On Willowing Wool
We’ve done several projects related to spinning. From making primitive cordage with wild dogbane to re-purposing an old singer sewing machine into a proper spinning wheel. Spinning is fundamentally basic to making textiles, and textiles are pretty basic. But what is even more basic than spinning is the preparation of the fiber for spinning. Most hobby spinners these days and for the last few hundred years have used wool cards for the job of preparing their fiber for spinning. These are large square paddles with thousands of tiny hooked needles placed precisely in a cloth that holds them at the appropriate angle to disentangle your fiber into a homogeneous mass.
Cards work beautifully, but I am not satisfied with cards. I want to know the most basic form of spinning and fiber preparation that still works. Wool cards, and even wool combs for that matter, fail this test because they require a sophisticated tool that in turn requires iron. We have been spinning for a much longer time (thousands of years) than we have been making metal. Which leaves me with the question: Is there a way to prepare fiber that does not involve metal teeth?
In India and other cotton spinning cultures, people use a vibrating bow string to fluff up and homogenize their fiber. This fascinates me, because this level of technology is relatively easy to replicate. At least in theory. Here are some illustrations of bow carding:
From a Wikipedia article on Carding.
Notice the man on the left using the bow over slats on the fiber. Not sure if this is just to clean the fiber, but it looks like there are no other fiber preparation tools. From an article on traditional hat making techniques: http://trulyhats.com/1666-hatmaking-process.html
One technique that seems to fill a similar role is “willowing” or “wulleying.” This is a process in which one beats the wool with thin willow rods to… maybe prepare it for spinning? My attempt showed that it is very good for fluffing up the fibers and for removing vegetable matter, but further testing is needed before I will know if this can be a reliable alternative to carding. I would also like to try bow carding so as to compare the two.
Video demonstrating willowing wool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsnOTTTy1iE
An blog post by Josefin Waltin on willowing: https://waltin.se/josefinwaltinspinner/willowing-wool/
A FANTASTIC video demonstrating low tech cotton prep and spinning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cx0C84Pdl8 (Note that they beat the cotton with a bow string in a basket. This is brilliant since it allows the vegetable matter to fall through the gaps in the basket. The video also shows preparing the fluffed fiber into the preparation known as “puni”).
Some questions I am left with:
Does the staple length of the fiber dictate whether bow carding will work? As in, does this only work with very short fibers like cotton, but not with mid length wool or longer fibers?
Does the amount of grease in the wool affect whether or not it works? (I’ve seen videos of Mongolian Felters using a technique like willowing for making a felting batt. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJ0uojUHYdA )
If it does work, how fast is it compared to carding?
How large a batch can be done at once?
When did wool cards become common and how were they made at first?
Was willowing used in conjunction with other techniques just as a way to open the fiber and drop vegetable matter, or was it viable as a way to prepare fiber for spinning?
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