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.
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.
I 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.
We 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.
I 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.
I 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.
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.