Today is Saturday. As I was eating my cereal, I found dirty jobs with Mike Rowe. This episode was of particular interest to me. The Ohio Valley Natural Fibers was featured. OVNF is a woolen mill that is still cranking out yarn. There was a bit of history, some safety talks, and a lot of wooly goodness.
The machines they use (like many of the small woolen mills today, or so it seems) are turn-of-the-century. Last century. The point where I tuned in was when the fiber was coming out of a carding machine in that very thick fluffy roving that we have all seen in the ads for the very lush and cushy arm knit afghan.
I can imagine I probably missed seeing a sheep being sheared, the fleeces being washed after skirting. There might have been more but maybe not. I found it just after the first commercial break.
The machinery is huge, noisy and covered in fluff and oil or grease. All machines need maintenance now and again. I learned that from my husband long before we ever got married. These are no different. Sadly though the wool fibers and the grease/oil don't work well together. A surprisingly small clump (less than a gram from the looks of it) can stop the machines quick, faster than the stop button.
It is also easy to see why there was so much child labor in the spinning mills. There are spaces that are very small for full grown adults but small children fit fine. Thank God the machines have been redesigned. Thank God labor laws and safety regulations are in place to protect people. While these machines are not retrofitted for safety, I don't think they are running as fast as they did when new.
But back to the yarn. The fleeces are removed from the sheep, skirted (remove the parts that won't ever come clean and sweet smelling), possibly washed and dried possibly not. The locks or maybe whole fleeces are placed by large armsful into the carding machine. A very basic idea of a carding machine is the cat slicker brush we use on our pets minus the balls on the ends of the bristles. The fleeces are combed or brushed, depends on your point of view. This will align the fibers. The fibers are then gathered into the fluffy rope of roving. This roving was then fed into another machine that made the single plies we are familiar with. This process was not explained well, but it appeared that the roving was divided into smaller sections of roving before being drawn out and twisted. Each spool of singles was placed in yet another machine that spun the singles together. Yarn is born.
How do we get the various yarns? The amount of twist in the singles determines how fluid the final yarn will be in addition to how tight or loose the plying is. So light twist plus very fine singles is a delicate yarn. A high twist on more robust singles will give you a hard wearing and hard to full yarn.