Carding Wool by Hand and Making Perfect Rolags

Learn how easy carding wool by hand can be with these step-by-step instructions.

Wool Combing and Carding

Find detailed instructions and photos on carding wool in “Wool Combing and Carding.”

Cover Courtesy Interweave Press

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Carding wool shouldn’t be hard. Revisit fiber processing tips in Wool Combing and Carding (Interweave Press, 2013). In this excerpt, author Carol Huebscher Rhoades shows you how carding wool is simplified with the right body position and technique, and she shows how to make the perfect rolag.

When hand spinners explain their craft to others, they often start by showing some wool and explaining the basics of carding; then they demonstrate spinning a yarn. However, I’ve noticed that many spinners don’t hand card their wool. Some prefer to spin from the locks, to flick or drum card, or to comb their fibers, while others have their fibers prepared commercially. It’s easy to see why many spinners aren’t hand carders. It seems to take a long time; it doesn’t always give easy-to-spin results; and it can be stressful on muscles and joints in the arms and hands. However, carding doesn’t have to be that way. It can be fast and easy on the body, and it’s the key to quickly-spun and controlled woolen yarns.

Before You Start

Quick, efficient carding starts with clean carders and fibers. Make sure your carders are rust-free and that all the teeth are in the correct position. Adjust any misaligned teeth. Remove any fibers caught in the carders. If there are fibers left on the carders, especially greasy ones, they simply invite more to bed down with them and carding wool becomes even more difficult.

My secret weapon for cleaning the carders is a roller pick. Your hairdresser will probably give you a couple or you can purchase them at a beauty supply store. The plastic picks slide easily between the teeth without damaging the teeth or backing.

The most important idea to keep in mind is that you want your carding to produce a rolag that will be spun into a light and airy woolen yarn. Woolen yarn can be up to 60 percent air, and the air pockets between the fibers produce a lightweight yet warm yarn and garment. At every step of the carding process, from selecting your fibers, to cleaning, carding, and spinning them, think light, think airy.

Choose fibers that are open and easy to card, that is, choose a fleece with no matted or felted sections and little or no vegetable matter. Open the fibers by hand if the cut or tip ends are at all matted.

Choose appropriate hand cards for the fibers. For fine fibers, use carders with closely-spaced teeth that are thin and flexible. For coarse fibers, use carders with fewer, longer, and thicker teeth.

Your Body Position

It is more comfortable to card when the hand cards are well-supported. Position the passive (usually the left) carder on your left thigh. Hold the active carder (usually the right one) so that your thumb and forefinger are spread out. This body position keeps the active carder steady as you work so that it meets the passive carder evenly and squared on with each stroke.

While you are carding wool, keep your elbows and shoulders relaxed and low. Embedded fibers and ridged rolags are most often the result of the active carder meshing through the passive at a right angle when the wrist and elbow are raised.

Placing the Fibers on the Carder

Fiber length will partially determine the position of the fibers on the carder. I prefer carders with a slight curve to them, and I catch the cut ends of the locks at the highest point of the curve on the carder. Working from the curve forward lessens the opportunities for ridges to form in the rolag since there is less rocking and embedding movement, particularly if your carders have a strong curve. If you use flat carders, position the fibers about one-fourth of the way down from the handle. Fibers caught in the back teeth near the handle tend to show up as little U shapes in the rolag. I also position the fibers at least two teeth rows in from the sides so that they don’t flare out during the carding. The flaring out can also be controlled by starting with the staple tips facing away from the handle. Keep in mind, though, that as soon as you start transferring the fibers from one carder to another, the tip and cut ends will mix and blend.

Be careful not to put too much fiber on the carder. There is some leeway — if you want a dense rolag, use a bit more fiber than usual; for a fine, light yarn, use less fiber. In the long run, carding less at a time is more efficient and faster than trying to thoroughly card too much fiber in one rolag.

For even yarns, card equal amounts of fiber each time. To spread the fibers evenly across the carder, take a lock and catch the cut end on the teeth, using an index finger to hold the cut end as you pull the lock forward and away from the teeth with the other hand. This motion opens up the lock. Take the remainder of the lock and catch it next to the fiber on the carder and repeat the motions until the lock is used up. Depending on your fibers, one lock may be enough to fill the carder, although two to three locks are usually needed. Using the same number of similar-sized locks in each rolag makes it easy to control rolag size. If the fibers look a little uneven across the carder, move some to fill in the gaps or remove the excess fibers.

Carding Motions

Now you are almost ready to card. Remember to work lightly. Keep those elbows and shoulders low and relaxed. The carder teeth should always be parallel as you card. In other words, don’t mesh the teeth but let the active carder float across the top of the passive carder, following the angle of the carder. For flat carders, that means a movement straight across; for curved carders a slight angle downwards follows the curve of the teeth but does not intermesh the teeth.

Before you make the first stroke, look at the position of the fibers on the carder. Notice that they form a rectangle with the width equal to the staple length. If you keep your fibers in that conformation while you card, always positioning the fibers during the transfers to maintain the rectangle at the same place on the carder, then you will end up with parallel layers of fiber. These parallel layers can be rolled into a rolag with even layers of fiber throughout. If the fibers have shifted into several stairstep layers, the rolag will have thick and thin spots.

Begin carding with a four-stroke sequence, covering one-fourth, one-half, three-fourths, and then all the fibers on the passive carder with the active carder.

With each stroke, the active carder floats across and parallels the teeth of the passive carder and then moves completely away from the passive carder until there is a break between the fibers on each carder. Adjust this movement according to the fiber length. For longer fibers, the sweeping-away stroke is longer.

To make each successive stroke, move your wrist so that the active carder goes up, over, and then down to the passive carder. Notice the position of the carders. The active carder does not completely cover the passive one. Instead, the carders meet so that the next stroke begins at the top of the curve of the passive carder, with the front teeth of the active carder coming down at the top of the ridge of the passive carder. This keeps fibers from tangling around the back teeth and keeps the layers one on top of the other. Also, be sure that the fibers on the active carder come down flat. A common cause of folded fibers in rolags is too short a sweep away (no break between fiber sections) followed by the active carder kept low and parallel to the passive as it moves into position for the next stroke.

Transferring the Fibers

After the initial four-stroke sequence, I usually make one more full stroke and then transfer the fibers from the carder. I partially card the fibers back onto the passive carder in two to three strokes, then transfer the remaining fibers onto the passive carder. This transfer ensures that the fibers originally on the bottom of the passive carder layers move to the top and get an equal amount of carding.

Transferring the fibers from one carder to another can be a bit tricky. I think of the carder that will receive the fibers as lifting them off the other. I begin by carefully positioning the carders so that the carder to receive the fibers is flat and balanced on one thigh while the other is held at a right angle to it. The teeth of the carders face each other. The fibers are aligned so that they will lie in the same place they had at the beginning of the carding process. With a quick upward motion, lift the receiving carder against the giver and sweep up the fibers. The fibers should now all be on one carder.

Carding Just Enough

If the fibers are tangle-free and well-aligned, I card two to three more strokes and then prepare to form the rolag. If the fibers look as if they need a bit more carding, repeat the transferring and carding sequence. Be careful not to overcard your fibers, especially fine ones — or you may end up with tangles and noils.

Forming the Rolag

Transfer all the fibers to the active carder and then directly and lightly back to the passive carder, arranging the fibers so that they are completely supported by the passive carder. The batt should be floating on top of the teeth. With the teeth of the active carder facing downwards, use the wood surface on the front edge of the active carder to begin lifting the batt. Place the passive-carder hand, palm up, just behind the roll that is forming. Gently roll up the batt with the front edge of the active carder pushing the fibers and use the long, straight side of your passive hand to shape the rolag. The active carder remains parallel to the passive one and pushes straight toward the passive’s handle. Your palm-up-ward hand moves in tandem with the carder, with slight moves downward and foward under the forming rolag so that the fibers are tucked neatly into the rolled shape. When the rolag is at the back of the passive carder, roll it into your open palm and then place the rolag at the front of the passive carder. Keeping the active carder parallel to the passive one and just barely touching the top of the rolag, gently roll the rolag straight back toward the handle. Voila . . . ! the perfect rolag!

This method of forming the rolag is not only quick but it keeps the rolag even. By contrast, using the fingers to form the rolag dents it and makes places where the yarn will thin a bit during spinning.

Lay the rolags in a smooth box or basket. You may want to put tissue paper between the layers of rolags. Spin the rolags as soon as possible. Rolags, especially ones of angora, mohair, or silk, tend to get squashed when stored over time.

Tips for Improving Your Hand Carding Techniques

• At first, you may want to just go through the process. It may take a few practice rolags to break old habits and acquire new ones. Then take some time to stop at each step and look at what is happening on the carders.

• Having someone observe you can help with troubleshooting. Watching someone else card can help you spot the nuances of the technique which you might not otherwise notice.

• If you don’t have a carding partner, try videotaping and analyzing your carding wool session.

• Don’t try to catch all problems at once — focus on one area at a time, adjust the technique and then go on to further refinements.

• Aim for a rolag that looks like a tube of air surrounded by an even layer of fibers. Think of drafting for a woolen yarn as simply elongating and thinning down that tube without losing the core of air.

Reprinted with permission from Wool Combing and Carding: How to Use Hand Carders, Wool Combs, and Drum Carders published by Interweave Press (2013). Download the free ebook from Spinning Daily.