Tops and roving, batts and blends, carded rolags and silk noil – it’s enough to make you weep. As a new felter, it all seemed needlessly complicated and has led me to devote a great deal of my time studying different types of sheep. Long story short, I’m not welcome on the farm anymore.
The thing is, it’s not all that complicated when you get down to it. Wool, or fibre (as is the preferred term) can come from a variety of animals – sheep, angora goats (this is mohair, by the way), and alpacas are the most common providers of fibres, but fibres can also come from camels, yaks, angora rabbits, dogs, cats, sleeping husbands etc, as well as plant material and synthetic sources. Each of these fibres has their own properties – for example, alpaca is notoriously slippery to work with but produces exquisite results, whilst the properties of sheep wool varies greatly depending on the breed of sheep. To have a look at the different fibres produced by different breeds or species check out my Wool Review for advice on different kinds of wool.
Fibre type aside, the other thing that tends to trip novice felters up is preparation style. When you read things like ‘tops’, ‘carded batts’ and ‘roving’ these all refer to the way in which the fibres are prepared, and this is just as important as the animal it came from. So let’s take a closer look at the different preparation styles most commonly used in needle felting.
Wool tops are brushed ropes of fibre about as thick as an average wrist, and are used in all aspects of needle felting. In ‘true tops’ the fibres all flow in the same direction; ‘commercial tops’ are much the same but with a tendency for the fibres to be slightly more dishevelled and non-uniform in direction.
Tops are versatile, and possibly the most commonly sold presentation style of fibres for needle felting. They can be used as core wool, top colour, and both long or short hair (although not all breeds of sheep will produce wool that is fit for each of these purposes.)
To use wool tops gently pull the fibres apart – too much force will cause the fibres to lock into place and be very difficult to pull apart, whereas pulling them gently will allow you greater control in how much is separated from the main rope.
It is common to find people using the term roving when what they really mean is ‘tops’. Whilst roving is similar to tops (it typically comes in a rope and, at first glance, appears to be the same) there are marked differences. Roving tends to a thinner, less full feeling rope and, most importantly, is loosely carded, meaning the fibres don’t all flow the same direction. This often makes the fibres feel rougher and more matted, and they will often look a little scruffier, with bobbles and even vegetable matter mixed in with the fibres.
Viewing the fibres up close reveals that they are, in fact, carded – they are also handed to separate into smaller sections than tops.
You can work roving in much the same way as tops, although there are some things to remember:
- Roving forms a stronger rope than tops – not really an issue, but don’t panic if you find it harder to separate the fibres.
- Due to its matted nature it’s harder to separate into small, neat sections than tops. You are also more likely to find rogue lumps, bumps and bobbles in the fibre, and more vegetable matter too!
- Roving doesn’t make suitable hair or fur (unless you’re going for a fuller-bodied, more matted look)
This is the one that really trips people up.
Carded wool is wool that is prepared so that the fibres flow in every direction. Carded batts are prepared on a tool called a drum carder and typically produce large, thin sheets that are then typically rolled or folded into a more manageable size (see image below). Rolags are small sections of carded fibres that have been prepared on hand carders (and can even be done at home using a pair of rectangular, flat dog brushes).
With carded batts you tend to find that you can either pull off a thick section for heavy colour coverage, or thinner layers for gently blending different colours (although very thin layers can end up looking patchy.)
Most commercial carded wool is sold in batts. It is also worth noting that it is possible to buy carded core wool.
A close up of the wool shows how the fibres interlock and have been brushed in multiple directions.
The benefits of carded fibres are:
- Easy to control colour distribution.
- Easy to layer up the top colour gradually.
- Easier to work with as a top-colour.
- Easier to produce a very neat, fuzz-free finish in comparison to tops or roving.
Core wools can be any type of wool, but are typically either carded batts or, more commonly, tops. Whilst any wool can theoretically be used for building a core there are certain fibres that are very well suited to the task and I would strongly advise anyone starting out to avoid using merino or alpaca as a core wool until they have the experience behind them to start experimenting with form and technique.
Most people use core wool in its natural colour – white, fawn, grey, brown or black being the most common – largely because of cost purposes (undyed fibres are typically less expensive than their dyed counterparts).
For more information about core wool click here.
Raw wool is raw wool, and don’t say this site very taught you anything!
Raw wool can actually vary by definition depending on seller, so it’s always worth seeking clarification if you’re unsure. It can mean anything from wool that has literally just come off the animal and has otherwise been left unprocessed to wool that has been washed or even dyed, but not brushed. Even washed raw wool will still contain some dirt and vegetable matter as much of this is removed during the brushing/ carding process.
Blended fibres can often look like works of art themselves, and refer to a mixture of different colours or types of fibres to create something unique.Merino is often used as a base for blends, due to its softness and ability to take on colours well – merino is challenging to felt with yet is known for its soft texture, so is often blended with a sturdier fibre for ease of purpose whilst still maintaining its soft texture.
Locks are naturally curly sections of wool, frequently from Wensleydale sheep or Angora goats, and are very useful to create hair or woolly-effect fur. Locks can be pricey and you may be frustrated to find they often contain a fair amount of vegetable matter and tangled clumps that can be hard to remove (however, even the tangled lumps can be put to good use.)
Synthetic fibres such as Angelina fibres can be used to jazz up your work with a glittery effect, and comes in a variety of colours. However, it needs to be carded into existing fibre before you apply it as it does not felt well on its own.
Noil is produced from fibre wastage, usually from silk production, and often is sold in squares like a handkerchief. It’s difficult to work with but can be used to add some interesting texture (although in my experience it snags on every tiny snag on your hands until you’re obsessively slathering hand cream onto them 8 times an hour).