Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wool Comb and Hackle Tutorial Part 1: The Basics

And so we begin the tutorials for the comb and hackle set. This first one will cover the basics (set up, loading, combing, dizzing) and some information on the stationary hackle. In future Comb and Hackle tutorials I will go more in depth with each of the combs as well as the various things you can do with the comb and hackle set other than the obvious combing of fleece to remove VM, nepps, second cuts, and other undesirables in your fleece.

A Few Words About the Comb & Hackle Set

Eric's design of the Comb and Hackle sets is unique. After many prototypes and much testing he came up with a design that is efficient in combing, has minimal "catching of the tines", is extremely sturdy and functional, not to mention beautiful. The tines are set in the wooden base in such a way that they will not twist or come out even if you use plyers.....we tried. They will bend, that's just the nature of the beast but they are easily bent back into place with the tine straightener. The tips on all of our tines are slightly blunted for safety and we've found the slightly blunted tips work just as well as the needle sharp tips found on other manufacturer's tools. The tines can still poke and scrape so the tools should be respected and used with  safety in mind and covered when not in use. If my children at 10 years old could comb successfully with no injury any adult should be able to do it with no problem. For specific specs on the combs and hackles please see our Combs and Hackles shop page and the individual tool listings and for a bit more background on the design of the tools and their creation please see our Combs and Hackles Info page.

Get Your Stuff Together

When I comb I prefer to get everything I will need ready so it is handy and I don't have to search all over the house for it and interrupt my combing. I choose which comb I will use according to the fleece I will be combing, this time I'm combing washed/scoured Rambouillet fleece with some VM and have chosen my favorite comb, the Hybrid. I would highly recommend only combing washed fleece....trying to get the lanolin off of the tines before you could comb clean fleece would not be fun.  I have my tine straightener handy just in case I bend tines on my comb, my diz, a wrench for getting the clamps tight, and a spray bottle of water for static. If you find when combing your wool does have static, lightly mist it and the tines.......don't worry, the tines will not rust, they're stainless steel. Now we're ready to set up!

Setting Up The Hackle

The optimum "hackle height" to make combing more comfortable will vary with each person. Basically, your stationary hackle should be at approx. the same height as your arm when your elbow is bent at a 90 degree angle. Make sure the table you will be clamping your hackle to is a good sturdy heavy one or you may find yourself dragging it across the floor while you comb.  To set the hackle up, the edge of the hackle should be either flush with the edge of your table or slightly over the lip of the table (for recessed clamps hackle as pictured). The regular clamps should be pushed as far back into the hackle as they can go and the recessed clamps should be flush with the hackle face. Tighten your clamps down and then gently holding on to the sides of the tines sort of shake/pull on the hackle. If the hackle moves you need to tighten the clamps, if the table moved but the hackle didn't then you're ready. If neither the table or the hackle moved then I'm jealous, you have a better table than I do!

Loading Your Fiber

When I wash fleece I just don't have the time or patience to wash it to maintain lock structure so my fleece is going in all directions. Oh well. This time I'm using a Rambouillet fleece that has a 3" to 3 1/2" staple, is very springy, and has some VM. I grab a this case about 0.6 oz and load it on the hackle mostly trying to get it on the first two rows though as you can see it migrates to the back two rows as well.  When the hackle is about half full when pressed down gently measuring by the back two rows of tines it's full. This rule of thumb works well for wool because it tends to be poofy and springy naturally. When loading Alpaca and less springy fibers you would not want to load on this much but we will get to that in another tutorial.  If you overload your hackle you will not be able to comb it all off efficiently and you will have more waste than you should. After the hackle is full, fluff the fiber up evenly......usually within 1 1/2" of the first two rows or level with the back to rows.  I find it is best to stand with my feet apart and the right foot  slightly in front of the left....this gives me better balance and mobility while combing. Yes, I live on the edge and comb in sock feet most of the time.


Once your fiber is loaded you want to start with small "bites"  catching the tips working from side to side while holding the comb with 2 hands. Due to the design of the handle, after awhile you should be able to flip the comb in your hands without even looking at'll know which direction it's pointing in just by the feel.  When you catch the tips in the comb turn the comb slightly downward to help pull off the fiber. There are videos on our Video page that explain this better than I can explain it in written words. Once you've combed off most of what's on the hackle very carefully lean over and comb off the backside of the hackle a few times (picture #4 in the above collage). Combing off the backside will not only comb off usable fiber so it doesn't  go to waste, but will also help loosen up the fiber in the front of the hackle. Finish combing off the fiber in the front of the hackle and remove the waste on the hackle.

Reloading the Hackle

Now your comb should look like Don Kings hair! Push the fiber further up the tines so it doesn't slide off the ends when you are transferring it back to the hackle. Again, catching the tips of the fiber on the first two rows of tines bring the comb down gently and pull toward you. If you try to reload the fiber by catching the fiber further in on the comb you will struggle to get it on the hackle so just catch the last 1" or so of the tips on the hackle tines. Repeat this flipping the comb each time so that you are transferring off both sides of the comb and don't forget to slide your fiber back up the tines occasionally so it doesn't come off the end of the comb. Comb and reload the hackle as many times as necessary to get out all the VM, nepps, second cuts, many times you have to comb the fiber will greatly depend on the fleece and the comb you are using. I combed the rambouillet once and it was ready to diz off. After reloading your hackle fluff the fiber backup on the tines as you did when you loaded it for combing, clean the waste off of your comb, and comb again as many times as are necessary for your fiber. After you have combed your fiber to suit you, fluff the fiber up on the hackle and you're ready to diz.


For dizzing off of the stationary hackle I prefer to use the smaller 3/16" diz. Starting in the bottom right hand corner pull out a small bit of fiber, twist it gently on the end and thread it through the diz. Gently pull the fiber and push the diz toward the tines working your way across the bottom to the left hand side. Once you get to the left hand side continue dizzing back across to the right hand side. I find that the fiber will "walk" itself down the hackle when I diz the second half off. Dizzing does take practice! As you can see there is very little waste left on the hackle.

Straightening Tines/Misc

Occasionally when combing tines will get bent on either the hackle, the comb or both. It is very easy to bend them back into place. Simply take the tine straightener and put it over the bent tine and gently pull the tine back into place until it is aligned with the adjacent tines.

I originally loaded the hackle with 0.6 oz of fiber. Once combed and dizzed off I had 0.4 oz of gorgeous springy top with 0.2 oz of waste from both the hackle and the comb combined. If you find the waste from your combing is not suitable for your drum carder there are many things you can do with it. I prefer to save mine and make felted wool dryer balls while others like to use it as mulch, for stuffing toys etc, for needle felting, or even leaving it out for the birds to build nests with. Nothing goes to waste!

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