Sheep to Shawl

By Jessi Gordy

Spring is just around the corner at the Atlanta History Center and for our furry friends at the Smith Family Farm that means it’s time for their annual haircuts! Dana, Buster, Hercules, and Ida Mae will be the headlining act at this year’s Sheep to Shawl on Saturday, April 8 where you can help in the process of how our sheep’s wool will become a piece of clothing.

To tell us a little more about this process, let’s meet Natalie Flynn, historical interpreter at the Smith Family Farm. Natalie has worked at the Atlanta History Center since April 2014 and has mastered many skills from 19th century. Not only can she sew her own historic clothing, she can also weave on the ca. 1845 loom housed inside the Tullie Smith House. 

Natalie on Loom

Natalie on Loom

One of Natalie’s many accomplishments while working on the Smith Family Farm has been making shawls and blankets from the sheep’s wool. So, how does wool come from the sheep and become a shawl? 

Step one: Shearing 

Shearing of the sheep takes place in early spring. Using electric shears, our expert sheep shearer carefully removes the fleece of each sheep, which comes off in one piece. In 2016, our sheep produced over 20 pounds of wool after their annual shearing. (Hercules produced the most at 6.6 pounds!)

Step two: Washing

Once the fleece has been inspected and the unusually dirty wool has been removed from the batch, the wool is washed in hot water with mild soap. Washing removes grease, dirt (and poop) from the raw wool. Moving through a series of cleaning tubs, followed by clean-water rinses, the fleece is then dried.

Step three: Dyeing

Dyeing can take place either before or after the wool has been spun to yarn. At the Smith Family Farm, we like to dye the wool before we spin it—this ensures the wool will have a concise, even color throughout. Some of our favorite natural substances to use for dyeing are indigo, black walnut, and staghorn sumac. Staghorn sumac actually grows at the Smith Family Farm, too!

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

Step four: Carding

Carding is the process of cleaning, separating, and straightening out the wool fibers. This is the last step in preparing fleece for spinning.

Natalie Carding

Natalie Carding

Step five: Spinning

After carding, the wool fibers are now aligned with one another and the carded wool resembles cotton candy (but don’t eat it!) The spinning process takes the carded wool and twists it into thread or yarn. Twisting the wool strands increases the strength of the yarn and creates the continuous, unbroken yarn necessary for weaving into cloth. 

Spinning

Spinning

Step six: Weaving

Once the wool has been spun into yarn, it can be used on the loom to weave. Weaving is the interlacing of two sets of yarn together at 90 degree angles. The warp consists of thread laid parallel to one another, stretched across the loom. The weft is then pulled through the warp in an under-over-under pattern, creating a single joined piece of fabric when completed.

Warp Weft

Warp Weft

Now that you have basic knowledge of how wool comes from a sheep and is transformed into a shawl, come to the Atlanta History Center on Saturday, April 8 for our annual Sheep to Shawl program to see the process in person! Who knows, you might even be asked to help wash the wool.

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