At the Spinning Wheel

Wool is spun into yarn before it hits the loom. Karen Clancy cards the fibers and feeds the spinning wheel.


Harmony Hunter:Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Colonial Williamsburg’s Weave Shop produces textiles for all kinds of uses, from ship sails to bed sheets and small clothes. But all of those items share a starting place, and that’s the thread that they’re made from before they ever reach the loom. Karen Clancy is here with us today. She works in the Weave Shop and often finds herself at the spinning wheel. Karen, thank you for coming by today.

Karen Clancy: Thank you for asking.

Harmony: Well I’ve said that you make thread. When is it called thread and when is it called yarn?

Karen: They actually share the same definition; yarn, string, thread are all the same definition of twisted fibers. It’s the application of their use is what you call it. You sew with thread, build on a loom or knitting with yarn and you fly a kite or tie a package with string.

Harmony: Let’s talk about wool products. If you’re talking about working with wool, where does that process start, to go from the sheep and then all the way through something that you can weave with on the loom?

Karen: Well once the sheep are shorn, you separate the better wool from the less productive wool. In other words, some of the wool is not good for spinning. It’s better for stuffing. Its legs, its stomach, around its neck where it gets matted, it’s not fit for spinning, doesn’t make a good strong yarn or string or thread. So you separate and sort it then you have to wash it. The lanolin and the natural waxes and grease have to get washed out. It makes it very difficult if you do not.

Harmony: So this washing process, do you do this one a year when the sheep are shorn?

Karen: When the sheep are shorn you tend to wash it. You don’t really want to have a lot of the lanolin sticking around in hot weather. It can actually deteriorate, and kind of make for a sour type of rancid oil. I mean that’s what it is. So it can kind of ruin the fleece, so you want to try to clean that up as best you can first. Have it ready to go when you’re able to have some down time. It’s pick up work really.

You need to let it dry. It takes a little while to let it dry. One of the characteristics of wool is that it can hold about 30 percent of its weight in water and still feel dry, so you really have to spend a lot of time. And our humid climate is not really the best conducive climate for drying. Laundry doesn’t dry half the time outside. So we spend a lot of time just kind of watching things dry.

And then we need to brush it and organize it into some semblance of order. It’s like brushing a hair on your dog or curry comb a horse or brushing your own hair. You need to align the fibers, although randomly. They’re not perfectly in alignment, but using the set of wool cards – they’re a little bit different than cotton cards, the gauge of the wire is little stiffer &ndash you just gently align the fibers, transferring from one paddle or one card to the next. It takes very little time to get what we call a bat or a rolag. It’s just a fluffy wool that allows us to slide.

Harmony: In the process of creating thread or yarn, is that one of the more time-consuming steps: the carding? The combing of the wool?

Karen: Yes. It depends on your project. Do you want to have a three-piece suit look like a sweater? You’d be ahead of your time. Or do you want something to be very insulative, warm? You would comb your wool which is a set of, it looks like row after row after row of very sharp, long ten penny nails which you impale the locks on and it’s stationary. One of those combs, large combs, is stationary. The other you hold and you drag through. It separates the long fibers from the short fibers.

You have a small piece of wood or shell or horn is what we use from of our Devon cows with tiny holes in it. You fish a little bit of that prepared combed fiber through one of those holes. The piece that has the holes in it is called a diz. As you pull those fibers through, it makes those fibers completely parallel. That, when it’s spun and twisted, will make a slick, shiny hard almost yarn called worsted for suiting. It’s appropriate for suiting – very slick, shiny and reflective, as opposed to carded, which is combed randomly aligned fibers to make air pockets which will make it fuzzy and make it insulated for blanketing and anything you want to stay warm in, like our sweaters today.

So that’s the difference between carding and combing of the wool. You have to know what project you’re working on to prepare the fibers appropriately.

Harmony: So what happens then when you take that carded wool to the spinning wheel?

Karen: You have your spinning wheel with a bobbin. You tie a piece of string or yarn or whatever you have handy, it’s called a lead string. You need something for the fiber to bite on to, because it’s hard to spin in mid air. You have a U-shaped piece called a flyer with a row of hooks on one of those ribs. It’s just a two sided, looks like a wishbone, and one of those ribs has a set of hooks. That lead string that’s wrapped around the axle of the bobbin is placed along the hooks through a hole called the orifice and you hold on to that lead string.

The wheel is put in motion by a flick of your fingers and it’s kept in motion with the pedal like a pedal sewing machine, and the whole mechanism starts moving. A drive band keeps that wheel and the flyer moving and the bobbin is moving and it’s providing the twist. You fray out the end of the lead string just to give you some surface area. The rolag, or the prepared fiber, is placed on top of that lead string. You hold the lead string with your left hand, it’s the place I start usually, there’s many different techniques, but I want to keep the twist away from my fibers. I want to gradually control the energy that it’s producing. It’s like winding up a rubber band on a balsa wood airplane. It’s building up lots of energy but if you let go too soon it’s going to take off someplace you don’t want it to go.

So I hold with my left hand and keep the energy back as it’s building up twist, as I’m pedaling, and it’s like holding back the energy of a dam. You hold back the energy. I have in my right hand my fibers and the lead string and I gently slide back a little bit and I let go of where I’ve been holding and keeping that energy back and the twist travels up. It races up, it wants to move. It wants to release energy. I hold again at a stop where it stops where my two fingers meet, I hold, I pull back, slide, pull back and I keep sliding, because I know by feel and practice how much to let slip through my fingers to make consistent yarn.

When you’re finished making enough, or you have run out of arm, you let up on the tension and the bobbin winds and stores the yarn you’ve just created. Until you develop your own rhythm and you make the yarn as thick or thin as you want for that particular project you’re working on. And it becomes very Zen-like after a while. It’s very relaxing. The fibers slipping through your fingers is like petting a dog or a cat you don’t have to feed. And its very rhythmic, and as some people find writing very relaxing and spinning is that tactile relationship that you have that is very, very rewarding.

Harmony: It’s amazing to think of the energy and the time that goes into making a length of thread especially when you think about carrying that thread to the loom and then turning that into a textile. When you’re interpreting this spinning and creating this raw material for weaving, are people often surprised that that’s half of the labor of the weave shop?

Karen: They are so used to seeing yarn on shelves already prepared and then turning it into something and not realizing that there was time spent to put it on the shelf to make that. So for one hour of weaving at the loom you’re spending twelve hours from the sheep, washing, carding, spinning before you can make anything.

Harmony: So not only does it take more time than you might have ever reflected on, but it also seems to me for as timeless a trade it is, for as timeless a practice you picture a woman at her spinning wheel all the way back to the Greeks, but its seems to me that it’s also very finicky – very tricky, very difficult to master. Do find that connection through time thinking back on all the people who’ve sat in front of spinning wheels?

Karen: I am amazed when I look at very old textiles, ecclesiastical linens from Italy that date back to the ten hundreds that were so finely spun by masterful hands; when you think about the yarn that was being spun out of linen which is fibers out of grass stems, out of flax plants, that are so gossamer thin.

We have this thing in weaving where you have so many threads packed into an inch. It’s called ends per inch. Now on our loom we have 45 linen threads per inch. I’ve seen some textiles that are upwards of over 100 that were hand spun by these hands that just defies my understanding of hand spinning. We’re so used to perfect in the 21st century that it can only be done by mechanization and that yet I’ve seen some incredible things that I dare any machine to duplicate; it’s just incredible craftsmanship.

Harmony: Well we want all of our listeners to come by and see you in the Weave Shop doing this wonderful carding and spinning and weaving. Where’s the Weave Shop? Where can people find you?

Karen: It’s on the Duke of Gloucester Street. It’s kitty-corner across from the Bruton Parish Church and it’s about a block and a half from Merchants Square. We’re the first shop or the first introduction really to the Historic Area on the main street; the Duke of Gloucester Street.

Harmony: Well we hope lots of people stop by to see what you’re up to. Karen, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Karen: My pleasure.


  1. Loved the podcast about the weaving shop. Whenever I’m visiting CW, which isn’t near often enough for me, this craft is the first I make a “bee-line” for to see what’s going on. Max and the other “weavers” do a fantastic job — keep up the good work!!

  2. Love the podcast, listen every week.

    One small problem.

    The instruments at the beginning of the musical opening are ear-peircingly loud and shrill. Is there any way to lower that or put a different arrangement on the font end? It is quite painful.

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