January 22, 2015


One of our expressed goals here at Windward is to be able to find sustainable ways to house and clothe a village of 20 people off of 100 acres of marginal land. To accomplish this, we need to be able to construct large pieces of cloth. One way to do this is through processing wool.

Wool has many benefits. While it is thick and warm, it is also relatively cheap and easy to produce on marginal land. Sheep are great foragers and can feed themselves off of the land for most of the year. Wool is also water-proof. Sheep's wool has an oil called lanolin coating it which helps sheep to stay dry and thus us to stay dry while wearing wool.

Me using a drop spindle to spin yarn

There are two main methods used to craft large scale wool cloth. The first is to spin the wool into yarn, weave it, and, depending on the thickness you desire, felt the woven cloth, essentially creating full cloth. The second method skips the spinning and weaving to proceed immediately to felting. While the fullcloth method creates a more flexible final product, simply felting is, in my opinion, at least 10x faster.

Wool is made up of little scaled fibers. The process of felting opens up these scales, allowing them to hook to each other. When agitation is applied, the fibers entangle to make felt.

For the past few weeks I have been experimenting with large-scale felting projects. I plan to use these first felts for winterizing our living spaces. I started with small tests and proceeded to larger and more complex projects. Here I will lay out the entire process I have been using - from washing the wool to a completed felt cloth.

Washing and Drying Raw Wool

A note on when washing is necessary:

Felting is an ancient art. Traditional felting is still practiced in Mongolia. There they use their felt for clothing and covering their yurts. Depending on the usage, the Mongolians may or may not wash the wool first. Since wool comes off of a sheep often clumped together with vegetable matter and feces entangled, it is best to wash it before using it for clothing, bedding, or anywhere else where bugs may be a problem. However, if you choose to use your felted cloth for shelter there is little need for it to be washed.

BUT if you wash your wool too thoroughly the lanolin will be withdrawn and you will have a more difficult time felting as well as a less water-proof product.

At Windward we begin with raw wool (wool untouched since it was sheered from the sheep). The method I have used is outlined thoroughly in Opalyn's article. Andrew has also experimented with less energy intensive methods less energy intensive methods. Make sure not to felt the wool in the process of washing. Since felting requires agitation as well as hot soapy water, if you don't handle the wool much you should be fine.

Left: raw wool Right: cleaned wool using Opalyn's method

Felting and Carding

Once I have my clean dry wool it is time to pick and card in order to get more vegetable matter out of the wool and untangle it so that all of the fibers are going the same direction. Picking is not necessary but does make the carding process easier.

In order to card wool, the fibers need to not be clumped together. A picker is a device that quickly separates the locks and fluffs up the wool while allowing large vegetable matter to drop away. If you choose to not use a picker, you can do this with your hands.

Picker (left) and hand drum carder (right)

Next up is the carding, a process that combs the fibers into separate strands going the same direction. There are two different tools used for carding:

1. Hand carders card wool in small batches. They are portable, cheap(ish), and great for making rollags for spinning.

2. Drum carders are used to make "bats" of wool. They come in many different sizes as well as electric and nonelectric. Drum carders are expensive but much less labor intensive. After attempting to hand card enough wool for a 2'x1' piece of felt I decided it was necessary to use the drum carder. Ours is hand cranked and not in tip-top shape but it definitely does the job.

Windward is currently working on a drum carder powered by a stationary bicycle.

Me on the cyclo-carder

Picked wool (left) and a blended drum carded wool bat (right)

Prep Materials

After the wool is carded it is time to gather materials...