We’ve all heard them: You have to turn the handle slowly or use a fur drum for fine fibers, carding fiber too many times create nepps and noils, and if you’re getting nepps and noils, it is definitely operator error. Let’s jump right into it by debunking one of the most persistent and complex myths.
Myth #1: When carding fine fibers, you must turn the handle slowly or dial the speed knob down.
This myth is rooted in the fact that occasionally, carding mill operators slow down the overall speed of their equipment to control static when carding fibers such as mohair and alpaca. In that case, we’re talking about slowing down a machine that is doing several hundred RPM. Most drum carders are slower by a whole order of magnitude. Our Elite Crankless, for instance, tops out at 100 RPM. At these relatively slower speeds, drum carders simply do not create the amount of static that a mill would encounter. Our testing has shown no difference in carding quality whether running an electric carder at full speed or glacially slow on our carders. For this reason, we decided against adding a speed control to our electric drum carders as it is an expense we felt we could not justify.
To understand why this myth persists, a little background info on carding cloth is needed.
Carding cloth is used in a myriad of industries; many of them are not even textile related, with scrubbing the inside of gas and oil pipelines (pictured above) one of the most obscure examples. It is made by drawing wire out to a desired length, clipping the wire, bending it into a staple, inserting the staple into a rubber and canvas backing, and repeating the process thousands upon thousands of times. Generic carding cloth is made in wide sheets with the clipped ends of each tooth of the staple left blunt and unsharpened, which is fine for many industries and works well for hand cards and blending boards. Carding cloth designed for a carding mill, however, is made in narrow strips called fillet, which is run past a surface grinder to eliminate the blunt, clipped ends found on generic sheet cloth. The extra steps needed to make this kind of carding cloth make it relatively expensive, which is why very few drum carder makers (only two that we know of, including us) use this mill-style cloth. If a drum carder maker doesn’t tell you that they use a mill-style cloth with sharpened teeth… odds are that they don’t.
Back to the myth at hand. The flat spots on the end of a clipped tooth tend to snag fibers as they transfer between the lickerin (infeed drum) and the swift (main drum) on a drum carder. When carding long, coarse fibers, there is enough friction holding the fibers back on the lickerin that they tend to be pulled down into the carding cloth and slip off these flat spots. With short, fine fibers, there is less friction holding the fiber back, so it is less likely that the snags will slip off the flat spot and be pulled into the carding cloth. This little snag on top of the tooth creates a noil. The theory is – though we haven’t found this to be the case in our own testing – that when using a carder built with generic carding cloth, by turning the handle as slowly as possible, you are giving the fiber the most time possible to slip off the flat spot and avoid creating a noil. Rather than go through all of this trouble, the solution is simply using mill-style carding cloth. Since each tooth is sharpened to a point, there is nowhere for the fiber to snag and create noils – fiber can either go to the left or to the right of each tooth. With no flat spots to snag fibers, there’s no need to turn the handle slowly or dial the speed down – fiber will slide past each tooth and down into the carding cloth without sitting on top and making noils out of your good fiber.
Myth #2: When carding fine fibers, you should use a “fur” drum or other high-density TPI (teeth per inch) carding cloth.
This myth stems from using generic rather than mill-style carding cloth and runs along the same lines of the turn-the-handle-slowly myth. The theory is that by decreasing the size of the wire used in the carding cloth, the area of the flat spot will be less. The problem with this theory is that with finer wire the TPI increases and consequently the total area of flat spots on a given drum actually increases exacerbating the problem. The other problem that occurs is that now there are so many teeth that there is almost no room for fiber on the drum – leading to minuscule batts – and, thanks to what we know from busting myth #1, more and more chances to create nepps and noils. Using mill-style carding cloth is again the solution, as a 72 TPI carding cloth with sharpened teeth can card fine fibers such as merino and rambouillet and even paco-vicuña and angora bunny without problems.
Myth #3: Creating nepps or noils on a drum carder is caused by operator error
One of the biggest frustrations we hear in our workshops is the trade-off between trying to get a batt that is carded well and one that isn’t full of noils. On many drum carders, each subsequent pass creates a batt that looks closer and closer to an art yarn preparation. If you’ve read this far, you know that switching to a carder with mill-style carding cloth will solve that problem.
There is one other thing to think about here: the fiber.
There are so many factors that can create weakness in a fleece – poor health, lambing, change in feed or minerals, drought, not changing a coat often enough – that we are always in awe of shepherds and shepherdesses who consistently produce quality fleece. The length and strength of one strand of fiber tells us the story of one year of that sheep’s life, just like looking at rings on a tree. If any of the aforementioned setbacks occur during the year, the fiber will mostly likely have a soft spot that will break, causing a noil when put through the carding process.
Testing your fiber by snapping it out between your hands is a necessary step to making sure the issues on your drum carder aren’t caused by a fleece that is weak or tender. To do this, hold each end of one lock of fiber in each hand, grabbing it between your thumb and index finger. Move your hands apart to snap out or straighten the fiber. If you end up holding two halves of the same lock, odds are you’ve got a tender fleece. Keep in mind that the finer the fiber, the less force it will take to tear apart as each individual strand is smaller. Pay particular attention to the tips, especially on lamb fleeces. Always test your fleece before buying, and if you’re having trouble carding a fleece – snap those fibers out and make sure that the problem isn’t the fiber, rather than the operator.