In the Middle Ages, wool was turned into cloth in the thriving wool production trade, in home-based cottage industry, and in private households for family use. Methods could vary depending on the wherewithal of the producer, but the basic processes of spinning, weaving, and finishing cloth were essentially the same.
Wool is usually sheared from sheep all at once, resulting in a large fleece. Occasionally, the skin of a slaughtered sheep was utilized for its wool; but the product obtained, which was called “pulled” wool, was an inferior grade to that shorn from live sheep. If the wool was intended for trade (as opposed to local use), it was bound up with similar fleeces and sold or traded off until it reached its final destination in a cloth-manufacturing town. It was there that processing began.
How to Harvesting Wool
Sheep shearing is the process by which the woolen fleece of a sheep is cut off. The person who removes the sheep’s wool is call shearer.
Generally, each adult sheep is shorn once each year (a sheep may be said to have been “shorn” or “sheared”, depending upon dialect).
Sheep are sheared once a year – usually in the springtime. A veteran shearer can shear up to two hundred sheep per day. The fleece recovered from a sheep can weigh between 6 and 18 pounds; as much as possible, the fleece is kept in one piece. While most sheep are still sheared by hand, new technologies have been developed that use computers and sensor, robot-controlled arms to do the clipping.
Skirting is the practice of separating all inferior fleece portions (head, lower leg and belly wool) and any urine and contaminated fibres from the rest of the fleece at shearing. The products of skirting are termed skirted wool and skirts. Since large variations exist among skirts from different body areas, these should be packaged separately for technical and economic reasons.
Wool from the top of the head, jaw, and cheeks tends to be short and sometimes heavily contaminated with vegetable matter.
Belly wool is usually lower yielding and may be either finer or coarser than the bulk of the fleece. It also tends to contain more vegetable and colored fibre contamination than the bulk of the fleece.
Lower leg wool is short and tends to be composed predominantly of medullated(coarse) hair fibres. The fibres in this skirt are variable in length, and scouring these fibres results in a relatively low yield of low quality of wool.
Since the term skirting generally implies removal of all wool that does not match the bulk of the fleece, short wool, matted pieces, paint, skin pieces, areas of the fleece heavily contaminated with vegetable matter, and specially colored wool all fail into skirts category.
Fleece Fabric Manufacturing Process
In the spring time, the local flocks of sheep are shorn of their winter coats. Soon after shearing, wool growers bring their fleeces to Tierra Wools to be sold. Before the wool is purchased it must be skirted. The wool skirting process is probably one of the dirtiest processes, but is the most important of all, as the quality of Tierra Wools yarns depend upon the quality of the wool. Wool skirters pick through every single fleece by hand, removing all contaminating elements such as tags (the area around the tail and bottom side of the fleece), bellies (the very short fiber right around the belly of the sheep), and environmental debris (twigs, burrs, etc).
The raw wool is taken through a wash, rinse and spin process. The wool is put into nylon mesh bags, then pre-soaked to loosen grease and dirt. The bags are then put into water at 140 degrees to be washed. Biodegradable detergents are used to protect the delicate fibers of the wool as well as the environment. After 20 minutes or so the wool is rinsed, then put into a high speed extractor and nearly spun dry. The newly washed wool is then laid out on wire racks and air dried.
Spinning The Wool Into Yarn
There are regular schedules for spinning of the wool, which is the process in which wool that has been carded (fibers straightened and separated) is attached to a large spinning wheel which has a foot peddle connected. The wheel spins forward through the action of the pedal. As the wool is held at arms length, the spinning wheel ‘twists’ the wool into yarn.
Dyeing The Yarn
Both acid and natural plant dyeing are done at our shop. Tierra Wools yarns are hand-dyed in large pots, which are set over piñon wood fires. The un-dyed yarns are soaked in cold water overnight. Early the next morning, fires are built and the dye pots are filled with water and brought to boiling point. The color choices are mixed and added to each dye pot. The wet yarns are then put into the pots and boiled until all of the dye color has been exhausted and the water turns clear. The yarns are then laid out on an air-filtered rack to cool before they can be put back into the cold water to rinse and set colors. At the end of each dye day, there will be an incredible array of yarn colors hanging by skeins in row after row, where they will be left to dry completely in the warmth of the sun.
Warping The Loom
The warp is the set of threads that run vertically when wound onto a loom. The weavers wind a warp on a board that is attached to the wall called a warping board. Thirty yards of warp is wound at a time and “choked” with scrap pieces of yarn approximately two yards apart, to avoid tangling. These ties, as well as a “cross” in the warp, keep the warp ends from tangling. When the warp is pulled off the warping board, it is wound into a chain in preparation for it to be wound onto the loom. Each thread of the warp is passed through the heddle and the reed of the loom and then pulled through and wound onto the drum of the loom, with one weaver holding the warp at tension and two other weavers turning the drum.
At this point in the process, the warp threads are gathered into bunches and tied onto a rod at the front of the loom. Gaps in the warp between the bunches are filled in with strips of material filler – usually strips of textile scraps or rags. Once the gaps are closed and the warp is evenly spaced, the weaver is ready to begin creating a beautiful work of art. The weaver winds the different colors of yarn onto bobbins, which are then individually loaded into a shuttle as they are used. The weaver steps on one treadle of the loom. This causes the harness of the loom to pull down every-other heddle, which in turn pulls down every-other warp thread, creating an opening that the weaver can pass the loaded shuttle through. The weaver calculates the slack needed in the crossed yarn so that the weaving does not draw in at the edges, and creates an arc in the yarn with his or her fingers. Then, the weaver shifts his or her weight onto the opposing treadle, reversing the position of the warp threads and locking in the arc as the beater is pulled down to pack the yarn thread in. This procedure is repeated until the entire weaving is complete.
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