Spinning Terms: Hand Carder vs. Drum Carder

This is a sometime series of emails that defines some terms and ideas related to spinning. This is Hand Carder vs. Drum Carder.

Dog BrushesLike most sports or hobbies, spinning can get very expensive if you attempt to own every toy.  As with everything in life, you can go as complicated or as simple as you want.

If you have more time than money then it makes sense to get your fleeces raw, directly from the farmers.  You wash them yourself, by hand.  Maybe you card them with cheap dog brushes from the Dollar Store, and finally you get to spin, using a homemade Margaret.

If you have all the money in the world to spend on your spinning then you can buy roving made of Quiviut and Cashmere, and spin on a $1,150 Majacraft Aura spinning wheel. I have heard that is fun, too.

If, like most of us, you are somewhere in between you get some of the bells and whistles, and let others go.  It’s hard to know in the beginning what you NEED versus what you WANT.  Carders were like that for me.  Of course, if I had millions of dollars I would get all kinds, made of fancy materials, carved and tooled to perfection.  But I didn’t and don’t, so decisions had to be made.

In the hand carders vs. drum carder decision I personally ended up with both. If you are still trying to figure this part out maybe this might help you, so let me tell you why I did what I did.

Hand Carders

cardersCarders are what is used to process fiber, either to make it ready to spin if it’s raw, or to blend different fibers together.  When I first started spinning I used dog brushes.  It cost less than $10 to get a pair of cheap ones at the local dollar store and they worked pretty well.  If you have no choice or don’t choose to spend the money on carders they WILL work.

But, as you have probably guessed, you get what you pay for.  They are pretty small, so you can get a very limited amount of fiber on the cards.  This didn’t really bother me at the time frankly, because I didn’t know I was carding wrong, so I just MASHED it in there…but that is a story for another day.  If you card correctly then you put less on the cards (brushes) and so with such small brushes it will take a LONG time to get much done.

Also, they are made of plastic and pretty flimsy (remember, I paid less than $10, if you get high quality ones this might not be as much of a problem) and so they didn’t really last all that long.  At that point a friend let me borrow her wool carders.  What a difference!  They were much bigger, the teeth were stronger, and longer, and they were gently curved, which I found much more graceful to use.

Some people prefer flat carders, I just happen to find the curved ones more efficient for me.  Before you buy some try really, really hard to find someone who will let you try theirs out – both kinds – cause this is an investment you want to get right the first time.

At this point, I did jump in and buy the real carders, I think they cost about $60 at that time.  I still wasn’t using them correctly, but I didn’t know that, and the person who lent them to me didn’t know either, so I was happy in my/our ignorance.  It didn’t really matter all that much, they worked, I got fiber carder, and I got to spin my own fiber!

Drum Carder

Strauch CarderHand carders are hard going though, it takes TIME to card fiber, and so a few years later I really splurged and bought a drum carder.  It was a lot of money for me at the time, but it made sense.  I was not able to spend a lot of money on this hobby, so I was getting all raw fleeces and washing and carding them by hand.  I learned a lot about how to handle wool and alpaca, which was a huge benefit, but hand carding all that fiber was taking so much of my spinning time that I was getting frustrated.  The drum carder was a one time purchase that I felt would pay for itself in time saved.  With this lovely behemoth I got a lot more fiber carded in less time and therefore had a lot more time to spin.

Drum carders are also really useful because they create batts.  A batt of fiber is a flat, usually rectangular piece of processed fiber.  If you use a drum carder at home you create a batt of fiber that can be used in a number of ways, primarily it can be split into roving or using in felting.  You can obviously blend fibers in a drum carder, and many people create amazing art batts with wild fibers and fabulous color combinations.  I am boring.  I don’t particularly like spinning with plastic or nylon or other crazy “fibers” so I stick with duller materials and create duller batts.  (But I am oh, so happy!)

And Back to Hand Carders

Then came the day when I really learned how to use hand carders.  It took me a while t accept that I needed to re-learn it, and I don’t remember being particularly graceful about it.  I mean, come on, I have been doing this for years, of course I know how to do it. Right?

It’s really an art.  It’s NOT like brushing your hair, it’s more like kissing a butterfly. The teeth of the carders should barely touch, and should never lock.

Here is a quick little video from Ashford about how to hand card.  She doesn’t explain it very much, she just does it.  But she is doing it correctly, and this is one of the few videos I found that showed that.  My advice is to turn the sound off and watch her – then try to imitate her.  The very best way to learn is to have someone show you in person, someone who REALLY knows how to do it.

Hand carding takes more time, there is no way around that.  Now that I am doing it right though, I feel like I have more control over the blending, so the combinations of color or fiber that I create are more balanced and are more pleasing to me.  I always feel like I “do the best I can” with the drum carder – it’s a big blunt tool for a big job.  If I want to create something more delicate, and control it more precisely I use the hand carders. The drum carder is also really useful for creating batts to felt, which would take longer and be more fussy on the hand carders.

Am I happy that I have both?  You betcha!  By having both I can go from one end of the spectrum to the other, I can drum card 8 oz of cotswold in about 20 minutes, then turn around and blend yak and angora with the hand carders.  From the sublime to the ridiculous in one quick shake of a lambs tail!

Bottom line?

The bottom line is that it totally depends on what you want and where you are with you spinning.  If you have the money and are excited about blending fiber then get a drum carder, or one of those newfangled carding boards (which are a good happy medium between the size and cost of the two options).  If you are more interested in doing smaller, finer blending then get hand carders.  If you want to push through large amounts of raw fiber, by all means get a drum carder, your wrists will thank you!

What about a mill?

Something else to consider here is that if you have more than one raw fleece, it might be good idea to send them to a mill.  I fought that idea for years.  I had heard very bad things about mills: it took months or years even to get your fiber back, and when it did come back they had mixed it badly, or not the way you wanted it mixed.  I even know of people who received fiber from the mill that wasn’t even theirs!!

I figured it would be prohibitively expensive and far too advanced for the small time little spinner than I am.  But I was wrong. Times have changed.   You still have to do your homework and ask questions of the mill before you send stuff out.  You have to be clear with your communication and ask more questions and don’t make assumptions, but it is possible to get fiber treated the way you want it, in a reasonable time, and for a reasonable price.

And of course, if what you really want to do is spin, not deal with fiber issues, we live in an era where you simply don’t have to.  We are so lucky to live in a time where spinning is an accepted hobby and there are tons of people selling roving.  There are lots of different types of roving, different blends of amazing different fibers.  And the colors they dye fibers now are simply awe inspiring.  It’s not hard to find what you want just by going on line, no sheep fields required. (You know we have a shop, right?)

Is it really more expensive to buy processed roving than it is to buy the equipment and process it yourself?  I don’t honestly know.  It would take someone a lot more math-savvy than me to figure out a comparison depending on cost of raw vs. processed fiber, my time, my skill level, cost of equipment, cost of fiber, etc.  It makes my head spin just to think about it. The thing is though, it’s going to be different for each person!  The joy of washing and carding is WORTH it to one person while another person would rather have their toenails pulled out and runs quickly for their laptop…

It’s all about what YOU particularly enjoy doing.  If I never had to wash another raw fleece in my life I would be a happy woman, but I don’t really mind it all that much.  I enjoy, to an extent the blending of fibers by hand – the skill it takes and the sense of accomplishment when it does what I want.  But, to be honest, I will do what I have to do (get dirty and spend money) in order to be able to do the actual spinning.

My best bottom line advice would be to borrow.  Borrow someone’s wheel before you buy your own, practice with someone else’s carders, try out a particular spindle style at a fiber festival, even watch videos online – do anything you can to get the feel of something before you buy it.  Asking questions and getting other spinners’ opinions is helpful but no matter how many people like hand carders if you try them and hate them, then what is the point in spending all that money?

What about you?

What is the best investment you ever made for your spinning?


Spinning Terms: Processing Fiber at a Mill

This is part of a sometime series that defines terms and ideas related to spinning. This is Processing Fiber at a Mill.

There are two ways you can get processed fibers to spin with.  Either you start with the raw fiber and send it away to a mill to process it for you, or you buy fibers already processed for spinners from any number of places.

Mill Processed Raw Fiber

When you start with raw fiber and you don’t choose to take care of it yourself you can send it to a mill to wash and card for you.  They will even dye it or spin it into yarn for you, although for me that kind of defeats the purpose. each thing they do (wash, card, dye, spin) increases the cost of the fiber, so it is more expensive than dealing with the raw fiber yourself.  In fact milled fibers have a long list of positive and negative attributes.


Echoview Fiber MillThe fiber is clean and carded – all you have to do it start spinning.  This is a huge plus for me, because while I enjoy dealing with raw fibers, when you get right down to it, the best part is the spinning.  Having someone else do the heavy lifting of washing and carding means a lot to me.

You get the excitement of it being “your” fleece, but not having to put in an enormous amount of sweat equity to deal with the nitty gritty of washing and carding 4 whole pounds of fiber on my own!  (An average skirted fleece weighs about 4 lbs, but can vary by breed.)

Mills can blend your fiber for you in a pretty scientific manner.  When I hand blend fiber I TRY to make it 80/20 (meaning 80% of fiber A and 20% of fiber B) but it’s not a very exact science for me and so while it’s pretty close, some parts will be more uneven than I would like.  Big mills are much better at it than I am, especially with large amounts of fiber (i.e. more than I can get on my drum carder at one time).

Most mills will provide you with fiber to blend with yours.  If you have some BFL (Bluefaced Leicester) but want to spin some sock yarn you can ask the mill to blend your fiber with some nylon in order to make the perfect Sock yarn (in my opinion!) Most of us don’t have blend-able nylon fiber lying around our homes.

Because the mills work in bulk they use different sort of chemicals than I use in my own workshop (I use Dawn detergent, most mills don’t.) Some people might see this as a bad thing, but in my experience most people who own fiber mills care deeply about the environment, so it’s unlikely that will use something terribly caustic, and when I get milled fiber back it always feels softer and nicer than when I card it myself.  This could be a sensory illusion brought on by relief that I didn’t have to card 8 lbs of Cotswold all by myself, but I think it’s true.


Milled Fiber - beigeSome mills don’t always communicate well, with you or with themselves.  As a result it’s possible for them to blend in the wrong percentages, or blend the wrong fleeces together.

Some mills don’t communicate at ALL!  A friend send a fleece off to  a mill and when she had waited an appropriate amount of time called to ask when it would be ready, only to hear “Oh, I wondered who that fleece belonged to!”  This is NOT what you want to hear!

If you hang out with people who use mills long enough you will hear horror stories about fiber that came back from a totally different species of fiber animal, or fiber that was infested with some bug or another, or fiber that was lost completely.

It seems to be that dying could be a con, although I have never had any personal experience with that.  It seems to me that doing my OWN dying seems to be a total crap shoot 99% of the time, so trusting someone else to create a color that I am holding in my head and make it color fast and lovely is totally impossible and beyond foolish to try.  But that’s just me.

When you get right down to it the biggest downside to sending your fiber to a mill is that something can go wrong.  For whatever the reason it goes wrong, when it goes wrong, it is devastating.  The majority of us have a limited supply of fiber.  You only get one fleece from that animal in one year if you own the flock, or you can only get it from a farmer once a year after shearing.  So when it goes wrong, man, it is BAD.  And there is nothing you can do about it. Once it’s done, it’s done.

When you hear stories about how badly it can go wrong it can really scare you about using mills.  I understand that, I really do.  But this is my philosophy:

My Mill Theory by Spinfoolish

1. Use mills.  If you don’t use mills they won’t make any money and they will go away.  If the mills go away then you will HAVE to wash and card on your own. I don’t want to have to always wash and card each of my fleeces for the rest of my life, so I support mills!

2. Use Local Mills.  If you have a local mill, give them a try.  If you get burned, go elsewhere.  Voting with our fleeces will eventually get rid of the bad mills and help the good mills thrive, but starting local can help both them and you.

3. Ask around.  Everyone has a favorite or a horror story, so ask EVERYONE then sort through it on your own. Research the mill on line, see what they say about themselves – if they say they specialize in wool then don’t send them alpaca! Be sensible.

4. Do your homework.  Does the mill have a list of what you should do to send a fleece?  Do they have rules about weight, or cleanliness?  Do they want you to tag the fiber a certain way.  Make sure you KNOW what you need to do and get it all done in the way they want it done.  It may be annoying, but it will be more likely to avoid problems later.

5. Communicate.  I am probably hated by the mills I use, but I make SURE that I have communicated with them not only in the way THEY need, but in the way I need as well.  If that means phone calls, emails and smoke signals, then that is what I do.  I take down names. I might drive them crazy but I refuse to lie awake at night worrying or have it all go wrong when there was something I could have done to make it go all right.

But in the end…

Sigh. In the end, no matter what you do or don’t do it’s either going to go well, or it’s going to be a disappointment.  Once I have done everything I can: I have asked around and chosen a good mill, I have done my homework, sent a good fleece, and communicated as much as I can – then at that point you have to let go.

That’s my final word to myself.  Once I have done everything that I can and should: then I have to just accept what happens.  Sometimes you are the bug and sometimes you are the windshield.

When it goes badly I try to learn from my mistake, whether it is communication, mill choice or just plain stupidity, so I don’t repeat the mistake.

When it goes well, ahhhhh, when it goes well my friend, I am joyous and happy and all is right with the world.  I really like it when it goes right.

Spinning Terms: Beginnings and Raw Wool

This is part of a sometime series that defines terms and ideas related to spinning. This is Beginnings and Raw Wool


thistle-20191_1920First, you have to understand that what you buy in your local fiber market and what your great grandmother used to create the only clothing her family wore is totally different!   She would barely recognize what you have in your stash at all.  She would LOVE it, she just wouldn’t recognize it!

Obviously one reason for that is that we have the benefit of machinery that she didn’t have.  People used to card fiber with thistles, for heaven’s sake!!  What your great grandmother used to prepare her fiber was probably hand carders or combs.   What much of our fiber today is produced on are HUGE enormous machines that fill whole rooms.  Obviously what they produce is going to be different, and so the terms that she used are still in use, but they refer to relatively different things.

Raw Fiber

Any definition of terms regarding fiber is going to have to start with the stuff you get straight off the camel’s back, right? “Raw” fiber is what you get if you take it right off the sheep, llama, goat, alpaca, rabbit, etc.  This fiber is dirty, there is no getting around that.  The fiber has all the natural products that you would expect to find in something that just came off the body of a live living animal. Some fibers hold the dirt in better than others, but they all have varying amounts of “stuff” in them.

Shearing Calif RedThere will be “cling-ons” around the back end, and many fiber critters have suint, which is a combination of grease and sweat that accumulates naturally in the fiber.  Many sheep will have varying degrees of lanolin.  Then there is the stuff that the fiber accumulates just from living outside.  Unless the animal was wearing a coat (they do that!!), there will be “VM” or vegetable matter, which can be anything from hay, to thistles, to wood chips – it all depends on where the animal was hanging out!

Raw fiber might contain “second cuts” or very short fibers from where the shearer went twice over the same spot on the animal.  The “first cut” is the longest cut and therefore, obviously the best and what you want to spin with.  But the shearer is not only there to make spinners lives better (although they do do that!) they are also there to please the owner and to make the animal look presentable after it’s haircut.   A good a shearer with get the majority of the fiber cut from the animal in ONE stroke, but will then go back (second cut) to even out what is left on the animal (it’s like getting a trim after a haircut).  The fiber produced in the second cut is shorter, usually too short to spin.  Spinners want lots of FIRST cut fiber and very LITTLE second cut fiber. Second cuts are treated like trash and removed from the fiber in an exercise called skirting.

A good shearer is worth their weight in gold! My favorite uncle owned a sheep farm in Devon, England.  I remember him telling me about the shearers he had hired all the way from New Zealand.  They were more expensive but they did the job faster, with more first cuts, and less harm to the animal.  Obviously sheep can get cut when they get sheared.  A good shearer has to balance speed, efficiency and care in equal measures.  I remember Uncle Phillip standing over them while they sheared.  He had a small pail of antibiotic looked like brightly colored Kool Aid.  My uncle was a quiet man, not given to using too many words in any one conversation.  He did a lot with just a look.  The shearers were good, and he didn’t have to use the medicine very often, but if he had to use it more than once on the same sheep the shear would get that look from Uncle Phillip.  I remember it being remarkably effective.


Raw fleece and larrySheep, alpacas and other large fiber animals that live outdoors and are sheared have to have the fiber “skirted” to remove as much of the stuff you don’t want and leave as much of the stuff you do want.  Obviously this means taking out the second cuts and any twigs and grass that you can see.  It also means pulling out the parts from under the belly, around the sheep’s tail, and from the legs.  This fiber has to be cut off, but it’s either too dirty, too short, or too coarse to want to save so it goes.  Then it gets down to the nitty gritty.  You want to remove as much VM as you can, but how long do you really want to spend doing that?  Skirting is harder work than it sounds.

When I get a new fleece they always seem huge.  Then when I start skirting them they seem GIGANTIC, and then when I get the fiber back from a mill they seem really small!  It’s all about perspective! 🙂

Spinning With Raw Fiber

Raw fiber is spinnable.  Some raw fiber is more spinnable than others.  Different types of sheep have varying levels of lanolin in their raw fiber.  When you spin with fiber that still has all it’s lanolin you call it spinning “in the grease.” Some people love it, some people hate it.  I have spun many types of fiber in the grease. I personally find it to be fun, but more challenging.

Black Tulip Farm - ShadowFor example, I once spun alpaca straight off the animal.  Alpaca doesn’t have lanolin, but they sure do pick up dirt!  This particular alpaca fiber was covered, thickly covered, with good North Carolina dirt.  I did not wash the fiber before I spun it.  Back then I was still learning whose opinion to listen to, and lots of people where freaking me out about how fleeces always got felted when you washed them by hand.  It was dusty, but it didn’t seem too bad, so I didn’t wash it.  As I spun my hands very quickly became quite  dirty. When I was finished I washed my spun yarn and the water was just filthy.  In fact I had to wash that yarn MANY times until the water came clear.

When it dried, I started knitting, and was surprised to find that my hands STILL got dirty while knitting it!  When I finished knitting I washed the knitted garment, and AGAIN the water came out filthy.  You honestly would have thought I had never washed it!  I learned a lesson from that fleece: it’s MUCH harder to get the dirt out after it is spun.  Now I almost always wash my fiber before I spin it.  But I know people who have  spun alpaca fiber raw, and barely noticed any dirt at all!

Some raw fiber can be spun without even carding it!  I have done that with alpaca, sheep and rabbit, but mostly I like to card raw fibers because I think it makes them easier to deal with.  Nowadays it is unlikely that you will ever really need to spin with raw fiber unless you have a specific purpose for it.  Spinning raw fiber can be fun though!  It’s also cheaper, for those of us on a budget.

Raw fibers is cheaper because you have to do all the work yourself: you have to skirt it, wash it, card it, and/or blend it. It takes time and some knowledge to deal with raw fiber, and it’s not something I would want to do all the time, like Great Grandmother did, but I think it’s a good thing to know how to deal with it if I had to.

Of course, given the choice, I would take processed fibers over raw fibers every time, although I do love the feel of lanolin all over my hands. More on that next time.

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