Once a year, usually during the warmer weather, sheep are gathered for shearing. Shearing is when the animal’s fleece is cut off; this does not hurt it in any way. Variations of between 6 and 18 pounds (2.7 and 8.1 kilograms) in the weight of fleeces have been recorded.
The raw wool is then graded according to the quality of the fibres, which varies according to where on the animal the wool has come from. Fleeces of the same grade are compressed and packed into bundles for the next stage.
Before yarn can be spun, the raw wool has to be scoured to remove dirt, grease and sweat. In Victorian times urine was often used for this as the ammonia contained in it breaks down the grease in the wool. Fleeces are still scoured today and this involves three processes, washing, rinsing and drying. The washing is done in a series of alkaline baths and then the fleece is rinsed and squeezed through rollers to dry it. Lanolin, a kind of grease, is the by-product of this process and it is purified for use in the manufacture of cosmetics, soap and other household products.
The clean wool now needs to be further processed before being spun into woollen or worsted yarn. Woollen yarn is more bulky, hairy and irregular than worsted yarn and today is used for items such as carpets or knitwear. Worsted yarn is more tightly spun, smoother looking than woollen yarn and stronger and an example of its modern use is the manufacture of cloth to make suits.
The fleece now needs to be carded before it can be spun into yarn. Modern carding machines consist of rotating cylinders set with wire 'teeth', which tease the wool out into individual fibres and get rid of any remaining bits of straw or other matter not removed by scouring. The predecessor of the carding – or 'scribbling' – machine was two hand-held boards studded with bent iron pins (see top of page for picture). Once carding is complete the fibres are ready for spinning, unless they are destined to be woven into worsted cloth in which case another process, called combing, is necessary.
Combing takes out the shorter fibres, also called noils, and lines the longer fibres up parallel with one another in a 'sliver'. This is then wound into a ball, called a 'top', which is ready for spinning.
The craft of spinning is thousands of years old. During the spinning process the fibres are twisted into a long, continuous thread, or yarn. This used to be done with ‘spindle whorls’ (see top of page for picture). As you were twisting the fibres, the whorl would hang from the bottom of the thread and spin the yarn as it rotated. The invention of the spinning wheel greatly increased the speed at which yarn could be spun. Today, spinning can be done on a variety of machines, depending on whether the yarn is destined to become woollen or worsted cloth.
The basic principles of weaving have not changed, although the machinery used to complete the process has. Two sets of threads are used in weaving. One, the warp, is put onto the loom in parallel lines and the other, the ‘weft’, is taken between the warp threads. Patterns and textures are created by using different coloured yarns and by varying the number of warp threads gone over and under. Initially a shuttle was used to weave the weft threads (see image on the previous page) but as technology has developed other methods have been introduced.
In hand loom weaving the layers would build up slowly and be 'beaten down' to make the fabric. Modern machinery can do this job faster and can make wider pieces of fabric than was previously possible.
Fulling the cloth, to clean it and make it thicker, was originally done entirely manually, with the fuller trampling the cloth in a tub of warm, soapy water. Fulling can reduce the size of a piece of cloth by up to a third. Then fulling mills were developed in areas where there were fast flowing streams to power them. The cloth was then treated by being beaten with large hammers called ‘stocks’. If bracken grew in the vicinity of the fulling mill it would be gathered and burnt to produce potash, which was then used to make soap for the fulling process.
Fulling mills always had tentergrounds nearby. Tenters were rows of frames to which the fulled cloth was attached by tenterhooks after rinsing, to stretch and dry it (see top of page for picture). This is where the phrase to be 'on tenterhooks', meaning to be 'tense', originates.
During the nineteenth century the 'nap', or finish, of the cloth was created by using teazles or cropping shears. Nowadays there are many mechanised ways in which a great variety of finishes can be created.
Ammonia - colourless gas that dissolves in water
Bracken - large type of fern
By-product - useful item produced when trying to make another thing
Carded - combing out and cleaning wool
Compressed - squashed down
Finish - surface feel or texture
Graded - sorted according to quality
Manually - by hand
Potash - chemical used in fertilisers
Purified - when something is made cleaner or filtered
Teazles - prickly plant with flowers
Tense - tight and stiff
Vicinity - the area surrounding a place
Download the Worksheets showing how to make felt, and how to make a cardboard loom.