The Woolshed Diaries: Working With Our Wool pickers

Up at the woolshed, the wind has little to encumber it on its journey across the wide-open green spaces of the Wye countryside. In the winter the atmosphere can be dramatic, with winds howling around the building and whistling through any tiny gap in the structure. In summer though, the open setting and shady cover of our large workspace is a blessed relief.

This is no small thing as much of the work we do when we process wool involves a lot of movement. This is especially true of wool-picking. Our two large wool pickers are often the first bit of kit our volunteers get to know. They have a duel function; to open up the washed and dried wool ready to feed into our carders, and to remove any dust or vegetable matter remaining after sorting and washing.

Fleece before picking
Fleece after picking

Wool Pickers are operated by moving the hinged swing back and forth while feeding wool through. The motion of the spiked swing combs through the wool and pushes it out the other side in fluffy, cloud-like piles. As the wool opens up, any particles of grass or dirt fall out to be hoovered up later.

The rhythmic, rocking work has a hypnotic quality to it. The back and forth motion suggests the pace of rowing, a sea-shanty beat on a sea of fleece. It is an opportunity to discover the fleece handful by handful. It is the first stage where the qualities of the finished product begin to suggest themselves. With the lanolin washed away I find myself making predictions about how it will work up. Does it fly though easily, betraying a silky quality which will require more work at the felting machine? Silky, bouncy fleece makes beautiful fabric but resists felting.  Does it need a bit more encouragement to move through the picker? Wool which felts a little in the washing stage is eager to cling to itself but may need an extra pass at the carders to get a smooth batt.

A volunteer operating the Wool Picker

Our washing methods do not strip the fleece into sterility, it retains its softness and a mild, pleasant sheepy smell that always calms me. Combined with the cradle-rock of the wool picker, it is a job that gives me space to daydream. This is a process that harks back to days past. In larger mills, machines have taken over this job but I am always grateful for the opportunity to spend this hands-on time with wood and wool; the historic cornerstones of civilisation.

Though the process is a gentle one (too much force can lead to ripped fibres) the spiked teeth of the pickers require a level of caution and respect. Leather gloves need to be worn at all times. So many of the processes for wool involve spikes; the tines of wool combs, the thinner spines of carders, the sharp, ridged needles of felters. It is as if something so soft requires its opposite to balance and shape it into its full potential. While I am working at the wool pickers, I think about this a lot. It is often this way in life. 

Each stage of working with wool seems to have something of value to teach beyond the physical skill; Patience, inner quiet, insight. This is what brings us so much joy in working with natural materials here at the Woolshed. 

Wool needs steel to strengthen it's softness

If you want to hear more from us at the woolshed, you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram.

Jade is one of our resident fibre artists and she writes the Spinning Earth Wool Blog. You can find out more about her on her own page, Jade Threads

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.