April 11, 2021
You’ve Got This
Adventures in learning to operate a wool mill
By: Peggy Allen
When we bought the mill from the previous owner, he gave us great hands-on lessons and assured us that the equipment was not difficult to master. And in hindsight he was right. We’re up and running, making really gorgeous fiber products from raw wool. But I’m not young and mastering a brand new field was a personal challenge for me.
For four weeks this old dog tried to learn new tricks by making every mistake in the book while figuring out how to operate the mill’s heavy, delicate, precision machinery. It was exhausting, sometimes highly annoying and occasionally downright mentally crippling. Roving twisted tight on a shaft in the pin drafter. Forgot to put the two-ply yarn behind the roller — rope anyone? Started to make a single with the machine set on ply. Let the vacuum nozzles shift too close to the front roller bar and fought with a triple beam balance scale that nearly beat me until Amanda kindly pointed out a solution. Not only did I manage to find new mistakes to make on a daily basis, correcting the mistakes was a bitch. How to remove embedded roving from an overhead roll bar and it's bicycle chain? It involves a box cutter, a steady hand, and patience. Card a fleece that’s not really as clean as you thought? Stop carding it and run clean, store-bought wool through the carder to pick up the trash.
I thought I’d find small mistakes to make and promise not to make them again. Wrong. Sometimes it took three times to make the same mistake before the lesson sunk in. And sometimes the mistake wasn’t small.
But here’s the thing: in fact I learned. Repetition helps. Repetition tamps down fear of breaking something. Repetition builds muscle memory. When I first tried to thread the spinner with the spindle whipping around in a blur, I was terrified. Today? No problem. And if the yarn snaps, I know exactly what to do.
The pin drafter was built in the forties and modernized in the last decade. There are a zillion parts all being oiled constantly. And to make it work in unison with the can coiler takes skill any bad ballet instructor could teach. Leap here, leap back, turn up the speed, no wait, turn down the speed, leap here again. It’s a one person job, but when we both started one was calling “faster” to the other manning the dials, while trying to pick up the fresh pin drafted wool that was flying out of the machine and gently but swiftly trying to move it to the can coiler before the wool discharging from the pin drafter hit the floor. “Slow down! Slow down!” This is a job best done by one and only by rehearsing the dance between the coiler, the pin drafter, and the dials, the can. And as they say, the show goes on.
I have picked, carded, twice pin drafted, and spun the first run of my sheep’s wool. Soup to nuts. Start to finish. Over 20 pounds of gorgeous, springy Corriedale yarn is being rinsed, dried, and twisted into hanks. I am beyond thrilled and proud of the results.
I didn’t break the equipment and more importantly, the equipment didn’t break me. Along with my partner, I am a wool mill operator, turning raw fleece into fiber products that will, hopefully, honor the animal and the farmer and enthrall the creative fiber talents of hand spinners, knitters and other crafters who love wool.