Finding Your Carding Bliss

I’ve been working with a delicious Cheviot fleece from Dean at Shepherd’s Bounty in Washington. To be continued!…

When I first learned to spin, I wanted to love handcarding. My life was full of sheep, and I had visions of charging through entire fleeces, leaving a trail of tidy rolags in my wake. But for me, like many spinners, handcarding felt slow and tedious at first. What I found frustrating was that even after the motions of the carding method I was using became familiar, and the rolags I was producing improved, it still felt awkward. My back and neck were stiff and my wrists hurt. I thought I just needed more practice. I continued this way for a while, not loving to card or doing it terribly often, but getting respectably tidy rolags.

Autumn Rose 2011
My pile of Border Leicester rolags became a handspun, handknitted Autumn Rose Pullover.

Several years later, I decided to tackle a larger project to have a focus for my carding practice. Sounds like a plan, right? I headed to my local spinning community’s weekend retreat that year with one of my first Border Leicester fleeces. I carded a pile of respectable rolags and got started spinning. In the weeks that followed, I found that my sore wrist from carding with such industry over that weekend was actually a stress injury that took quite a long time to heal.

This experience is really what started my journey towards carding bliss. I knew it had to be possible to use handcards productively and without injury. So, I started looking to people for whom carding was like breathing.

From the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum collection in Decorah, Iowa. Photo taken in Tinn, Telemark, about 1895 by Herbjørn Gausta. From curator Laurann Gilbertson: “Gausta had emigrated from Tinn to Minnesota. In the 1890s, he returned to Norway to visit and took photographs, many to use like preparatory sketches for oil paintings.” Used with kind permission.

I looked through museum archives, such as the Shetland Museum and Archives Photo Library and The National Library of Scotland has a wonderful online film archive containing several silent films from Shetland in the 1930s that helped me find my stride. The best carding example is no longer available to view online, but In Sheep’s Clothing (1932) is a mesmerizing ten-minute film by Jenny Brown. I urge you to watch the entire film, but the carding scene begins at about the five-minute mark.

Here are just a few of the things I learned:

1. Try to keep your wrists neutral. There are many handcarding methods that work, but whichever one I’m using, I keep my wrists as relaxed and straight as possible. With curved cards in particular, it can be tempting to give your wrists a workout. I try to keep this as minimal as possible.

2.  Card orientation. I initially learned to card perpendicular to my lap and have found that carding diagonally across my lap allows me to keep my wrists more neutral and my shoulders relaxed. If I rest my cards against my knee, it straightens my arms and relaxes my shoulders and wrists. See how relaxed the woman is in the image above? (She is working with flat cards, which I’ll get to in a moment.) We have to be careful about reading too much into photographs where the sitter might have changed her natural habits or been asked to sit in a particular way by the photographer. However, her posture and hand position are fairly typical of the photos I have seen from around northern Europe and beyond. This illustration is also similar to how Norman Kennedy describes his carding style in various videos (see Resources below).

3. Give yourself space. One of the most common problems I see spinners have as they hone their carding skills is that they don’t make large enough motions. This is easier to show than describe, but during carding, the active card should move far enough away from the stationary card that the wool pulled between the two releases. If the motion is too short, the fibers will not separate between the cards and the web will be folded back onto itself. This often shows up as thick ridges in our rolags.

Clockwise from top left: Ashford, vintage Clemes & Clemes, Schacht 112 ppi curved, Schacht 112 ppi flat, Louet mini cotton cards at center.

Types of cards

Cards matter. If you ask five spinners what cards they like best, you will probably get five different answers—I love that about handspinning! While there are many strong opinions, they are varied. Try as many different handcards as you can and see what you like for yourself. The primary differences between brands and styles are overall weight, carding cloth and teeth density, and shape (flat or curved).

On the left are the shorter, stouter teeth on a pair of 1980s vintage Clemes and Clemes cards. On the right are the longer, finer-gauge teeth on a pair of Louet mini cotton cards. The Clemes teeth hardly move, providing a more aggressive carding experience. If I wanted to card Border Leicester locks quickly without bothering to tease them first, I might pick these up. The Louet cloth is very supple and would be perfect for carding a fine Merino fleece that was well teased. The Schacht 112 tpi mentioned below falls somewhere between the two pictured.

The shape of the cards does impact the carding style to a certain degree, and which type is superior is hotly debated in some circles. Several years ago, I decided to see what the difference was for myself, so I purchased a pair of flat Schacht 112 tpi cards to compare to my well-worn and much-loved curved Schacht 112 tpi set. And that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Read more about my carding method in my new book, The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Wool. (Interweave, 2015).

Join me for a workshop! I’ll be teaching Make the Most of Your Handcards twice next month:

Michigan Handspinners Guild – March 3−4, 2016.

Missouri Fiber Retreat – March 11−13, 2016

Check out my full 2016 calendar here.

Additional Resources:

From Wool to Waulking with Norman Kennedy. Video.
How to Card Wool: Four Spinners, Four Techniques with Carol Rhoades, Maggie Casey, Norman Kennedy, and Rita Buchanan.