Worsted Nests

March 18, 2016

Worsted in such a lovely word. I particularly favour the woost-ed pronunciation. It has a few meanings. It can mean a particular weight or thickness of yarn, specifically a medium weight yarn equivalent to the Australian/UK 10 ply. And, it also refers to a particular style of yarn where all the fibres are of the same length and lie parallel to each other. It is a dense, smooth, hardwearing yarn that highlights textured stitches and colour changes crisply and precisely. Worsted can also refer to a fabric woven from worsted yarns.

Worsted spinning was one of the topics covered in Day Two of the Handweaver’s and Spinner’s Guild of Victoria Certificate of Spinning.

In Australia, we tend to learn how to spin in the worsted style first and it is the style that predominates here. I wonder sometimes if this is because our climate is so mild that we don’t need the fluffy, airy warmth of woollen spinning but perhaps there are historical factors that account for the preference.

IMG_2635I was familiar with two of the methods demonstrated at the course but the other two surprised me. We were shown flicking open the locks with a flick carder which our teacher considered the purest form of worsted preparation as it presents you with an open lock of parallel fibres to spin directly from.

IMG_2613We were also shown combing for worsted spinning, where wool locks are lashed onto one comb, and all the fibres of the same length are transferred to another through combing, then drawn off gently into a continuous cylindrical arrangement of parallel fibres called top. These are then wound loosely into little nests of fibre.

IMG_0051I had never seen hand carders used to prepare for worsted spinning before but our teacher showed us how to place individual locks parallel to each other, very gently stroke them with the other carder then transfer back without a ridge line developing and roll the fibres off the carder parallel to each other.  This is a method for preparing staples for worsted spinning that are too short to be flick carded or combed.

We were also shown how to use a drum carder for worsted spinning, turning the drum slowly whilst letting the tines on the carding cloth catch the fibre locks one at time in the same direction till a third of the drum was covered. The aligned fibres were then pulled through a diz into top and wound into nests.

IMG_0053I found the varieties of worsted preparation fascinating. It had me reconsidering the value of the humble flick carder and the precision of the English combs which selected only fibres of the same length. There is significant waste generated in this latter method, with lots of fibre remaining after pulling off for top. But we were also challenged to not consider this as waste at all, rather as fibre to be set aside for carding. This concept really speaks to me. Previously, I had been saving all my comb waste for woollen wadding but I like the idea of spinning it more.

One of the teachers also encouraged us to leave our waste fibre for the birds. They will use it for their nests she said. There was a little murmur of agreement at this and I recalled reading something recently from a spinner who also left her waste fibre outside for the birds to collect. I wondered if it was a common practice amongst spinners and found a post about leaving fibre scraps for birds.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In looking for an image of a nest made of wool scraps I came across this curious observation in an old book by Mrs F. M. Poyntz  called Aunt May’s Bird Talks (1900) which contained the illustration above and a description of the North American Oriole.

Audubon writes that the Orioles nest in the south is made of Spanish moss loosely woven… The nests of the same bird in the north are made of flax, hemp, wool or any warm threads, and tightly woven to make them warm for the eggs and to protect the young birds from the cold.

There is a poignancy between the preparation of worsted fibre into nests and the wastage from worsted preparation being left for the birds for the making of nests. Do you leave fibre bits for the birds or have you heard of folks doing this?

Postscript to Little Laundry on the Prairie:

Thank you so much to everyone who left a comment, emailed or spoke to me about the laundry post. The recollections and observations you shared are treasured gifts, a wee archive of everyday laundry memories in the public domain. If you think someone you know might enjoy sharing their laundry practices, past or present, please do encourage them to visit the post and leave a comment.  


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  1. What wonderful information about worsted wool. I find myself buying bits of roving here and there, even though I only have a drop spindle that I used once or twice a couple of years ago. I’m almost ready to start spinning again.

    Funnily enough, worsted weight yarn is not something I have quite groked yet. I know DK and Aran and Chunky but can’t quite place worsted in there. I keep thinking it’s like fingering yarn but I’m working on it!

    I have seen people on Facebook mention that when combing their dogs (or cats?) you should leave the fluff outside for the birds. We’ve also just finished reading the Magic Finger by Roald Dahl, with my five year old, and making a warm nest rather appeals to me.

    Lovely post.

    1. Thank you Joanna, when I go for my walk in the morning along a dog walking oval, I often see little piles of dog hair that owners have left after grooming…I had not understood it was for the birds!

      I believe worsted weight can describe Aran weight also, however it is a separate category in Ravelry so we need further investigation I think.

  2. i have left wool scraps out for the birds but they dont seem to take any they would rather pull the lining of my hanging baskets apart i use the real bad scraps of greasy wool to stop snails on special plants and found this works well

    1. That is interesting Elizabeth. I use fleece skirting as mulch around trees but after a while it disappears but I have never really thought about to where. I must try the snail trick.

  3. I like the idea of using the leftovers from combing to card. Some people use it for needle felting, I’ve heard. My woolen fluff for the birds has to be carted away from the house as it gets caught in the electric lawn mower. Isn’t it amazing that there are so many things to do with wool?!!

    1. I too like the idea of carding the combings Elaine, especially as there would be less VM in it after combing than going straight on the carders. It is amazing how much can be done with wool but clearly the less it does with the lawn mower the better! I recently had to turn my desk chair upside down and spend a good hour cutting out bits of cotton thread and wool fibre out of the castors which had ceased with so much stuff bound around them. My housekeeping needs a little sprucing perhaps!

  4. I felted wool onto my linen props so that I could handle them without getting splinters. The blue tits stripped the lot off over the nesting period. It was lovely to watch them hanging on with their feet and tugging bits off. I didn’t replace it and my linen props have now worn smooth!

    1. Dear Sarah, Are linen props, the timber uprights you use to prop up a long washing line? Sounds like your blue tits are hardy, persistent wee creatures who know good nesting material when they see it! Glad that you didn’t have to return to splinters when they stripped it all.

  5. Warmth for the nest! Honestly I hadn’t thought of that, Rebecca.

    I use roving as a stuffing for the toys I knit. Nothing against polyester batting, but the wool brings a warmth to the hand and makes the toy that much more alive.

    Trust you to come to a non-wastefuul aspect to the hand-processing of wool. This post was an education and a half!

    1. Dear Kate, I too prefer wool for stuffing and often save my cut of wool threads for small stuffing projects like crochet balls etc. I remember when I got a Shropshire fleece from Collingwood Children’s Farm, the farmer said she uses it for stuffing cushions because it is so springy and resists compaction.

  6. Nice post. On prepping for worsted I am lazy and 99% of the time wash in the lock (I have a nice easy way to do it) and flick card. I always prep my fleeces this way be they 2 lbs or 10 lbs – 4.5 kg, (then if I want to flick card I’m ready and if I want to card for woolen for some ?? reason I can. I also dye in the little bags I wash in. I can also comb from there, as in my very short Hebridean fleece! using mini Louet’s. I have hand carded for worsted and roll up the fleece from the short side. I have used combs, mostly the Peter Teal’s, and make sure no dogs are in the area…vicious things that they are!! I have not used the drum carder for worsted spinning.
    Seems counter intuitive but we DO get stuck in our ruts and go with the easy and knowable. I have quite a collection of bird nests from the woods, one even has a feather attached! but no wool. Beautiful bits of down, fine bits of grass and large pieces.

    1. Dear Susan, There is so much info in here, thank you! When you say ‘washing in the lock’ do you mean you wash the fleece after you have separated it into individual locks? That is so interesting that you were able to comb the short Hebridean fleece. Could you have also carded this for worsted? How delightful that you have a collection of bird’s nests! They sometimes come home with us on our walks if we find them on the ground. Like scats, nests can be tiny, wee archeological sites, a little record of what was useful for nest building that year.

      1. Yes, I lay out the fleece, sort it by lock, sometimes you can take a whole section and be happy! I Never want a fleece that someone had been pawing thru, argh. Then I place all the locks in boxes, fill my baggies, like little sausages, wash, spin dry after rinsing, open the baggies and the wool looks like little sea anemones and I lay them out on racks to dry. I should make a series of pictures for you. I tried carding the Hebridean and didn’t like it. I am at 24 WPI with my 2 ply.

        1. OK! I am not sure in what way this kind of lock by lock preparation might constitute as lazy Susan? You promised us lazy. A few of the tutors talked about preparing a fleece this way but I thought it sounded like a lot of work. I had to laugh when I read the Wraps Per Inch of your two ply, I had been imagining a big bulky Hebridean yarn for some reason, not 24 WPI! Homage, oh spinster!

          1. Thank you, I was disappointed because I thought it would be more WPI! I have done the lock thing for so many years I am very quick at it. One day when it was about 27+ deg I washed and dried 20 lb/9 kg of wool in this fashion. These were beautiful fleeces, no one had messed with them to ‘junk’ them up! They were Merino. Still have them……hmmm
            I have a fleece prepped in this way waiting to be washed, got it late in the season, so will take pics of my locks in boxes waiting for some lovely washing weather……..walked in SNOW this morning 🙂

  7. How delightful! I loved reading the linked post too Rebecca- with more beautiful photos of nests. I provide water for the birds and occasionally throw my grey hair out the upstairs window when I have combed my brush clean- hoping it will be useful for nest building. I will do this more often now.

    1. Dear Sally, thank you for sharing your bird tale. I had no idea so many folks considered the birds in their everyday practices. It is a glimpse into another world.

  8. Thanks for the interesting post Rebecca. I don’t spin, but my father used to (with wool from his own Border Leicesters) and I still have some of that precious handspun. Dad still has the spinning wheel, and I’ve thought that maybe one day I’ll learn and set it spinning again!

    I really loved the bird illustration and the quote from ‘Aunt May’. We’ve found horsehair in nests around here (hair from our own pony), and when we trim our poodle we leave the trimmings out for the birds, though I’ve never seen them use it. Maybe it smells too doggy and scary? Also, this spring I noticed magpies pulling bits of fluff from our alpacas for their nests. No waiting around for fibres to fall off, when they’re needed urgently! The blog post you linked to made me think of Louise Erdrich in ‘Blue Jay’s Dance’ leaving out hairs from her daughters’ brushes and then finding them again months later, woven into nests.

    What interesting conversations you spark with your textile adventures! I loved reading all the comments above too.

    1. Dear Fiona, I can just imagine magpies being bold enough to take alpaca fibre whilst it is still on the animal! I had a bit of a squiz at Blue Jay’s Dance on Goodreads, it sounds beautiful and mirrors the experience Sally shared about her own hairbrush. Imagine finding your own children’s hair woven into nests which hatched the children of birds…there is such a humble, poetic connection to lives lived in this observation. You must have a sense of this, seeing hair from your pony in local nests. With such heritage and access to a wheel, I do encourage you to learn to spin, it can be yet another connection with the earth, beasties and others who have spun before us, a deepening of the whole experience of making. And if you do, please let us know how you go. Thank you for such a lovely contribution.

  9. A little brown wren is starting to build her nest in the potting shed. I think she gets in through a space between the rafters and the wobbly tin roof. I shall leave some crinkly Shetland bits around to see if she can use it. Of course the shed is now out-of-bounds for a while.

    I love everything about this post. Spinning, wool, small things … giving much pleasure.

    1. Dear Diana, of course, it is spring for you! How lovely to be able to see spring at work in this little wren nest. I wonder if she will use the wool? If you share the nest on Instagram, could you stick @rebeccaspindle in the description so I don’t miss it? Thank you for sharing your nest.

  10. I a birdsnest fell on my front balcony several months ago that had some coloured fleece in it – as I doubt any of my neighbours spin, that must have come from me! If you want to see it, I posted it on Instagram – @_indefinitearticle_

    My favourite prep tool is a metal dog comb – simple, and doesn’t scratch my knuckles like a flicker. I have all the fancy tools, but with a dog comb (used mostly like a flicker) I can spin woollen, worsted or somewhere in between 🙂

    1. Thank you Anne, I have looked at your nest on Instagram, wonderful image. thank you for the direction. I take your point about the flicker, I have had bloody knuckles many a time which is one reason why I like to work with a clean fleece rather than a dirty one! Simple tools are a marvel.

  11. Wool nests… Sound absolutely divine for me! I am glad you learned something new in the class and thank you for sharing it with us!

    1. Thanks Alina, spinning and knitting are one of those life long learning passions I reckon. We get a thirst for knowledge with them and seek it everywhere!

  12. I was putting leftovers from preparing fleece with my flick carder, out onto my garden, the idea being that the worms love it ( from one of the elderly ladies at the Ballarat Spinners and Weavers). And lots of it did disappear. I’ve since found out that worms are vegetarian and don’t eat fleece, but perhaps caterpillars do? So, i hope that the birds were using the scraps for their nests. I love this idea of a link that is historical between worsted spinners and birds and nests. I found a birds nest recently with bits of paper, lots of plastic, and what i could identify as a kit kat wrapper all wound into what looked like mud. I was amazed, grateful for the recycling, and also saddened to see so much plastic in the nest. Well, your blog post has inspired a new spring time ritual of leaving woolly left overs for the birds. Lovely, thoughtful, informative, blog post Rebecca!!! Thank you.

    1. Thank you Isabel. I don’t like the thought of my woolly mulch around the fruit trees feeding caterpillars! So I am definitely hoping the birds took it. Birds are so resourceful at nest building but I agree the level of plastic in the natural environment is deeply disturbing. Still, what an interesting historical artefact that nest is.

  13. And thank you for all of the worsted spinning information. You picked up a lot in class that i didn’t.

    1. No worries, although I think I may be a little over zealous in my note taking… I feel like I am receiving the wisdom of the stone tablets from the Mount!

  14. Oh this post made me envious – I would so love to go to a class to learn how to prepare worsted properly! I fear I am a real bodge – and I am also one of those people Susan would find most annoying because give me a fleece and I can’t resist playing and toying with it so it would not be suitable for her “lock” treatment. I spin woollen almost all of the time, and it is only recently that I have been spinning alpaca that I have wanted to explore worsted better in my attempts to get a lustrous yarn – and I am just not very good at it – I always sort of revert to woollen and fluffy. Very interesting to hear that in Australian most fleece is spun worsted. I would say the opposite is the case here – certainly most people spin woollen in my spinning group.

    1. Dear kaydeerouge, gosh aren’t we funny creatures of habit! To me the idea of learning to spin using the woollen method seems impossibly hard. I experienced actual fear of woollen draw…I was afraid to let go and let the twist come in by itself thinking that all control would be lost, the single would break or become crazy with twist. And how curious that in these days of youtube that we still have regional variations in spinning methods.

  15. I’m from a town in Norfolk, England called North Walsham which is just a few miles (cycling distance!) from the village of Worstead. Despite the slightly different spelling, Worstead has a textile heritage (it has a big church for a small village which is an indicator!) and I’m assured by the Worstead guild of SWD that there is a connection between the technique and the village. The village is most certainly pronounced with the ‘woo-stead’ version that you prefer!

    1. Dear Shiela, what an appropriate place for you as a spinner to live nearby to! Thank you so much for sharing this wee gem with us.

  16. What a interesting article. I’ve been part of a Guild of WSD pilot foundation certificate in the Uk. I would be interested to see and compare the questions/tasks you have been working. If possible, would it be possible to send, via e-mail, a copy ? I’m sure Sheila will pass on my e-mail address.

    1. Thanks for the enquiry Sandra. All the participants of the course agreed not to circulate the course materials in respect of the Guild’s intellectual property but I will try to put you in touch with the course conveners.

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