Archive | November, 2011

Textile Processes – Wool

22 Nov

There are a lot of different processes involved in creating a finished product, such as an article of clothing, from wool that’s still riding round on a sheep’s back. All of these steps have been automated in various ways during the industrial revolution, and various tools and techniques have been tried. Many of them are opportunities for small scale crafters to create unique and creative products, but also, many of these steps can be drudgery if carried out in large volumes without machinery.

So, lets dive into the main areas of wool processing to make fabric, and perhaps you’ll see some areas in need of open source technology.

1. Shearing: While electric shears are certainly faster than hand shears, sheep shearing remains a highly skilled trade which can probably not be any further automated.

2. Grading: Even within a given fleece there are a areas of fibre with different characteristics. The fleece is graded based on staple length, fibre thickness, crimp pattern and lustre.

3. Picking: Large contaminants are removed from the fleece, possibly by hand.

4. Scouring: A collection of fleece (presumably of a given grade), is usually washed to remove the oily lanolin and the dirt and smaller contaminants trapped on the fleece. Some hand spinners do not was the fleece until after spinning, as the lanolin is an effective lubricant for spinning, but this is not a common approach in mechanised processes. The fleece must be scoured prior to dying, and if it is not scoured prior to spinning, then some of the contaminants may not be removeable later. The tricky bit about scouring wool is that warm water, soap and agitation will turn the wool into felt, and it wont be spinnable. Instead, scouring is usually performed with soaking only, and minimal to no agitation.

5a. Carding: Carding is the process of breaking up the lumpy structure of the pile of fleece and mostly aligning the fibres. By hand it is done with two wooden cards covered in small wire bristles. The mechanical process involves the drum carder, which has the same bristles mounted on rotating drums.

5b. Combing: While carding gets the fibres roughly aligned, it introduces a lot of air in doing so. Carded and spun fibre creates what is called a “woolen” yarn (even if not made from wool), whereas combing the fibre with large combs until the fibres are more precisely parallel and more closely packed together produces a “worsted” yarn, which is less insulating, but stronger and shinier. Neither is better, but they have different uses.

6. Preparing the Sliver: The carded or combed fibre might need some preparation to arrange it into a long sliver of fibres ready for spinning.

7. Spinning: Spinning is really two operations. First, the sliver is drawn out (drafted) into a longer thinner sliver, sometimes so thin that it would break if it was handled in this condition, and then it is twisted. This creates a single ply yarn. In hand spinning, the drafting is done with the hands as the fibre is fed into the spinning wheel. When done by machine, rollers moving at different speeds are used to draft the fibre before it is spin mechanically.

8. Dyeing: Although listed here, dying can be done at almost any stage of the process, providing the wool is not covered in lanolin. Dyeing before spinning has advantages in that different coloured fibers can be combined to interesting effect. Dying the spun yarn is a common approach in commercial fibre processing, however.

9a. Knitting: Both woolen and worsted yarns have uses in hand knitting applications, however many fabrics we use are also knitted (by machine). Knitting gives good stretch, and when done by machine is perhaps more efficient on a small scale than weaving cloth, as the complexities of warping are avoided. Most T-shirts, for example, are knitted fabric. The downside of knitted fabric is that it can pull apart if a single end becomes loose.

9b. Weaving: Weaving yarn into cloth is itself a complex trade with several processes which use unique tools. Different levels of technology and complexity are available for different scales of production, from kitchen table to cottage industry, and right through to industrial weaving mills.

10 Fulling: Newly created cloth typically needs some further washing and preparation so that shrinkage can be managed, and also so that any movement of the fibres occurs in a predictable way. For many types of cloth, it is desirable for the fibres to felt together ever so slightly, caused by some water and agitation, in order to visually blend the individual yarns together and create a warmer fabric.

11 Napping: For fabrics where fuzzyness is not desirable, finishing the fabric might be performed by raising the “nap” (the fuzzy stray fibres) during the fulling process, and then cutting the nap off.

12 Sewing: Creating garments from cloth is perhaps the area of fibre processing which people are most familiar with. It can be done on a small or large scale, although it’s not mechanized to the extent that some of the above processes are. The affordability of commercially made clothing is more due to global wage inequality than it is to economies of scale.


Welcome to Open Source Textiles

21 Nov

Welcome, dear reader, to an online conversation about open source fibre processing technology. This is something which I think should be of interest to a range of hobby or small-scale commercial workers involved in any of the steps of processing some sort of fibre into a useful product, such as clothing.

Photo by flickr user :: Wendy ::

For thousands of years, humankind has processed a range of natural fibers, some of the main ones being wool, linen, cotton and silk, using the best available technology and processes of the time. A range of different steps in the process have given rise to many specialist occupations, and also to many unique machines.

Up until the beginning of the industrial revolution, improvements in the processes and tools used to prepare fibre products were typically shared directly from the innovator to other fibre workers. The tools used during this period were typically the product of many small refinements added by generations of workers who used these tools regularly to provide all or part of their livelihoods.

With the industrial revolution came technologies which would change the face of fibre processing, and entire society it clothed. For the first time, intellectual property laws were used to try and keep these advances in the hands of relatively few, and so the new fibre machines, while greatly increasing the wealth of the civilisation which possessed them, tended to concentrate these riches in the hands of powerful industralists and textile mill owners while at the same time impoverishing the thousands of cottage industry fibre workers.

This social inequality led to great unrest and hatred of the machines themselves, as evidenced by the luddites and many other groups of “machine breakers”. This blog, however, is not anti-technology, but is instead here to investigate the potential advantages to putting the technology back to work in the hands of the people.

What is Open Source Technology?

The term “Open Source” means a free and open design. The term comes from the computer software industry, where the “source code” is the design of a computer program. If you have the source code, you can change the program and make it work for you in a new way. In building a movement around this approach, computer programers discovered that there were many benefits to collaborating with others around the world on the design of their programs, and in fact doing so created better products and was totally compatible with their ability to make money doing so, even though they were giving the design away for free.

It is only relatively recently that these same open source philosophies have been applied to physical devices, hardware rather than software, although it could certainly be argued that this isn’t a new idea, but is in fact the normal way that human ingenuity worked aside from the last 250 years or so. That may be true, but we now have some advantages that the artisans of the middle ages didn’t have when designing technology.

The foremost of these is rapid global communication. Through the internet, experts in a field can collaborate on their technology in a way that was never possible before. Ideas and designs can be disseminated and tried out very rapidly. It certainly seems that if we hand to re-design all the fibre machines invented during the industrial revolution, starting at about 1750 AD, then we could do so in a lot less than 260 years, given our ability to communicate and share so effectively.

That may be a good thing, as it’s the contention of this blog that we should indeed redesign some of these machines, but with new design goals which will be discussed here in more details. Don’t forget that many machines of this period were designed with only one goal, to maximise efficiency so that more product could be produced with less people. Other possible goals, such as creating a safe and happy work environment, providing broad employment, creating more beautiful products, enabling the very poor to build wealth, and so on could all be considered when re-designing these machines as part of the open source revolution.

I believe that there are a range of possibilities for machines less efficient than those used by industry, but more understandable and useable by more people, particularly hobbiest and cottage industry producers. The key to this is to build a solid foundation of free and open designs that others can build upon. These designs, due to their very open nature, will actually become move valuable than proprietary non open source designs, because everyone who builds or buys an open source fibre processing machine will be able to take advantage of a global community of support, including ideas for open source accessories, design improvements, and usage hints.

Join in the open source technology revolution. No politics required, lets just build some great machines for our own needs, share them with others, and see the magic that happens when enough people start doing it.