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Icelandic Wool Yarn

Grazia Morgano 1 February AS XLVIII
Abstract This project includes two hanks of Icelandic yarn, processed from raw fleece to yarn. The wool was combed using two types of combs—2pitch mini combs and single-pitch Viking combs. The yarn was worsted spun on a spindle comprised of a reproduction shaft made by Mistress Rhiannon y Bwa and a reproduction Hedeby stone whorl made by me. Documentation for the whorl is available, but Appendix C.3.2 explains how the whorl affects spinning. The two types of wool that seemed most appropriate for this project were Icelandic and Spælsau. Both are dual-coated breeds dating to the Viking Age. Icelandic has been an isolated breed since the Vikings took sheep with them to Iceland in the tenth century (Robson and Ekarius, 2011, p. 168). Spælsau is a breed particularly found in Denmark that dates back to the Viking Age and was used for making sails on Viking ships. It would be tempting to say Spælsau was not used because of recent inter-breeding with other breeds meant to “improve” the breed (make them larger to produce more meat) which means today’s sheep have lower quality wool (Robson and Ekarius, 2011, p. 325), but really Spælsau wool is not available for purchase anywhere I could find. Halfway through this project, someone mentioned having spun Spælsau before. When asked where she acquired it, the answer was that her Danish friends brought it in their suitcase on their last visit.


List of Figures 1 Creation 2 Conclusions A Northern European Wools B Wool Preparation B.1 Cleaning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . B.2 Combing and Carding . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . C Spinning C.1 Animal fibers . C.2 Flax . . . . . . C.3 Tools . . . . . . C.3.1 Spindles C.3.2 Physics . C.3.3 Spinning Bibliography 3 4 7 8 9 9 9 11 11 11 12 12 13 13 16

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List of Figures
1.1 Preparing wool for combing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a The first soak in soapy water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . b Wool, looking much cleaner . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . c Drying wool . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Combing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a Viking wool combs on the left, 2-pitch mini combs on the right . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . b Combed wool . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Spindle full of yarn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Left hank was combed on Viking combs; right hank was combed on mini combs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 4 4 4 5 5 5 6 6


1.3 1.4

B.1 Period depictions of textile production . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 a Weaving, spinning, and combing flax. MS Fr. 598, f. 70v, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; 15th c. France . . . 10 b Weaving, spinning, carding wool, and hackling flax. MS Royal 16 Gv, f. 56, British Library, London; 15th c. France . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 C.1 A group of virtuous women spinning, c1475, “City of God”; The Hague, MMW 10 A 11, fol. 69v . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 C.2 Woman spinning on the great or walking wheel. Luttrell Psalter, British Library, London; 14th c. England . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 C.3 Pieter Pietersz, c1570, “Man and Woman by the Spinning Wheel” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15

1. Creation
This yarn was produced from raw fleece purchased online, meaning the wool was dirty and full of vegetable matter (see Figure 1.1a). The first step was to wash the wool. This was done in a bath tub with Dawn detergent. The wool was soaked in soapy water three times, and then it was rinsed. The wool was then laid out to dry for a couple days. For information on how this was done in period, see section B.1.

(a) The first soak in soapy (b) Wool, water cleaner

looking much

(c) Drying wool Figure 1.1: Preparing wool for combing

Once the wool was dry, it was oiled with olive oil (lightly sprayed on) 4

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and combed with 2-pitch1 mini-combs. The question was raised of how much difference the combs used make, particularly with a dual-coated breed such as Icelandic (see Appendix A for more information). Accordingly, a set of Indigo Hound’s Viking wool combs were purchased. The mechanics of the combs are very different (see Figure 1.2a). The person who suggested trying Viking combs hypothesized that the Viking combs would allow more of the þel2 (pronounced “thel”) through into the combed wool.

(a) Viking wool combs on the left, 2-pitch mini combs on the right

(b) Combed wool

Figure 1.2: Combing

It actually turned out that I could pull more wool off the mini combs than I could from the Viking combs. I noticed that the somewhat matted parts of the þel were more quickly and easily separated by the mini combs, with their closely spaced tines, than by the Viking combs, with the wide apart tines. The Viking combs could hold far more wool than the mini combs, but overall combing did not go any faster with the Viking combs than the mini combs because trying to break up matting meant aiming a single tine of a comb to pass through the matted bit of wool, and passing that single lock back and forth until it separated, if it separated properly at all. As a result, even after doing far more combing with the Viking combs than the mini combs, a large handful of wool was left on the combs when the smoothly combed wool was drafted off. Finally, the wool was worsted (see Appendix C.1) spun on a reproduction spindle (see Figure 1.4). Z-twist was used because all threads documented by
1 2

2-pitch means 2 rows of tines soft, downy undercoat on dual-coat fleece

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Inga Hä gg in the Hedeby harbor find were either Z-twist singles or Z-twist with S-ply (Hägg and Schweppe, 1985, p. 254–255). The spindle shaft is an Anglo-Saxon spindle shaft made by Mistress Rhiannon y Bwa. The spindle whorl is a reproduction based on the whorls found at Hedeby, in Denmark. The whorl conforms to the physics of Hedeby’s whorls, having a moment of inertia of 24 (Verhecken, 2010, p. 259). For information on how the moment of inertia affects spinning yarn, see the appendix on spindle physics C.3.2.

Figure 1.3: Spindle full of yarn

The wool combed on the Viking combs was spun separately from that combed on the mini combs.

Figure 1.4: Left hank was combed on Viking combs; right hank was combed on mini combs

2. Conclusions
This was my first time spinning from a dual-coated fleece. With the way the wool pulls off the combs, the first fiber off is always tog, followed by þel. There is a transition point where some of each comes off the combs, but the spinning feels different depending on which fiber is predominant at the time. Tog has a long staple length—the length of each fiber—similar that found in the longwool family. Tog is smoother and has less grip, so it requires more twist to hold together. It is much more like spinning angora. Þel is finer and has more crimp, so spinning it is not unlike spinning merino. I have not spun with mohair before, but Deborah Robson compares compares tog to mohair (Robson and Ekarius, 2011, p. 168). I can understand this comparison given the halo surrounding the yarn. I did not notice a difference in the spinning experience between the wool combed with mini combs versus Viking combs, only a difference in the combing process itself and the amount of waste generated.


A. Northern European Wools
Northern European breeds such as Icelandic and Spælsau are dual-coat fleeces. Dual-coat fleeces are not homogenous. The short, soft undercoat is called þel (pronounced thel). The long, smooth layer is called tog. Icelandic sheep were taken to Iceland during the Viking period, where they have been an isolated landrace since the tenth century (Robson and Ekarius, 2011, p. 168). Spælsau are a breed found in Denmark dating to the Viking Age. Its wool was used in Viking ship sails. Similar to the Icelandic sheep, it is a dual-coated breed (Robson and Ekarius, 2011, p. 324–325).


B. Wool Preparation
B.1 Cleaning

Wool, fresh off the sheep, is full of “yolk,” a combination of grease (lanolin) and suint (sweat). There also tends to be bits of grass and other plant matter stuck in the fleece. It is possible to spin in the grease, but if there is too much yolk, the wool can clump up (Baines, c. 1977, p. 28). Ammonia has been a common cleaner for millenia, so it is no surprise that 18th century instructions for scouring a fleece call for urine as a source of ammonia in cleaning the wool (Baines, c. 1977, p. 30).


Combing and Carding

Oil would be added back to the wool once it was cleaned to make combing and spinning easier (Baines, c. 1977, p. 30). According to Robin Russo the oiling is to make the resulting combed top smoother and keep static from forming during the combing process (Russo, 2012). Butter, olive oil, and animal fat are all period lubricants for wool combing (Crowfoot et al., 2006, p. 15–16). Both combing and carding fibers were done in the Renaissance. Combing involves moving two combs with a row or several of long teeth against each other in perpendicular directions to transfer the fiber from one comb to the other. This can be seen in Figure B.1a on page 10. Combing would separate the longer fibers from the short ones, leaving little “tufts of fuzz.” The long combed fibers were pulled from the combs into a long “rope” of fiber called a sliver through a ring called a diz (Baines, c. 1977, p. 34). The long fibers could be spun as is, while the short ones would then be carded to prepare them for spinning. Carding involves scraping the short fibres with wire tools 9

Grazia Morgano (Hale, 1965, p. 79). Carding can be seen in Figure B.1b on page 10.


(a) Weaving, spinning, and combing flax. MS (b) Weaving, spinning, carding Fr. 598, f. 70v, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; wool, and hackling flax. MS Royal 15th c. France 16 Gv, f. 56, British Library, London; 15th c. France Figure B.1: Period depictions of textile production

C. Spinning
C.1 Animal fibers

There are two main ways to prepare and spin wool (or other animal fibers). Today, these are known as woolen and worsted. Worsted yarns are the result of combing the wool fibers so that they lay parallel with the short pieces removed. The fiber is then spun using short movements when drafting (separating the fibers), and pinching with the hand to prevent twist from entering the fiber supply. This is called short-draw (Franquemont, 2009). Woolen yarns are the result of carding the fibers, so they are untangled, but when the fiber is rolled off the cards into rolags they cease to be parallel (if they were to start with). Woolen spinning is done by getting a large amount of twist into the yarn nearest the spinning wheel then pulling the rolled up fibers out away from the wool in a long motion, so that the fibers are trapped in the twist in whatever position they happen to have been in the handful. They do not lie parallell, so the yarn produced is loftier. This is called the long-draw. There are intermediary stages depending on how much care is taken in each step, how much skill the spinner has, and exactly what result the spinner wants (Franquemont, 2009).



Flax is a baste fiber from the stalk of a flax plant. Flax fibers come in two forms: line and tow. Tow are the short leftover bits left after the line has been processed and is primarily used for applications such as rope. The long line strands, which are about as long as the plant’s stalk was when it was cut, are spun to make thread for weaving or sewing. Flax must be moistened to make the fibers stick together. Some people dip their hands in water, some 11

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lick the thread as it is being spun, and some have other liquids they use. Mistress Brienna Lindsay recommends using the water left from boiling flax seeds.



A spindle consists of a shaft and a whorl (weight). The whorl may be placed toward the top or the bottom of the shaft. A scrap of yarn known as a leader yarn is tied to the shaft, and the fiber to be spun is joined to the end of the leader. Some spindle shafts have hooked ends, while others are simply rounded off. Spindles may be used in several ways. They can be drop (or suspended) spindles, hanging from the yarn they are creating. They can be supported spindles, spinning on a table top or the ground. They can also be used in the hand, flicked to spin and immediately caught. In the case of a suspended spindle, a half hitch is used to secure the yarn and keep it from unwinding as it hangs. For supported or in-the-hand spindles, the yarn flicks off the tip of the shaft repeatedly as it builds up twist. Flax being spun on in-the-hand spindles is shown in Figure C.1.

Figure C.1: A group of virtuous women spinning, c1475, “City of God”; The Hague, MMW 10 A 11, fol. 69v

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The spindle whorl’s mass, width, and distance of the concentration of mass from the axis of rotation (the spindle shaft) all affect the process of spinning yarn. What they affect overall is the moment of inertia–the willingness of a rotational body to begin to rotate. This affects how much torque needs to be applied to start the spinning, how quickly it spins, and how long it will continue spinning. The moment of inertia and mass together affect the process of spinning. A lightweight spindle with high rotations per minute builds up twist quickly but loses momentum soon after. Lightweight spindles are usually cited as better for thinner yarns, but this is a matter of the thinnest yarns not having enough tensile strength to support a heavy spindle (Verhecken, 2010, p. 268)


Spinning Wheels

The first spinning wheels in Europe were spindle wheels, turned using one hand while the other performed a long-draw, creating woolen yarn. A drive band from the large wheel turns a spindle, and the yarn flicks off the end of the spindle as it turns. This can be seen in Figure C.2 on page 14, an excerpt from the Luttrell Psalter. The yarn would then be wound onto the wheel’s spindle manually, as with a drop spindle. Woolen yarns are weaker than worsted yarns due to their loftier shape and lower twist, so they were unsuitable for use as the warp thread on a loom and actually banned from use for warping in Speyer (Baines, c. 1977, p. 53). This weakness would also make them a poor choice for high-stress, high-wear articles of clothing such as stockings. Wheels capable of spinning long fibers were soon invented. These are sometimes called “linen wheels” or “flax wheels” and had a flyer mechanism to wind the yarn onto a bobbin as it was spun. The fact that the wheel wound the yarn itself meant the spinner did not need to stop their spinning to wind the yarn by hand (Baines, c. 1977, p. 69). By the middle of the 16th century, the use of linen wheel was widespread. A widow who died in 1585 is recorded to have owned “two woollen wheels, two linnen wheels and a little fine linnen wheel with frame for fringe” (Baines, c. 1977, p. 90). Modern spinning wheels continue to use the flyer/bobbin construction. Distaffs appear to have been used to hold wool (just like linen), allowing for a short draw from the distaff (Baines, c. 1977, p. 88). The timing of

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Figure C.2: Woman spinning on the great or walking wheel. Luttrell Psalter, British Library, London; 14th c. England

the addition of the foot treadle, freeing up both hands to draft the fibers with a short-draw, is unknown. Meister Jurgen Spinnrad was credited in the 18th century for introducing in the 1530s the version of the spinning wheel used in Brunswick, but it is unknown exactly which changes he made to spinning wheel construction. Some historians believe the foot treadle was his invention. The earliest illustration of a wheel being used without the hands turning the wheel is from 1604 in the Wolle spinnen am Handspinnrad (Baines, c. 1977, p. 91-92). Yarn is wound off of a spindle or bobbin onto a niddy noddy, a tool for making a large loop. Ties placed in a few locations around the loop make a convenient form in which to wash the yarn to set the twist. The use of a niddy noddy can be seen in Pieter Pietersz’s “Man and Woman by the Spinning Wheel” (Figure C.3 on page 15).

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Figure C.3: Pieter Pietersz, c1570, “Man and Woman by the Spinning Wheel”

Patricia Baines. Spinning Wheels: Spinners and Spinning. Robin and Russ Handweavers, c. 1977. E. Crowfoot, F. Pritchard, and K. Staniland. Textiles and Clothing, C.1150-c.1450. Medieval finds from excavations in London. Boydell, 2006. ISBN 9781843832393. URL CY-8T59wHHUC. Abby Franquemont. Drafting: the long and short of it. DVD, 2009. Inga Hägg and Helmut Schweppe. Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu, Bericht 20. K. Wachholtz, 1985. ISBN 0352919208. John Rigby Hale. Renaissance. Time, Inc., 1965. Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Storey, 2011. Robin Russo. Combing fiber. DVD, 2012. André Verhecken. The moment of inertia: a parameter for the functional classification of worldwide spindle-whorls from all periods. In NESAT X (Northern European Symposium on Archaeological Textiles 10), 2010.