Combing Wool with Milk (yes, it’s a thing)
This morning I wandered out of my office and said to Elizabeth, “We have a huge hole in our coverage! We’ve never published anything on combing milk.”
She looked at me like I was crazy (a daily occurrence) and said, “Milk?” Yes, I said—the elixir that spinners use when combing wool to combat static and tame frizz. Combing milk.
I scoured our indexes and The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning and could not find a single entry for that phrase, although I’ve heard it several times. Alden mentions that wool needs to be lubricated for combing, either traditionally with olive oil or with an emulsion of water and oil sprayed from a bottle. I searched a bit further and learned that in fact Spin Off has covered various wool lubricants throughout the years, just not called “combing milk.”
Here’s a partial rundown:
It would be very frustrating and counterproductive to try to comb fibers without moisture. The static created during combing makes fibers uncontrollable. You can spritz fibers with water or olive oil or you can use a combing oil which combines oil and water. Although I no longer remember the origin of the following recipe, I find it works very well.
1 ounce rubbing alcohol
2 lecithin capsules
3 ounces water
4 ounces olive oil or other vegetable oil
I keep this liquid in a fine spritzer and shake it before using. It may not feel right to put oil back on wool because you go to great lengths to remove lanolin, but oil is necessary to control the static. I do not comb fibers and set them aside to be spun at a later date. I comb one evening and spin the next and continue in that manner until I am ready to use the wool in a project.
I always wash yarns after spinning as part of finishing the skein, and the combing oil is removed at that stage. Even if fiber sits around for a while before it is washed, it will not become tacky (stiff and sticky) the way it does before lanolin is removed.
Nine Spinning Gurus
In a “round-table discussion” in Spin Off Summer 1991, coordinator Rita Buchanan posed the question:
Peter Teal recommends treating wool with a mixture of olive oil and water before combing it, to reduce static and friction. Do you do that?
I have. I’ve tried everything, but I don’t like adding something that I just have to clean out again. Now I just use warm water to control static. I try not to strip out all the grease when I wash a fleece, even though sometimes it gets sticky again and I have to rewash it. I try to only clean what I’m going to use in six weeks or so. That way I can take advantage of the natural oils. I don’t like to work with real dry wool, or to re-oil dry wool.
I’ve tried everything, too, but don’t use any treatment now. I’m afraid that oil or other additives might make a gummy build-up on the tines that I’d have to clean off later. I’m very pleased with the results I get by combing wool that’s perfectly clean but still slightly damp. I comb the wool within a few hours of washing it.
I do use oil. I weigh the wool and use the formulas given in Teal’s book [Hand Woolcombing and Spinning]. I want each batch to handle the same. The olive oil can get tacky if you let the combed wool sit too long; if that happens, I put the wool (in a plastic bag) near the heat vent and it loosens up again. Usually I don’t comb more than I’ll spin in a week or so.
I don’t add oil. Sometimes I mix 1/4 cup of fabric softener per quart of water in a spray bottle, and spray a real fine mist up in the air and let it fall like rain on the fibers. This works to control static on silk and Merino.
If the humidity is low, I use plain water to control static. I’m planning to do some experimenting with machinist’s cutting oil. I know it’s safe to work with, and I think it might improve the handling.
It’s always dry here, and static is a problem, so I’ve run the gamut of oils and treatments. What’s important is to pay attention to the fleece, and to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sometimes there’s enough oil left in the fleece after washing that it’s just right to work with. I’ve used olive oil and other oils, and I tried an after-shampoo hair conditioner that’s marketed to African-Americans—it works great and smells good, but it’s expensive. Now I use a Shell product called Dromus B.—it’s a diamond-cutter’s oil that’s water-soluble. It works fine, but to get any, I had to buy a five-gallon drum, so now I have a lifetime supply.
Static isn’t much of a problem here, but if I’m working with very fine wool, I might use a drop of oil per lock. Usually, I just spritz with water.
A spritzing with water works for me, too. Sometimes I use a technique I learned in Scandinavia: I wrap the wool in a warm damp towel for half an hour or so. The warmth softens the fibers, especially the coarser guard hairs, and makes them behave better. Also, the warmth softens whatever natural oils are left in the fibers after a gentle washing.
And lest you think it’s only for combing wool, Norman Kennedy always brings a bottle of baby oil when he cards wool. In his video From Wool to Waulking, Norman tells the (slightly terrifying) story of all the lubricants he’s used when carding wool.
Feature Image: Photos courtesy of Getty Images.
Learn more about combing wool with these resources!