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How Wool Becomes Yarn: From Baa Baa to Bobbin
Before it becomes yarn, wool undergoes a long journey from the farm to the spinning wheel. Learn what goes into your favorite sweater besides hard work with Groupon’s overview of the 5,000-year-old process.
Though yarn can made from anything from plant fibers to wholly synthetic materials, the traditional source for the soft, fluffy fiber is sheep’s wool. In a process that dates back thousands of years, wool undergoes a series of steps as it evolves from the muddy coat of a grazing sheep into to a skein of clean yarn dyed in any color imaginable.
First, farmers must harvest the wool directly from sheep by shearing their coats. This happens once a year, typically in early spring, and results in a heavy, greasy raw material known as fleece. Several undesirable materials—from vegetable matter and natural oils to bits of manure—initially contaminate the fleece and weigh it down, so it must be thoroughly washed or scoured in an acid bath before the wool can begin the process of becoming yarn.
Once the wool is clean and dry, a tool called a picker teases the locks, shaping them into a thin, wispy web. Part of wool’s resilience comes from the shape of its fibers, which naturally hold together thanks to microscopic hooks, and these hooks help keep the wool together as workers or machines comb it through with rough brushes known as cards. Finally, the neat, untangled strips—technically called rovings—are ready for the spinning wheel. The method of spinning determines the thickness and texture of the resulting yarn, but the basic result is the same: twisted together, the wool fibers become a strong, versatile material that can stand up to all kinds of wear and tear, from frequent washings to endless tugs toward Grandma’s kisses.
Humans spun wool into yarn as early as 10,000 years ago, when they’d twist bunches of wool fiber together bit by bit with their fingers, but spinning tools weren’t too far behind. Handheld spindles have even been found in excavations of sites dating back 4,000 years, and the spinning wheel probably originated in India as early as 500 AD. Either way, though today’s spinning mills often use large-capacity machinery for spinning, many spinners and craftspeople still use the same low-tech options that have been making yarn for thousands of years.