Wool Roving and Combed Wool Top: what is the difference and why does it matter?
Picture this: you’re planning on crafting something lovely using un-spun wool as your material. Maybe it’s a wet felted 2D landscape, or some fun art yarn. You have a mental image of what you’d like your project to look like, so now all you need is to choose the right fibre.
After a little online research, you notice the two most common types of processed wools mentioned are wool roving and combed wool top. Ok, great – but what’s the difference and which is the best for your project? Do you need to choose one over the other, depending on what you’re creating or is it all the same?
Now let me add another layer of annoyance (sorry for this, I promise you’ll thank me later): as you shop around, you start noticing that some sellers call their processed fibre wool roving and wool top interchangeably but you have the niggling feeling they might not be the same. Are they? At this point frustration sets in, and I don’t blame you one bit for feeling it.
So. Is there a difference between wool roving and combed wool top and, does it matter?
Quickly put, yes, there is a difference and yes, it matters – for the most part. Different fibres will be better suited for one type of craft over another, but they don’t have to be deal breakers when it comes to starting a project. Being armed with this extra knowledge will, however, ensure you know what is best for you before you start buying supplies with your hard-earned moolah.
So read on and let me show you exactly what the difference is between wool roving and combed wool top, and why you should know.
Wool Roving versus Combed Wool Top
“Wool roving” is the term most often used by sellers to describe a long, continuous strand of un-spun processed wool. It’s usually made up into a crochet chain resembling a hair braid for easy storage. The illustrative example you see below is a rather lovely and springy hand dyed Polwarth wool (if I do say so myself).
This is probably the most popular type of processed wool for sale out there, and no wonder: it looks good enough to eat (but don’t, though. Get your daily fibre intake elsewhere!) I don’t know about you, but I often want to bury my face in it on account of how bouncy, squishy and… sort of shiny it looks.
Now, would it surprise you to learn that the fibre shown above isn’t roving at all, but wool top? Bonkers, I know. This mislabelling probably started in the USA and was very likely popularised in large handmade platforms such as Etsy – if you’re a seller, you’ll want to use the most popular search term to be seen, even if it’s the wrong one (or, you’ll use the wrong term if you sell on a platform that doesn’t give you another choice… Etsy again.)
How roving and wool top differ
All wool is more or less the same at the start of its journey, but the type of preparation it is subjected to will turn it into very different-looking fibres by the time it ends its processing journey. Depending on whether the wool is subjected to a woollen or worsted prep, you’ll get either roving or wool top.
Let me show you the big differences between combed wool top and roving using visual aids.
I’m sure your keen eyes will have spotted that these two fibres are indeed not the same. On the left you have combed wool top, where the fibres look smoother than the wool roving presented on the left. Roving looks fuzzier and, at a lack of a better word, more rustic. They are, in fact, very different fibre preparations.
The reason for the difference: Woollen and Worsted Fibre Preparation
Woollen prep gets you Wool Roving
Roving is created by carding the fibres mostly in one direction but still keeping the wool’s shorter staples. Imagine a giant cylinder with metal teeth brushing wool and you’ll get an idea of what a carder looks like and what it does.
Carding results in a fuzzier, more uneven texture of wool. This type of preparation also traps a lot of air between the fibres, so you get a fluffier, loftier un-spun wool which also looks more matte than wool top.
Funnily enough, despite being the term most used, actual wool roving is harder to find for sale out there. Madness, isn’t it?
Worsted prep gets you Combed Wool Top
Wool top is achieved by processing the fibre after carding. It is very much the very next step, so you can say all worsted wools start out as woollen preparations (you know, much like how all humans start out as girls in the beginning and then some become boys – but I digress.)
Worsted wools have therefore a higher degree of preparation than roving: the short staples of the wool are all removed and the fibres are thoroughly combed and aligned in the same direction. This results in a smoother, more consistent texture of mostly equal length.
Wool top is denser than roving because the combing process gets rid of trapped air between the fibres, which also makes it look smoother and shinier.
The right fibre for the right project
There can be such a thing as the right type of fibre preparation for your particular project. Does this mean you can’t swap your wools? Not at all, but using the “best” fibre might help you achieve those ideal results quicker.
Best wool for needle felting beginners
Felting wool with a needle – whether you’re a beginner or not – takes time and patience. Because felting is achieved by jumbling and compacting the fibres together into a specific 3D shape, the ideal fibre is one that is lofty and already slightly disorganised to begin with: the obvious choice therefore being wool roving.
Roving will yield to the felting needle much quicker than combed wool top because it has all those great misaligned and shorter staples to begin with, so a lot of the work you’re trying to achieve is already there.
Pro tip: if all you have is wool top and want it to needle felt quicker, you can pull some bits out and break the full length of the staple using or hands or (gasp!) scissors, then jumble the wool in different directions. I know breaking the wool sounds like sacrilege, but messing with the alignment of the wool and making it shorter will make it needle felt a lot quicker. Just make sure blend the wool thoroughly or you’ll end up with visible “streaks” on the surface of your project.
Best wool for wet felting
Now, this one is up for debate and will depend on what your vision and final project is.
Wet felting is the act of using water, soap and friction to tangle the fibres together into a specific shape. Wet felting shrinks your wool and it’s by manipulating this that you create your final object.
I asked Karen, my fibre artist pal from Lincs In Stitches, to tell me about her favourite fibre preparations and this is what she told me:
Often my work involves one of two techniques, Differential Shrinkage or Directional Shrinkage.
Differential Shrinkage is one of my favourite techniques as it allows me to create exciting, undulating surfaces, whether I’m applying it to a flat plane or a 3D vessel. By laying out your fibres as a thin background and adding thicker areas on top, you will get a distortion caused by the thin areas shrinking more than the thick areas. Both wool tops and roving work with this technique but I prefer to use roving when making vessels and wall hangings and I use wool tops with silk fabrics for wearables.
Directional Shrinkage is where the shape of what is being made is controlled by the specific direction in which the fibres are laid. When you have an understanding of this technique, it enables you to create interesting, sculptural shapes that couldn’t otherwise be achieved if all of your fibres were laid at right angles to each other, as you would do when making a piece of flat felt. An example of this is my Roll Edge Collars and Ruffle Scarves. Using wool tops rather than roving allows me far greater control when working with Directional Shrinkage because all of the fibres are laying in the same direction to begin with.
If you’re wet felting a scarf, you might be better off using wool top because it’ll be softer than roving on account of the “bumpier” shorter staples having been removed, and it will give you much better control over directional shrinkage because fibres are all facing the same direction to begin with.
On the other hand, roving can be much nicer for wet felting if you’re creating a landscape – a grassy background meadow will look better if it’s a little fuzzy to give it a sense of distance, and it will definitely felt quicker.
Pro tip: before you start your project, think about what you want to achieve and see if you want to take advantage of directional shrinkage or differential shrinkage, and plan accordingly. Create small samples of your chosen fibre to see how much it shrinks and if it’s working how you imagined – this will avoid surprises when you start working on the thing itself.
Best wool for spinning
Grab on to your hats, this is about to get a little complex.
A yarn is more worsted or woollen depending on the type of fibre used and the drafting methods used to create it. Think of spinning yarn as creating within a spectrum: on one end you have worsted yarns, on the other end you have woollen yarns; and in the middle you have “semi” yarns. The latter constitutes the vast majority of hand spun yarns. Commercial yarns tend to mostly be more on the worsted side.
If you want to spin a more worsted yarn you’ll need worsted-prepped fibres. This is the only type of wool that’ll give you smooth, shiny yarns with fabulous stitch definition, which is exactly what a worsted yarn is. The vast majority of commercial yarns areWorsted yarns are the most common type of yarn you find out there, be it commercial or hand spun. Colours look amazing on these wools because the fibres are more compressed.
Worsted-type yarns are the easiest to spin when you’re a beginner.
If you want to spin a more woollen yarn, then you’ll need (you guessed it), a roving or other type of woollen prep fibre. Woollen yarns are loftier and retain more air than worsteds, and are more muted in appearance. They have less stitch definition and pill more because of the shorter fibres present, but they’re warmer than worsted yarns.
Yarns spun more on the woollen spectrum take longer to master than worsted ones because the long-draw drafting method can be trickier to learn, and are in my opinion better suited for spinners with a little more experience. Once mastered, they are much fun to create and you’ll be surprised how much more yardage you can get over worsted yarns using the same amount of fibre!
Pro tip: if you’ve new to spinning, a medium-staple wool top is your best option. Choose something like a merino and use a short forward draw to make beautiful semi-worsted yarns and build your skills from there.
Now you know what the difference is between wool roving and combed wool top, you’re much better equipped to tackle your fibre experiments. You know which fibre works best for the type of felted item or yarn, and you can also play around and break the rules to see what happens. I hope you feel empowered. You are, after all, the master of your own woolly journey. Own it, enjoy it.