Updated: May 4, 2020
What is the difference between core wool, carded wool, batts, slivers and roving/tops and why it matters to choose the right process for your project.
There are many different ways that raw fleece is processed into the wool we recognise and when you start needle felting it is so easy to choose the wrong wool type or buy some random wool online without really understanding what it is you are buying. This can lead to disappointment as you struggle to make a 3d shape, needling away and not really getting anywhere or just believing that needle felting is difficult and giving up.
Being informed about what wool to buy to achieve the desired result you want makes all the difference. If you want to avoid making frustrating and expensive purchase errors, read on.
In this post I am talking about the wool process and how this in turn affects the different types of wool you can buy.
So let's start at the beginning and introduce Mavis.
Mavis is a Corridale breed of sheep. She has just been sheared and her fleece is full of oil, lanolin, vegetable matter, dirt, sweat and poop (sorry Mavis)
Her fleece is laid out and ‘skirted’, so all the yukky bits are removed, and the soft and coarse fibres are separated, and then the shorter and longer fibres are separated too. These fibres are processed differently.
Washing and Scouring
Before anything can be done with the fleece, the grease must be removed from the wool. This can be done using detergent and a lot of water or it can be done by submerging the wool in an acid bath which dissolves vegetable matter along with the grease (this process is called scouring). I washed some fleece at home, it was time consuming but good fun! The first photo is the raw fleece, the second is the detergent bath and clean water for rinsing, and the third photo is the washed and dried fleece. The washed and dried fleece is now 'core wool'. You can hand card it to seperate and sort it or just use it as it is. It is rather lumpy though but inexpensive to buy.
The next stage is called Picking, and this is where the washed and dried wool is "teased" or "picked" which opens the fleece and turns it into a consistent web.
Carding the wool
The shorter wool fibres are carded. This can be done at home with small hand carders (dog brushes work well for this) or a home drum carder. The first photo shows some hand carders that I used on the fleece I'd washed and dried. The second photo is a hand turned drum carder, great for blending and sorting larger amounts of wool.
In wool mills they use huge mechanical drum rollers which have carding cloth on them. The carding cloth is what you can see on the home drum carder and hand carders above (those spiny teeth).
The carding cloth combs the wool many times by transferring it back and forth from one drum to the other producing a wool web with the fibres coming off in random alignment. These webs are layered on top of each other to produce a batt, which is where the name ‘carded batts’ come from. The batt can then be condensed into a continuous untwisted strand of fibres which is what we know as a 'carded sliver'. Carded wool has short randomly aligned fibres which are super easy to felt as they are already naturally meshed together.
Combing is where the fibres are passed through a series of rotating straight, metal teeth in order to lay the fibres parallel to one another. Combing the fibres removes the shorter fibres. The long fibres in the 'top' it produces, have been straightened and lie parallel to each other and are what you recognise as 'roving'.
In general, combed fibres are cleaner, finer, stronger, and more lustrous than carded ones which tend to be fuzzier and more meshed (but easier to use needlefelt with).
You can see from the photos above that the carded wool in the first picture has fuzzy meshed shorter fibres and the combed wool on the pink background has long fibres all laying in the same direction.
So what does this all mean to the needle felter?
Choosing between carded batts/slivers and combed tops/roving makes a difference depending on what you are trying to achieve. If you are a beginner to needle felting, I always highly recommend you start with carded wool.
The carded wool is already meshed together and readily felts up (use a 36 or 38 gauge needle for best results). You can break smaller pieces off the batt quite easily and build up your shape. It is also great for hand carding as the fibres are quite short so you can mix colours with minimal effort. It is not good for adding a fur effect though. If you are making a long-haired dog for example, carded wool does not lend itself at all well to achieving a nice smooth natural looking fur effect. The fibres are too short and fuzzy and bulk out your dog's body. However, if you are making the same dog and want a smooth, flat finish then carded batts are great as you can really build up thin layers and add depth of colour quite easily. This is why they are great for 'painting with wool' 2d projects.
Combed wool in the form of roving/tops are good for adding fur effects if you choose the right breed of sheep! Merino is perfect for this as the fibre is silky and fine so does not add bulk. Roving’s are also great for wet felting (as are batts).
So now you know what happens to a dirty unwashed fleece like Mavis's and it's journey through the sorting and washing process to the carding and combing process, so it arrives all neatly presented ready for you to make a super duper project with. And now you also know which process to choose for whatever it is you are making so you can achieve the best results!
So why not try out both for yourself? Make a project using roving and then batts and feel the difference first hand. I am confident you will see a huge difference between the two and find the batts a lot easier to needle felt with.
Let me know in the comments how your experiment went!
If you'd like more useful hints and tips like this, just sign up to my newsletter and receive these tips straight to your inbox. And don't forget, if you are looking for carded wool and felting tutorials, head over to my website at www.thewoollyrabbit.co.uk
Who am I?
I’m Elaine, and I started The Woolly Rabbit to help, inspire and encourage others to learn the relaxing and rewarding skill of needle felting.
Starting with needle felting workshops in 2018, I began to design needle felting kits and quickly grew an online shop selling felting wool, needles and other needle felting bits and bobs,
There are helpful videos and free tutorials available on my YouTube channel and a blog that answers commonly asked questions. I hope you enjoy following the video tutorials and maybe even join me in a workshop someday. In the meantime, enjoy your felting, enjoy the process, experiment and try not to stab your fingers!