Spinning Basics: Fiber Terminology

When getting started with spinning, there can be a lot of new and interesting words thrown around. What’s the difference between fleece, roving and top? There are lots of specialized words to describe spinning fiber characteristics, styles of spinning and more. We’ve already covered the names for the parts of the spinning wheel, so here’s an overview of some other important fiber terminology to learn as you increase your spinning knowledge.


Describing fibers for spinning

Spinning fiber is a catchall term for all plant or animal materials that can be spun unto yarn. It can include natural materials like wool, angora, cotton and flax, but also synthetics such as nylon and tencel that have been prepared for hand spinning. A fiber also refers to an individual strand, like a strand of hair.

A fleece generally refers to the sheared coat of a fiber animal, such as sheep, alpaca or goat. Fleece can also be used as a generic term that refers to any kind of animal fiber that is prepared for hand spinning, and can cover a range of unprocessed or prepared fibers.

wool locks

Lamb wool locks via Craftsy member Softwaremom 

A lock or staple is a small bundle or clump of fibers, pulled from a fleece. The staple length can vary greatly, depending on the fiber. Cotton has a very short staple length of about an inch, while wool might have a staple length of up to 6-8 inches. Knowing the staple length of your fiber is useful in determining how you might spin it up, and how to hold your hands for drafting — longer staple lengths require you to hold your hands further apart in order to draft.

In wool, the individual fibers have a characteristic crimp or waviness that ranges from tight to loose, depending on the sheep breed. Finer wools such as merino are very crimpy, with tight waves, while coarser breeds such as Lincoln have thicker individual fibers and a looser crimp. The crimp of wool provides elasticity and bounce to the fibers, allowing them to return to shape when stretched. Wool also has a unique cuticle, overlapping scales on the individual fibers that “stick” the fibers together when spinning, and allows wool to felt.

dyed spinning fiber

Photo via Laura Chau

Spinning fiber preparations

Once a fleece has been shorn from the sheep (or other animal), it’s skirted (picked over) to remove the dirtiest and less desirable sections. Then the fleece is washed in hot water and soap, removing the lanolin (oily coating on wool), dirt and icky bits. Once washed, the wool can be spun directly from the lock, or prepared by carding or combing. Fiber can be dyed at any stage in the process.

hand cards and spindles
Carding is a type of woolen preparation, where air is introduced between the fibers and can be trapped as you spin, resulting in a loftier yarn. Hand carders (shown above) look a bit like hair brushes, and consist of two wooden paddles with sheets of fine metal teeth that brush out the fibers. Carded fibers are generally shorter, with longer and shorter fibers mixed together, and not completely smooth and even. Rolags are small rolls of fiber that are prepared on handcards, while a batt is a rectangle of fibers that has been pulled off a drum carder. Sliver (sly-ver) is carded fiber that has been pulled off into a long strand, and roving is sliver with a little twist added. Roving is also used generically to refer to all prepared, ready-to-spin fiber.

mini combs

Photo via Louet

Combing, on the other hand, is a worsted preparation in which the shorter fibers have been removed, and the longer fibers are all lined up evenly and parallel. Wool combs (shown above) have a single or double row of long, sharp metal teeth that comb out the fibers in one direction. Combed top is very smooth and denser than carded fiber, and can be spun into yarn that is smooth and durable. Carding and combing techniques can also be used to mix different colors and fibers together to create unique blends.

When you first start spinning (or even when you’ve been doing it for awhile), it can be confusing to pick up all the new words. I hope this overview of spinning fiber characteristics and terms helps clarify some of them!

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