Preparing Wool for Carding
Holly Shaltz, Fiberist
After your wool is washed (see fiber article Wool Washing) and dried, the next step in preparing it for spinning is often carding.
Carding is a common method of preparing wool for spinning. Fiber is opened and fluffed, then applied to hand cards, or fed into a drumcarder, or commercial carding machine. The carding cloth is covered with thousands of tiny teeth. These teeth, in effect, "brush" the fiber to open it thoroughly so when it is spun there are few lumps of fiber which cause lumps in the handspun yarn.
Before the spinner can effectively card the fiber, though, she must open the wool in some way and remove all the debris. If this is not done, the wool can damage the teeth of drumcarders, and debris may be trapped in the finished yarn. Also, the yarn is likely to be less evenly spun, causing weak areas which will fray, pill, or even break in use.
To open the wool we can tease it by hand, use a picker, flick card, or precard.
I used to tease all my wool. That process is very simple: hold a lock between your hands, and pull it apart with quick side-to-side movements. The goal is to fluff the wool thoroughly so that it "looks like a cloud" with no dense areas left, as I tell kids when I demonstrate. In theory, all debris drops from the wool while you work. In practice, I find that only very slow teasing, with many stops to pick out vegetable matter (VM), gets most of the trash out. Teasing requires no equipment, and is highly portable. It works best on shorter wools--anything over maybe seven inches in length will tend to tangle rather than open smoothly.
Picking wool is a mechanical means of preparing wool for carding. A picker is a large piece of equipment when can be motorized or manually operated. It generally has very large teeth--they look like large nails, and in homemade pickers may actually be nails--attached to a surface which passes over the locks of wool. At each pass, the teeth pick up a clump of the wool, pull it away from the rest, and deposit it behind the picker. The pulling is what opens the fiber. This does leave many clumps which don't fully open.
As can be imagined, picking is not a kind process. Tender wool, which is not as strong as it could be, is often broken by picking. Picking also often needs to be repeated in order to open the wool more thoroughly. And in my experience, manual pickers drop much of the debris that has come out of the picked wool right on top of either the wool waiting to to be picked, or on that which has just been picked. Much trash may still remain, even in wool that has been picked more than once. Finally, pickers are potentially very dangerous, especially around young children, and they are easily the most expensive and least portable ways to prepare wool for carding. Picking may be the best choice, though, when a large volume (more than several pounds) of fiber must be prepared, or when speed is more important than quality.
A flick card is a piece of equipment very like a handcard, just quite a bit smaller. A lock of wool is held with one hand on a protected surface, often a piece of leather on your lap. The flick card hits the lock rapidly, with a motion which drags its teeth through the lock, one or more times until it is opened to the spinner's satisfaction. The lock is reversed and the process repeated.
To be honest, I've never tried flick carding. I feel it must be tricky to avoid hitting the fingers holding the lock! It seems more time-consuming to me than precarding, and since there's no place for the debris in the lock to go, it seems like the trash would tend to drop back onto the wool as you work. It does also require the purchase of the flick card and having something like the piece of leather to protect yourself from the teeth smacking into the lock of wool. Flick carding is certainly very portable, though, and is probably more effective and faster than teasing.
The process I personally like best in preparing wool for carding is precarding. This is often confused with flick carding, but the method is significantly different. You can use a handcard, a flick card, a dog comb, handcombs, or just about anything else you can draw a lock of wool through.
Hold one end of the lock of wool firmly with one hand. Hold (or mount on a workbench) your handcard, flick card, or comb with your other hand. Draw the loose end of the lock through the teeth of the card. Reverse and repeat. All debris is left behind in the teeth of the card! It's amazingly easy, fast, and effective. Tender wool doesn't break, but tippy bits will come off in the teeth. All VM and second cuts are removed. Most remaining dust and dirt are removed. The wool is fluffed up and ready for handcarding or drumcarding, or spinning directly from the lock.
This method is just as portable as flick carding, while much less likely to cause injuries due to hitting your hand with the teeth of your equipment. I now use a flick card mounted on my workbench in my studio, but previously I did all my precarding using my handcards. It was a full ten years before they started to show signs of wear from precarding--the card cloth started to tear very slightly so some of the teeth are a bit askew now. They still produce rolags beautifully, though.
Choosing a Method that's Right for Your Project
Obviously, I'm firmly in favor of precarding. It's amazing what a difference it makes in the quality of handspinning batts. I've done sample drumcarded batts from teased wool and precarded wool. There's simply no comparison! Hold the batt made from teased wool to the light, and you will see many areas of tangled fiber, trapped dirt, clumps from second cuts, etc. Hold a batt made from precarded wool to the light, and it will be perfect--it will look as clean as if it had been first handcombed.
However, there may be times when you really don't want to precard your fiber. Here is a comparison chart to help you decide what's best for your wool and your project. Remember this applies only to preparing wool for carding.
Choosing a preparation method for wool you plan to card is frequently a matter of tradition. If you were taught to tease or flick card for example, that's often what you will keep doing, from habit. I like to encourage spinners to look at the type of fiber, the type of spinning they plan, and the finished project, to choose the best preparation method possible for that project.
I also like to push for quality. We spend a lot of time spinning the yarn for our projects. Why put in that time if the finished yarn won't last, or will be full of vegetable matter, or otherwise not top quality? I'm not suggesting every project needs to be heirloom in nature, but I think there's a wide area between splap-dash work and heirloom work, into which most handspun projects will fall. You may not intend to will this item to your descendents, but at least let it be something you will still be proud to use 10 years from now!