Combing and Carding of Wool

There is something quite irresistible about wool, the feel and the softness of it across your skin, its lustrous look, and its fascinating history.

Apart from the fiber itself, I’m quite fascinated by the entire wool production process, its intricacies, and technicalities, from sorting the fleece to washing, combing, carding, and then spinning; few things give me as much pleasure as a good wool production session.

I’d like to talk to you about the carding and combing aspects of wool production, but first, we’ll be having a little history class.

A Brief History of Wool Production

Like many other discoveries in the history of man, the discovery of wool was born out of man’s need for survival. Humans wore animal pelts during the Neolithic Age as a source of warmth and protection.

Upon discovering that furs were warm and durable, humans began to develop some essential tools for processing wool and were wearing woven fabric (albeit crudely woven ones) by 4000 B.C.

People gradually began to regard wool-bearing animals as unique. By the 11th and 12th centuries, wool trade began to prosper and spread across Europe. While the English were known for raising sheep, the Flemish had the proper skills for processing.

With time, the two established a trading relationship where the British sold raw wool to the Flemish. The Flemish processed the wool and sold it back to the British.1

ancient-weaving-frame
Ancient Weight Loom - Neolithic period

However, the British were not content to leave it at that, as they gradually took over the processing and production of wool across the continent.

The wool industry has become a global industry, with countries like the United States, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia being the major suppliers of this raw material. Australia is presently the leading country in wool production, with the United States as the largest consumer. Australia produces about one-fourth of global wool.

Wool production has grown so much over the years and is now considered a major industry across the globe. Statistics estimate the annual global wool output to be about 5.5 billion pounds. Cotton might be the biggest plant supplier for fabrics, but wool is still the number one source of animal fiber.

Combing and carding are two fundamental techniques in hair, cotton, or wool fiber production. These techniques can be used for both worsted and woolen threads. Our focus in this article will be on the two approaches.2

The Carding Process of Wool

Old combing machine alpaca wool with skeins raw fiber

Old combing machine –  Skeins raw fiber of Alpaca Wool

Old wool processing machine with raw alpaca fiber tanks
Old Wool Processing Machine - 
Museum Mundo Alpaca in Arequipa

The modern carding process involves a little bit of mechanization where the wool fibers are put through several procedures to prepare them for processing. These processes are necessary to ensure that:

  • Fibers are properly disentangled and separated
  • Fibers are properly aligned
  • Short fibers are removed
  • Impurities are removed
  • Fibers are properly blended

For carding, you can use a machine card or, alternatively, your two hands. The cards usually come with different wire teeth, which can be set into a metal, leather, or paper ground.

With the teethed cards, you can easily separate the fibers, making it easier to spread the same into a web and get rid of all the short or broken fibers and impurities. No other machine is as important as the card machine in the process of yarn manufacturing. It performs final and second-level cleaning functions in most cotton textile mills.

The card machine is made from a three wire-covered cylinder system and a series of wire-covered flat bars that work successively on fiber tufts and small clumps to create a measure of openness or separation.

It removes trash and foreign matters, collecting fibers into a silver (a large rope of accumulated fibers), after which it is then delivered in a container to be used in subsequent processes. The card is basically the heartbeat of the entire operation.


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Hand Carding of Wool

There was a time before the invention of carding machines when carding used to be done by hand. This was an exhausting manual process that made the entire operation quite tedious. One of such methods involved the use of hand carders.

Hand carders were used for this process, which involved the use of small paddles fitted with tiny cards known as flick cards to flick ends of fiber locks and get rid of unnecessary strands for the spinning process.

The hand carders were used to brush in between the fibers until they aligned towards the same direction. Next, the yarn is peeled off the cards to create a rolag. Though the traditional fiber for rolag creation is wool, it can also be made from plant-based or manufactured fibers like cotton.

Drum carders can also be used for hand carding. Drum carders are mostly hand-cranked, though some are powered by electric motors. To achieve this, you need two drums or a pair of rollers covered in card clothing. Fiber is then taken in through the intake tray using a small roller called licker-in, after which it is rolled into a larger storage drum.

The two rollers are connected through a chain drive or belt, while the gentle pull from the licker-in straightens the fibers, wrapping them in between the pins on the card cloth situated on your storage drum. The fiber is then removed in batts (flat fiber mass) as soon as the card cloth becomes full.

Hand Carding Wool for a Comforter

Hand Carding Wool for a Comforter
Harlan Ingersoll Smith, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Drum Carding Machine
Modern Drum Carding Machine

Etan J. Tal, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, there are now machines to do all these, which explains the giant leap in cotton production in recent years. Though hand carding is not totally extinct, especially in smaller cottage industries from developing countries, those who engage in it make up a tiny percentage as most nations now rely on modern machinery to carry out this production process.3

Carding problems and possible solutions

1. Silver variation

This is caused by irregular and uneven lap feed. It can also occur when there is excessive tension between the coiler head and the calender roller. Damage to the feed plate, calendar roller, or doffer plate can also lead to silver variation.

Solution:

  • Ensure regular and even lap feeding.
  • Maintain a perfect setting at the feed plate
  • Ensure that there is adequate tension between the coiler head and calendar roller
  • Ensure that the calendar roller, doffer, or feed plate are in good working condition.

2. Sagging Web

This is caused by low humidity, excessive doffer speed, and lower tension draft in the doffer and cylinder.

Solution

  • Keep the humidity between 50-60%
  • Use the prescribed level of doffer speed
  • Increase the tension draft between the cylinder and doffer

Hand Carders

Hand Carders

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3. Hole in web:

This is caused by different heights of wire points and faulty card or doffer wire.

Solution

  • Use the same wire height across the entire operation
  • Use functioning wires for the doffer and card

4. Cloudy Web:

This is caused by wire overload and the use of defective wires for the cylinder, doffer, flats, and taker. It can also occur when a wide setting is applied to the flats and cylinder. 

Solution

  • Use a precise setting for the cylinder and flats
  • Grind the card organs
  • Use functional wires for the cylinder, flats, and doffer

5. High nep count

This can occur when a wide setting is applied to the flats and cylinder. It also occurs when the humidity is high, the cylinder, flat, and doffer settings are not correctly aligned, or when a doffer is faulty. 

Solution

  • Use functional doffer wires
  • Ensure that the humidity level is perfect
  • Ensure that your cylinder and doffer settings are perfect.
Spinning and Carding of Wool historic 1814

Spinning and carding wool – The costume of Yorkshire (1814) – George Walker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Combing of Wool

Combing is one of the techniques used to prepare wool for the spinning process. Though not compulsory, combing is advisable because it can improve the quality of your cotton but will most likely cost you more yarn.

To activate this procedure, pass your cotton or wool fibers through some fine metal teeth designed to look like the combs used on human hair.

While one comb holds the fiber, the other comb moves through it, gradually transferring the fibers unto the moving comb. The combing process is used to get rid of shorter fibers by ensuring they’re all arranged in a flat bundle with all the fibers facing the same direction.

This process is used to remove tangles and separate the long fibers from the short ones (noils). It also helps to eliminate foreign matters from the fibers. Combed fibers are generally more refined, stronger, cleaner, and smoother than their carded counterparts. This is why combed fibers are the preferred choice of fibers for worsted threads.

Combing your cotton provides you with a stronger yarn, which means your fabric is ultimately more breathable and stronger. Combed fabrics are also smoother and less hairy compared to their non-combed counterpart.

Their yarn is also more lustrous and shiny. Carded materials usually contain short fibers, leaf particles, and fine kitty. However, these short fibers make it difficult to spin finer counts where there is less fiber across the yarn cross-section.

Short fibers do not particularly contribute to the strength of the yarn. A comber can be used to separate short fibers that are below certain pre-determined lengths, which explains why combing is mainly utilized for high-grade fibers. It can also be used to upgrade the quality of your medium staple fibers.

combs for combing wool
Combs for combing Wool

Combing and Carding of Wool

Cotton combing can also help improve the pilling resistance of fabric since removing the short fibers means less hair, therefore, less likelihood of bubbles forming on the surface of the material.

However, this process is not without its own disadvantages, as combing requires more processing time and causes more fabric wastage (up to 25% loss) which automatically increases production cost.

The implication of this is that combed yarns are usually more expensive than their carded counterpart.

Weaknesses of the combing process

  • Combing generally involves the insertion of 3 machines into the regular spinning procedure between draw fame and card. However, this cannot be achieved without adequate space and a conditioned atmosphere which can be quite expensive to achieve.
  • The requirement of three additional machines for the combing process means an increase in the cost of yarn production as more labor and energy will be required to run the machines.
  • The fact that the comber is designed to work on the basis of intermittent processing makes the design unsatisfactory and capital intensive.
  • There is a need to accelerate the mass of nipper assembly to maximum speed and have it slowed down to point zero for about 7.5 times per second. The resultant intermittent processing from this challenging procedure makes production quite tedious and reduces productivity.
Wool comb of the Viking age

Wool comb from the Viking age – Arild Finne Nybø / (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wool Mill - Bradford Industrial Museum

Wool Mill – Bradford Industrial Museum
Linda Spashett Storye_book, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Combed yarn and carded yarn compared.

Here are some of the significant differences between carded yarn and combed yarn:

  • Carded yarns are not as uniform as combed yarns
  • The TPI for combed yarn is lower than that of carded yarn
  • The yarn count might be the same, but carding produces more fabric shrinkage than combing
  • Combed yarn is not as hairy as carded yarn
  • Carded yarns are not as lustrous as combed yarns
  • Combed yarn fabrics are gentler against the skin
  • Carded yarn is less expensive
  • You can get better pilling effect resistance on combed yarn surfaces than what is obtainable with carded yarn.
  • Combed yarn fabrics release less loose hairy fibers during the knitting process compared to carded yarns. This means materials produced from combed yarn fabrics do not show as much GSM (gram per square meter) compared to carded yarn-produced fabrics when it is completed.


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  1. Li Zhipeng, Katherine Brunson, Dai Lingling. THE ZOOARCHAEOLOGICAL STUDY OF WOOL EXPLOITATION FROM THE NEOLITHIC AGE TO THE EARLIY BRONZE AGE IN THE CENTRAL PLAINS[J]. Quaternary Sciences, 2014, 34(1): 149-157. doi: 10.3969/j.issn.1001-7410.2014.18
  2. The History of Wool and Woolcombing, James Burnley, Sampson Low, Marston and Rivington 1889

  3. Gross, L. F. (1987). Wool Carding: A Study of Skills and Technology. Technology and Culture28(4), 804–827. https://doi.org/10.2307/3105183 

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