Monday, October 26, 2009

Carding wool

I love wool. I raise sheep because of their wool. I love the lustrous white fleeces, the fine, wavy brown fleeces, and the rich, black fleeces with tightly crimped fibers. I love touching the wool, smelling the wool, working with the wool.

We began raising sheep 25 years ago, just for their wool. Our first four sheep produced more wool in a year than I could possibly use, so we decided to learn about marketing. At first we sold only fleeces, the wool shorn from a sheep (minus the dirty bits) in one year. I sent out a newsletter describing the various fleeces; people wrote and asked for samples; I sent the samples; they wrote and ordered a fleece; I shipped their fleece. It sometimes took as much as a month to complete a transaction.

Times change and eventually, most of my wool buyers ordered their fleeces sight unseen on the internet to save time, but complained that they still didn’t have time to wash and card their own wool to prepare it for spinning or felting. Washed wool is not dirty or greasy. Carded wool has been processed so that all the fibers lay parallel to each other - much easier to spin or felt. So I began washing our fleeces in our washing machine and sending them off to a woolen mill to be carded. My wool buyers didn’t mind spending a little extra money for nice balls of roving or carded batts of wool.

As the economy changed, the cost of shipping our wool to the woolen mill equaled the cost of carding it, and the cost of carding kept increasing yearly. The only flexibility in the system was what I charged for my wool. We breed exclusively for wool quality. Our pastures have no thorns or burdock in them. Our sheep are coated all winter long to keep their fleeces clean. I hated cutting the price we received for our wool.

Finally, Dave and I decided to buy an electric carder so that we could card our own wool and cut out both the professional carding and the shipping. Dave cards wool very professionally. He makes beautiful batts of fluffy fleece, all the fibers lined up in a row. Carding at home means that we can also produce batts of dyed wool in dozens of different colors. He can card as little as an ounce of a specific color – perfect for people who can’t afford to pay $25 each for a pound of green and a pound of blue and a pound of pink.

The only hang up is the time. It takes fifteen minutes for us to card two ounces of wool - two hours per pound. On any reasonably imaginable pay scale, that makes our finished product either luxury fiber or our income third world pay. Fortunately, Dave listens to his continuing education tapes while he cards, so the carding is free.

Yesterday, Dave was spreading manure, so I carded wool for an order to ship out today. Even listening to a good book on tape, I found the work tedious. I didn’t enjoy the feel and the smell as I eased the clumps of fluffy washed wool onto the deck of the carder; I just waited for the carder to fill up. I didn’t imagine the beautiful yarn that could be spun from this variegated brown fleece; I just added up ounces in my head. I didn’t think of the children who would learn how to make felt with this wool; I just kept carding.

Obviously, I am very lucky not to be working on the line in a factory. I love wool, when I am spinning, felting, knitting, even carding for one of my projects; I just don’t love it when I’m working on some one else’s project.

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