OK – now I’ve had a big, long think about this, I decided I’ve asked the wrong question. I should have asked: What is the difference between the tops and sliver? Or even roving and sliver? And is it any different in Australia? And who cares anyway?
Topmaking photo from Australian Wool Innovation Ltd
I was confused because of some assumptions I made. Firstly that what I’d been told was true and secondly that there was nothing more to know – nothing else to learn.
Years ago I was told that tops are made from combed wool and rovings are made from carded fleece, and I believed it. I hate to think how many people there are down that chain of misinformation, which I have happily continued up until now.
I’ve decided to use industrial references because I simply can’t track the thread of information back to a definite beginning within the handspinning community – everyone seems to have a slightly different understanding of it. For me adopting industrial terminology is the only clear way through all those whispering voices.
For the wool to be processed it must be clean. Scouring is the first step and may happen at the mill or at a dedicated wool scour after auction.
Carding the wool
Once the fleece is scoured and dry it is then carded. Handspinners only card wool when they want a fluffy, woollen yarn, but industrially all fleece is carded. Machines open up the fibres and make large webs of fibre. This photo shows an antique machine which was once used in Denmark. The wool passes between the rollers and gets teased apart by the thousands of tiny wires embedded on their surface. Eventually the web of wool becomes a sheet or batt. In the background you can see one still on the large drum.
Photo from storebukkebruse – thank you
Modern machines tend to be encased in protective cabinets and so the workings are not as readily seen.
Drawing the Sliver – Gilling
The last step in the carding process is creating a sliver – this is what I thought was roving. Sliver is a soft thick rope of fibre drawn off the drums of the carding machine, which has no twist. Gilling has three stages and straightens the wool fibres for combing.
The Nundle Woollen Mill has a gallery photo which I think is showing their sliver.
Tops and Rovings
The next step in the industrial process is top making. Essentially the sliver is put through a combing machine to remove all the short half grown and knotty fibres. This leaves the long fibres in a beautiful parallel form. Several tops are combined to ensure thorough colour blending (even white needs blending) the end result is a roving or in Australia a combed sliver.
So: Carded webs are drawn into untwisted slivers which may then be combed into tops. These tops may be refined and drawn out even further and may be called rovings, tops or combed sliver.
Does it matter?
Yes – if you are planning a sleek smooth yarn then the preparation you buy needs to be combed, but if you want a fluffy lightweight warm yarn suitable for winter woollies then look for sliver. If you can examine the fibre closely you should be able to tell the difference, but photos from internet shops may not show it clearly. You can only ask, and maybe start a conversation. And yes because this is Australian terminology, somehow I think we will always have to ask questions and be wary of the whisperers.
For the curious these are my sources
A basic outline from Wool Producers Australia
A great little video to download from the CSIRO
The carding and spinning process at Nundle Woollen Mill
A pdf poster from the CSIRO
The responsibilities of a top maker from Australian Wool Innovation Ltd
The machinery gallery at Nundle Woollen Mill