On Drum Carding a Fleece

I’ve spent the past several Wednesday afternoons down on the farm, carding my little heart out. This week I finished the Dorset I dyed a little while ago. There are lots of excellent videos on youtube on how to use a drum carder to card fleece; I used this one, which is fantastically goofy and nicely detailed. But there’s nothing like pictures, so I thought I’d share my view of the process of drum carding, which turns fleece (below left) into a beautiful batt (below right) ready for spinning or felting or whatever you like.

Fleece locks (above left & below) are more or less still in the form they were in when they came off the sheep, but they’ve gone through some pretty severe abuse since they were growing out of an animal. They’ve probably at least been washed, and in my case they were washed in a washing machine, mordanted in aluminum sulphate (and accidentally boiled a little), then simmered in pokeberry juice. As a result, they’re stretched out in places, mashed up and deformed, and probably at least a little bit felty. Not to mention that the tips (the bits that were farthest from the sheep) are still clinging together with dried-up lanolin and long habit.

That’s why the first step in the process of carding is to gently pull apart these mashed up bits. The end goal of carding is to get a batt that is light, full of air, and even. If I just tried to stick these locks straight into the carder, these big chunks would be very difficult to get through, which is hard on my cranking arm, and most likely I would end up just breaking a whole lot of fibers because of the strain. The value of a fleece for spinning is largely attached to the soundness of the fibers – if a whole bunch of them are snapped in half, the staple (length of a “hair”) would be much shorter, and the fibers would be damaged (you don’t trim your hairs by pulling and snapping them, do you?)

So I pull them apart, generally pulling a “lock” in half, trying to get the tips apart, and to open the base (the bits closest to the sheep) into big fluffy clouds, as you see above in the feed tray, waiting to go through the carder. Don’t those look light and easy to deal with? This is also one of my last chances to pull out lingering VM (vegetable matter – sticks, hay, dirt, second cuts, dead bugs) before spinning.

The goal of any fiber preparation, whether it’s dizzing or any kind of carding, is to get all your fibers in a parallel orientation – going the same direction. Here’s how it happens with this cool machine: A drum carder is mostly made of two large canisters, or “drums,” of different diameters. The smaller one in front has sharp nasty spikes on it (I prick a finger on it at least once a week), and feeds the fleece into the second, larger drum. The larger drum has much gentler comb-like spikes on it, kind of like those on a dog brush, or hand carders. The small drum turns much slower than the large one, and is only a few millimeters away from the second, so the spikes on the smaller drum bring the fleece into contact with the fast-moving big drum, which gently pulls the fibers a few at a time off the small drum and embeds them in the big drum’s teeth. Get it? The brush over top of the big drum smooths the fibers down and out of the way so more can be loaded into the big drum.

Another view of the drum carder, so you can better see the crank, the brush, and the big drum. I turn the crank with my right hand at a speed that feeds the fiber in fairly slowly, and I control how much goes in at once by holding the fleece back in the feed tray with my left hand. (Yes, my hand and the fleece are conveniently covering a sticker that says “USE CAUTION KEEP HANDS CLEAR”. I am not joking about the spikiness of that small drum!) I really want to control how much goes in at once, because you can imagine that if too much fleece gets into that tiny space between the drums, it’s going to get stuck, and the big drum isn’t going to be able to nicely pull a few fibers at a time. The drums get stuck, fibers break, the batt has kinks in it, everyone is sad.

As I card, I am frequently looking over at the big drum to see if there are lumps or bumps – these might be nups (little bits) of fiber that got on the wrong way, or VM that I didn’t get out – I can often just pick it out and save the spinner some trouble later. I keep feeding more and more fluffy fleece through the carder until the big drum is “full.” I usually go until the fleece on the drum is nearly to the top of the comb teeth; if you go longer than that the teeth will no longer pick up correctly off the small drum and it will be a mess you just to pull off and do over.

Each drum has a gap in the teeth so that stuff can be taken off of it. This neat little tool – basically a metal rod that is bent and pointy at one end and has a handle on the other – is for pulling fleece gently and consistently and completely off the drum carder. When I’m ready to empty the carder, after lifting the brush attachment, I start at one end and just pull off a bit at a time (if I have to really yank, I know I’m breaking fibers, which we’ve established is bad) and pull the bit down towards me, along the direction of the slightly-bent comb teeth.

Once I’m all the way across, I gently pull the new batt off in one piece (again, going around the drum in the direction that the teeth are bent) by holding portions between my two open hands and going across, back and forth, to get more and more until it’s all off.

I now have something that looks suspiciously like a finished batt – but it’s not quite done. That first time through was great, but it probably didn’t go perfectly. There were bits that didn’t go in right, bits that still clung awkwardly together, and essentially we need another go around. To put the batt through again, first I tear the whole thing in half, then I gently stretch the two halves apart. My hands are super far apart while I do that – it’s like stretching very fluffy taffy. If it is hot, this is my least favorite part, but at all other times, it is my favorite.

The reason, of course, for halving the batt and then stretching it out is because that big batt is a LOT of fiber to put through the carder at once! I still want to put it in just a little at a time, and control how fast it is fed with my left hand. Once both halves are on the carder, remove it the same way, and voila, I have a beautiful finished batt!

To get it rolled up all cute-like and ready for sale, I fold it into thirds from the two ragged ends, then roll it up into a sushi from the sides.

These are all the colors I dyed out of that Dorset fleece, and they make me think for all the world of the four seasons. Top left – turmeric, for summer; top right – simmered pokeberry, for fall; bottom left – black bean, for winter; and bottom right – turmeric over black bean, for spring. I did four batts in each; they probably average about 3.5-4 oz. per batt, thanks to the Caulders’ fantastic Schacht Double-Wide Carder. Heck of an investment, but I would sure buy one if I had 8+ fleeces to process every year. Hopefully it will be for sale soon at the farm. If you get a chance to try it, let me know what you think! And if there are any more experienced drum carders reading this (they are many, but I doubt they make it to this obscure corner of the interwebs), feel free to add critiques or resources. After carding a whole fleece I feel pretty confident, but I know I have only glimpsed the tip of the woolly iceberg that is fleece processing.

8 comments to On Drum Carding a Fleece

  • Bek

    Oh man. I love the colors.

    I worked at a historic village for a while and once helped do that by hand on an all-things-wool day… Hard work.

  • Awesome! Those look pretty great; almost makes me want to take up spinning. :-)

  • Linda

    I love the colors too! The whole thing is so tactile, which is one of the important things that keeps me glued to knitting. Maybe I should give up teaching and get into spinning?! I know I would enjoy it. Just cut back on teaching…..eventually…..

  • Sarah B

    Thanks for the walk-through! :)
    A friend pointed me towards your blog and I really enjoy it.
    Keep being awesome and inspiring! :>

  • Christine

    I was trying to figure out how to roll up my batts to make them look nice. I’m amazed how many sites I visited before yours. Thank you!!

  • Mum: LOL yes I wonder if you would like spinning, if you really got into it… we have classes at the shop and rent wheels out if you ever want a low-commitment trial.

    Christine: so glad it was helpful! thanks for visiting.

    (Note to me: comments from people I don’t know! omigoodness! :-D)

  • Jana

    I, too, was looking for a simple and neat look to roll my batts (alpaca) without getting them all twisted. Thanks for sharing!

  • […] and fascinating drum carder tutorials. Here are some great tips on drum carding a fleece from Osborn Fiber Studio (such cute little batts!). There’s also a wonderful three-part tutorial on drum carder basics […]

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