the ice lolly sticks to keep the combs in place when stored. Time was taken to gather all these materials making for a more durable, sustainable and thrifty set of spinning tools then I could have dreamed of beforehand. When I got them I polished the wood with the same homemade beeswax wood polish that I also use on my wheel and spindles.

With the arrival of the wool combs it was time to get some raw fleece to give them a test drive. Up until now I’ve held off getting any fleeces as I lacked any of the tools to process raw fleece which made getting raw fleece kind of useless. I had been looking at them occasionally and did some research on how to wash and clean them (you know, just to be prepared for the moment I could get some tools and jump into wool processing action!).

In terms of preparations combs are suited for a worsted fibre preparation in which you comb all the fibres in the same parallel direction (note this has nothing to do with worsted weight to define yarn thickness) whereas carding brushes and carders are used for a woollen preparation where the fibre gets all jumbled up in different directions. Because these are combs I knew I wanted a fleece in medium to long staple length because a long staple length is more suitable for a worsted prep, whereas short fibres are more suited to woollen prep.

In the end I decided to go for a local sheep breed: Het Drents Heideschaap (or Drenthe Heath Sheep in English). This is one of the oldest surviving sheep breeds in Europe -according to some sources the oldest but you know these things are murky so we’ll just go with old. The breed almost died out in the 1940s but through conservation efforts there are now about 4000 remaining in the Netherlands (note these numbers refer to the “old” type, later a new variety was bred where the old Drenthe Heath sheep was mixed with the Schoonebeker, also a Dutch heath sheep breed).

This horned sheep breed is now primarily used for vegetation management and I’ve actually seen these sheep in the heath, meadow and woodland areas I frequent (where I’ve also spotted herds of different heath sheep breeds like these, pictured on photos I took). It’s so incredible to me, to be able to work with fibres from sheep so local to me that I’m actually able to go out and see them in the fields and meadows. The Drenthe Heath sheep is a hardy breed known for it’s long fibre length. The fleece has no crimp or elasticity, and does contain some kemp so if you’re looking for a delicate fleece to spin I’d say you better skip this one. However if you’re up for it, it’s a beautiful quality fleece that was easy to clean and work with.

I cleaned the fleece in batches in my sink using hot water and some washing up liquid and let it dry in the sun and wind on my balcony. This wasn’t a particularly dirty fleece, and the dirt that was in there washed off easily. The fleece did have a lot of veg matter, so I was constantly picking out little pieces of grass, moss, heather – I also found three dead beetles (rip) in it. I know some spinners really dislike this, but while I understand it can be a bit tedious I mostly see it as a good thing. I much rather have the fleece of a sheep that shows signs of their life outside the barn than a pristine clean fleece from a sheep that didn’t have those chances. Apart from that I love fleeces from sheep that show their connection to the land they graze on and in turn connect me to the land. I feel similarly about bits of straw I find in commercially spun yarn (as opposed to my own hand spun) but with a sheep breed that roams so close to home it’s especially poignant.

The wool before and post washing

I will say that the washing and processing is a ton more work than buying processed fibres. Especially the washing can be bone tiring work if you set yourself …ahem…a goal for the day and can be dirty to verrrry dirty depending on the state of the fleece. That said there are advantages that make it worth the while to me. The amount of freedom and choice you have in breeds in processed fibre, especially in my neck of the woods, just doesn’t compare to the variety you can find in raw fleece. Moreover I have the choice of a bunch of different local breeds (as in they originate in the country which I live) as well as sheep breeds from different lands that live in local herds, so it allows me to source my materials a lot closer to home. Finally, starting with a raw fleece is essentially like starting with a blank canvas, you can process it however you like, blend it with whatever you like and dye it with whatever you like.

I’ve started combing the fleece and am going to process bit by bit as I spin up more of the yarn. The whole combing bit is a learning process in itself; learning how to best use the combs, the different techniques and sorting the fleece in different categories as I comb it. I hope this won’t be famous last words but so far I’m finding it quite intuitive. The combs work really well and I’m so happy with them. It’s was quite mind boggling to see the transformative process of bits of raw fleece combed into these spinnable nests of fleece for the first time.

The method I’m going with so far is making little spinning nest of the best quality wool that is combed as best as I can, then I have some smaller nests of a sort of b quality, that is combed quite well but not as good as the first category. It will still make a nice yarn just slightly rougher I think. Then I have a category of short fibres that I’ve put aside and hope later to try to card in spinnable rolags. Finally I have I have a pile of nepps and tiny bits of knotted fibre. I’m not sure what I’ll do with those yet, but I really not keen on wasting anything so I’ll find something to do with them. I might try to felt the small pieces into proper nepps and maybe use for a tweed yarn but I might also put in in my fabric cabbage bag (the pieces of fabric to small to do anything with) and use it as pillow filling. Or I might give it to the plants as I heard wool is a really good material to use in your garden, we’ll see.

I’ve just started spinning the fleece into singles and am super excited! The staple length of this fibre is really long, that combined with the hardiness of the breed and the other attributes of the fleece makes me think it might me a good candidate for some no-nylon sock experiments down the road. For now I’ve no plans for this particular batch except to just explore and learn. I’m sure you’ll hear more about that process in the future when I’ve worked on it more.

Well, I’ve got about a kilo of this fleece, so quite some combing to do before I can call work on this done so I better hop to it! See you next time!

2 thoughts on “Handmade Wool Combs and Raw Fleece Adventures

  1. Wat goed dat de door Paul gemaakte kammen set in de praktijk goed werkt. Paul informeert regelmatig naar je projecten en of de kammen in de praktijk goed werken. Inderdaad ook fijn dat de set kammen zijn gemaakt van restmateriaal wat bij diverse mensen zijn verzameld. zo is het duurzaam. Mooi dat je hebt gekozen voor een oud drens schapenras van uit de omgeving met een stukje geschiedenis. Leuk om het verschil te zien na de wasbeurten. En het drogen tussen de planten van de balkontuin 😃Veel plezier met de vorderingen van dit project. groet MargOt

    1. Ha bedankt! Ja klopt altijd geïnteresseerd! De kammen werken echt wel goed ja! Het leren kammen en bewerken van verder onbewerkte schapenwol is echt wel een handigheid en en vaardigheid op zich. Fijn om het nu ook te leren!

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