Monday, January 19, 2015

Baa Baa Black Sheep, Have you any Wool?

One of the most basic human requirements is clothing. The production of clothing has been an industrial concern of mankind since the earliest civilizations, and has ranged from the most crudely tanned animal hides to the finest of delicate fabrics.

From sumptuous silks, to sturdy canvas sails, and all the glorious variations that fall between those two polar opposites, there are several steps to be accomplished to take fiber from it's most primitive state to finished product ready for human use.

Today we're going to concentrate on beginning the process of taking raw fiber and getting it ready to take its journey into becoming cloth.
Whether you're dealing with animal-based fibers from fur or hair (such as various types of wool) or plant fibers of some sort (cotton, or flax for linen), almost* all types of fiber are going to go through the same basic process in order to ready it to become some sort of usable fabric.
  1. Harvesting
  2. Cleaning
  3. Straightening & Aligning
Silk is a process unto itself, and with the exception of those living in portions of Asia and the Middle East where the silkworm is native, it isn't likely to be readily available to those who read this blog. Since it's not easily or readily available over a wide range of climate types and geographical areas, and is highly specialized, I'm going to leave it alone completely. For those who have a serious interest in silk as a sustainable fiber, I suggest Silk: Processing, Properties, and Applications. While it's rather expensive, it's a comprehensive text book on the entire silk industry, from cultivation of silkworms through processing of the fibers for spinning and weaving.

Harvesting is fairly straightforward, and is going to vary according to the animal or plant you are dealing with. Sheep and other animals used as primary sources of wool are regularly shaved to collect their fur or hair. Cotton and flax are harvested in season.

I strongly urge you to become familiar with what is currently being grown in your geographical area, and learn the specifics of harvesting that particular type of fiber. Get to know someone in your area who raises wool animals, or grows cotton or flax intended for the clothing industry, and find out what you can from them how the fibers are grown and harvested.

Cleaning is almost as straightforward as harvesting: A gentle wash with water, or water with a very mild soap, is used to remove dirt and unwanted oils from the various types of wool.

Cotton and flax are de-seeded, and then given a gentle rinse to remove surface dirt.

Again I urge you to find out what is considered available in your area. Shearing sheep, and then skirting the wool, washing it, and extracting the lanolin is an art form as well as something that goes much easier when taught as a hands-on procedure by those in the know.

An Aside About Wool
Wool is the type of fiber most easily and readily available across a wide portion of the planet. Wool is defined as the hair of an animal - usually sheep, llama, alpaca, goat, yak, and rabbit - which varies in length and curl, and can be harvested without killing or inherently harming the animal it came from.

If you have a dog or cat with long enough hair, then even their fur, once cleaned and prepped, would be considered a type of wool. (Don't laugh - I personally know people in the fiber arts community who have spun dog hair and used it for knitting projects. There's even an entire book out about how to do so!)

For those who have access to some fur- or hair-bearing animal, wool is a safe bet for long term use. It's easily sustainable, relatively easy to process, available from a wide variety of sources, available in practically every climate where humans reside, and can be used in a wide range of end products. For the most comprehensive, all-inclusive book I've found concerning preparing all types of wool for use, I'd definitely suggest investing in a copy of The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. I have yet to find something more inclusive, and it gives tons of information that I simply don't have the space to offer here.

Straightening and Aligning
Aligning wool of most types requires one of two things, both of which ultimately accomplish the same job: lining up all the individual fibers in the same direction, and making sure there aren't major snarls and tangles in the clumps of fiber. For this, you'll need either a Drum Carder or a pair of Hand Carders.

The same can be said for cotton. However the Hand Carders used for cotton have a different texture on the pad of the card. The two types are only somewhat interchangeable from what I've been taught: a cotton carder (which is ultra fine) can be used for wool, but the coarser wool carders can't be used for cotton. Don't take that as gospel, though; I'm still in the learning process for the early stages of fiber arts, and still have a long way to go before I'm any sort of expert.

While the process is easy to learn, it takes time and practice to master. Even once you have the techniques learned, it requires a bit of patience to get large batches of fiber ready for use. This is an activity that is best suited to what might otherwise be unproductive "down" times (while resting but not sleeping), or as something to keep kids, the not-to-seriously-injured, and those who feel "useless" busy and productive, giving them a task tackle to free up the hands and time of someone who might have other necessary skills.

Next week, we'll look at taking the fiber and getting it turned into usable thread or yarn.

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