If you're into spinning your own yarn, you probably already know what a blending board is. Very much like a drum carder (that you can see in my previous blog post), it has a cloth with sharp teeth designed to comb and align fibres to make them easier to work with. You add fibres to it until the cloth is full, and then you take them out in a special way that I'll explain below.
The main difference between a drum carder and a blending board is that the latter is flat, so instead of creating batts with them, you're creating something called rolags: rolled-up tubes of wool that you can then spin on a wheel or spindle.
Blending boards are sold commercially in specialty stores, and new ones usually go for over £100 each. The back of the board is raised by a nifty piece of wood that allows you to rest it tilted on a table when horizontal or lock it in place on your lap between your legs when vertical.
Along with the blending board itself, you usually also get a small brush (to compact the fibres into the cloth) and two or more wooden rods to roll the fibre off the board and make the tube-like rolags.
I've always wanted a blending board, because well, woolly gadgets!, but never gave in to my whim - I didn't think it was worth paying so much for one in my case. I already have a drum carder, so justifying another carding implement would prove a bit much for my conscience and wallet. Other than buying a used one at a good price, this was just one of the things I'd have to put in my Maybe One Day drawer, and forget all about it.
That is, until my spinning guild decided to make them in one of our Special Interest meetings. Andrea, one of the members, emailed us saying she'd be ordering all our carding cloths to save on postage, and I jumped at the opportunity. Each cloth would be £30, and the supplier was even nice enough to waive the shipping fees.
The total price for my project was £45 - £30 for the cloth, plus £15 for a large-enough bamboo board.
(By the way, if you ever decide to make your own blending board, getting more friends to join in and ordering in bulk might be the way to go to cut down prices.)
Making the blending board
A very simplified version of the commercial blending boards is just this: a stapled carding cloth to a good quality, non-warping chopping board. Get yourself some simple dog brushes and a couple of sticks to use as rods, and you're good to go. If you're fancy you can also add the back bit that allows it to tilt, but I didn't go that far.
Here's my homemade board.
I had to remove some of the metal tines on the sides of the cloth so the stapling gun could get some purchase on the bamboo. I made sure the corners were well attached and that no part of the cloth moved about - it's better to err on the side of having too many staples than not enough.
This is important: the teeth on a carding cloth are bent at an angle to grab the fibres, so make sure your cloth is stapled correctly with the bends facing up. You'll be feeding fibres to the cloth from the top down, and removing them from the bottom, so you need the cloth to resist this by going in the opposite direction.
Now, on to rolags!
Rolags are these funny-looking tubes of rolled-up fibre that allow spinners to spin woollen or semi-woollen yarns. I'm not going too much into this, it's simply a way to prepare fibre to get a specific result when making yarns. Woollen yarns are fuzzier, warmer, and stretchier than worsted-spun yarns. To spin with them, all you have to do is pull on one side of the fibres and add twist.
Traditional rolags are made with carding brushes by combing and then rolling the fibres into a tube. A blending board allows you to make really fancy rolags - if you know me, you know I like fancy-looking stuff. This if you still had questions as to why I wanted a blending board.
How to make rolags on a blending board
First, get your supplies ready. You'll need:
Add fibres to the board
What you put on the bottom of the board is what you'll see on the top of the rolags when you roll them, so take that into consideration when adding the fibres. Because of this I always start with the embellishments if using any. Make sure these aren't too short or they'll probably end up staying on the board and not on your rolags as you pull the fibres off (ask me how I know this). If you're using some short fibres, sandwich them between the longer fibres.
Begin on the top of the board. Touch your fibres to the top teeth, carefully place your hand on over them and gently drag the fibres downward. If you want all rolags to be very similar to each other, make sure you have enough fibre to cover an entire section of the board from top to bottom.
If your fibre breaks before you reach the bottom, don't worry! Simply grab more and continue from the breakage point down.
You'll see on the next picture how some of the fibres hang out of the board. That's a good thing, you'll need that so it's easier to remove the fibres later. Having extra fibres on the top also helps to get a better looking final rolag.
Normally, after you're done with one layer, you'll want to push it into the teeth with the brush before you add the next one. I didn't here because I didn't feel I had enough fibres for that, so I went ahead to the second phase of the process.
Second phase: add your wool and other main fibres. If you're not using embellishments, then this will be what you'll be doing from the beginning.
After adding enough fibre to the cloth that I could no longer see the teeth, it was time to brush the wool down so it all stays in place. After this you can add more fibre and brush down again, until it's close to being full - usually three layers is enough.
This is important: before you put brush to the board, if you're not using the special brushes that come with a commercial blending board, you'll need to turn the brush upside down, so you're holding the handle on top and the teeth are on the bottom. The bends of the teeth on the brush need to be facing upwards (like the ones on your carding cloth), so they're packing the wool into the blending board instead of combing it out.
If you don't have a dog brush, you can use a soft painter's brush and gently pat the fibres down. Alternatively, you can also use a long needle to coax the wool down, just make sure you start at the top and gently drag the needle down in sections.
Remove the fibres from the board - make rolags
Now comes the fun part, making the actual rolags!
Sandwich the fibre on the bottom of the board between both rods and twist upwards. The fibre will be trapped around the rods. I like to then remove one of the rods so the wool is just wrapped around the other. I then place the free rod back against the one with the fibre and start twisting again.
As you twist, pull the fibres to you to drag them away from the board. When the fibres start thinning out, raise the rods a little so more fibre is pulled out of the board and around the rods.
Once you feel you have enough fibre around the rods, you can gently pull them away from the board until the fibre separates. Then smooth out the fibres on the rods with your hands or by running them carefully against the carding cloth; this way you'll minimise the amount of flyaway fibres.
Remove one rod at a time from inside the rolag: pull one rod out from one end, then the other from the other end. Do this carefully and patiently so you're not messing with the direction of the wool or breaking the rolag.
This is important: if you're using knitting needles like I was, it helps to use one larger than the other, so it's easier to remove them by taking out the thinner one first. Also, don't forget to have the ends of the needles facing away from each other, since you're supposed to pull each rod out from a different end.
Then repeat the process to make more rolags: use the rods to grab the bottom fibres, sandwich and twist them, roll and pull until you have enough fibre, then separate it from the rest and smooth it out.
So far, I've been able to get 4 rolags out of each full blending board.
The size of your rolags will depend on how wide the carding cloth on your board is, and how thick the rods you use. How much fibre you pack in will also influence your end product, I suspect, although at the time of this writing I haven't yet made enough to know for sure.
I also saw a fellow guild member simply remove all the fibre in one go by making one giant rolag instead of small ones. You can also do that if you like, but I'd consider this more of a small batt than a rolag.
Fancy spinning tip: make one giant rolag/small batt; then repeat the same colours on the board and make smaller ones - spin the big rolag on one bobbin and the small ones on another, and when you ply them together you'll get a fractal spun yarn. Ooh!
Have you ever made rolags? If you have any tips for me, leave them in the comments section, I'd love to learn more about the process.
If you have other comments, also write them below, I do love hearing from you (and knowing this headache of making sort-of tutorials is worth it)!