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When I was new to spinning yarn I had no idea what the difference was between a batt, roving, or a rollag – all I knew is a very sweet lady at a Colonial festival taught me to card fiber and spin with a drop spindle and I was instantly hooked!
While she gave me a very nice bag of wool to start with (and I was so grateful for!) – It wasn’t before long that I definitely needed to buy some and it was pretty confusing and overwhelming as a new spinner.
So, in today’s post I will cover all the many different ways fiber is prepared and sold. There’s no one that is better than any other and often times it just comes down to your personal preference and the type of fiber you want to spin!
This article is going to focus mostly on fiber preparations for wool from sheep, goats, and angora rabbits – we’ll get into cotton, linen, and synthetic fibers in a different post since they are all sourced and processed differently.
Raw Wool: Starting With the Fleece
When a sheep is shorn, the fleece is the raw wool that is shaved off. While technically you could spin this wool straight off the sheep if you wanted, you probably won’t want to at all, because it’s usually pretty nasty!
So, if you are buying fleece, you are buying it in its raw state – basically just as you would get it before any of it is prepared for spinning. While it’s very economical this way, it’s also a LOT of work to get it ready for spinning!
It’s also kind of messy work. If you consider that sheep live outdoors and don’t exactly have a natural way to groom themselves like an undomesticated animal like a tiger would, you can expect the fleece to be kind of nasty.
It will be naturally greasy – this is the sheep’s natural lanolin oils – but it will also have what is known as vegetable matter (leaves, grass, bits from the sheep’s leftover lunch) as well soiled and very dirty areas.
In general, you probably won’t want to buy any kind of raw fleece when you are a new spinner – at the very least, if you want to practice preparing your own fibers, you will want to get a washed and skirted fleece.
Washed and skirted fleece may still have some imperfections such as small bits of leaves and grass, but it won’t be greasy or nearly as dirty to handle.
After fleece is washed and skirted, you are then ready to get onto the different fiber preparations for wool – which is how you are probably going to want to buy it as a new spinner, especially since it makes learning to spin a lot easier!
After the wool is all washed up + easier to handle, the next step for processing it is to either comb or card it, which really all comes to to the kind of yarn you want to spin. Let’s talk about these!
Combed Top Fiber Preparations
Combed fiber is exactly what it sounds like – it is fiber that has been combed just like you would comb the hair on your head so all your hairs go in one straight direction.
Sheep definitely have a terrible case of bed-head, and so combing these fibers will help get everything nice and neat and tidy.
Any kind of combed fiber preparation is typically called combed top, although you may occasionally see combed roving used when buying online.
True roving is typically carded – and so the way to tell the difference on whether roving has been combed or carded is that combed is sleek and uniform and not very puffy. Carded roving is going to be much more fluffier, as the fibers there do not all go in the same direction!
How Wool is Combed for Spinning
Combing wool is done with these terrifyingly long claw shaped combs with metal spikes. They are definitely scary and intimidating but they do produce some wonderful results and actually can be learned to use quite easily once you overcome the initial fear of something that looks like a medieval torture device.
Many people who raise sheep for wool will send their raw fleeces to be processed by yarn manufacturers, who can turn a big old lump of tangled wool into beautifully combed top much more efficiently and economically with commercial grade machinery.
While combed roving is great, you will want to think about what kind of yarn you plan on making. If you want a strong, durable, yarn (known as worsted) – combed roving will give you the effect you want. However, sometimes you want a nice light and fluffy fiber to make woolen yarn, and this is when you are going to want to get into the carded fiber preparations.
Not sure whether you want woolen or worsted yarn? See our related post: What’s the difference between worsted vs. woolen?
Carded Wool Preparations
Now we are ready to talk about carded wool preparations. Carded wool simply means it is brushed rather than combed. The fibers can do in all kinds of different directions and it typically is used to produce a softer and fluffier yarn.
If you are making a woolen yarn, you’ll definitely want to use carded wool!
While with combed fibers we generally only have “top”, there are actually a LOT of different ways to get your carded fibers.
Roving is one very long continuous piece of carded wool that is usually around 1-2 inches thick. It can easily be broken into pieces as well as thinner sections of roving.
If you see roving that is less than a half inch thick, this is called pencil roving and is probably the easiest thing to spin as a beginner because you won’t have to think too much about drafting.
Wool Batts are usually made on a drum carder or made by hand blending + brushing the wool on a blending board.
I love spinning from batts and especially art yarn wool batts!
This is actually the first type of carded wool I learned to make and use when I first started spinning years ago. To make a rollag, wool fibers are brushed together with hand carders. Once all brushed, you pull the wool off the brush into a little “roll” that you can spin from.
These are great to use if you don’t have expensive equipment or are using a blend of different fibers!
It doesn’t have to be confusing when it comes to deciding between what type of wool you need or want – hopefully this will help you + feel free to ask any questions you might have below!