Carding is the process of organizing the fibers so that they are all pointing one direction. It’s essentially a really complicated way to brush hair that is no longer attached to an animal. There are three ways to do it: using hand carders (cheap and difficult), using a drum carder (expensive, slightly easier), and by taking your fiber to the mill (very expensive, very easy). We’ve done all three, but today I’ll focus on the hand and drum carders; the mill just uses a really large, mechanical drum carder.
For months, before I could spin anything I had to prepare the fiber by carding it. I usually spin semi-worsted yarn, where all the fibers are pointing the same direction, so instead of rolling the fiber off the carders into a rolag, as in the picture below, I peeled it off into a batt. For a longer explanation about worsted vs woolen yarns, and how preparation determines the end character of your yarn, see this post.
To use hand carders like these, you lay one of them flat on your thigh and take a staple (or lock of hair) and drag it across the teeth of the carder. This is called “loading the carder”; you are essentially tangling hair up in it. Then you brush across this carder with your other one. Gradually the fiber transfers from the carder on your thigh to the one in your hand, getting organized as it moves between them. I could only do two or three staples each time I loaded the carders. Getting enough prepared fiber to actually register on the scale took hours, so we eventually purchased a small drum carder.
The drum carder lets us process much more fiber at once. It takes half an hour to do one batt, and it takes about three batts for enough to make project’s worth of yarn. The drum carder works in the same way as hand carders. The fibers are organized as they are transferred from the small drum (called, and I’m serious, the “licker-in”) to the larger drum. We often remove the batt, divide it up, and run it through one more time for an even fluffier result.
Both processes are tedious and can be downright painful. It’s been so long since I’ve used my hand carders that most of the scars have faded, but it’s very easy to accidentally reach a little too far and drag ten thousand sharp metal teeth across the back of your hand. My knuckles look like war zones when I’m finished. And in the summer, when I’m usually wearing shorts, my right knee often sports a similar collection of scrapes around where I hold the carder on my thigh. The drum carder is just as sharp and pokey, I usually puncture the pads of my fingers when I go to remove the batt.
Of course, the mill is even more dangerous, I suppose. There’s a reason all those horror stories about textile workers losing their limbs is standard American History I fare.