Willowing wool is an ancient technique where you use two willow sticks (or some other bendy wood) to whip the wool. This helps to open up the locks, get air in to the wool and vegetable matter out.
An ancient technique
There are illustrations from the European middle ages of people willowing wool, but I can imagine the technique has been used ever since wool has been used for spinning. In my book Ull – hemligheter, möjligheter, färdigheter by Kerstin Gustafsson and Alan Waller, it says that wool beating used to be an occupation. The wool beaters usually also traded in wool, whipped it and blended to get an even quality. The finished blends would then be sold to mitten producers. Also, people would of course beat the wool in rural homes as a first step of processing their own wool.
Five years ago I went to the west coast of Sweden together with my wool traveling friend Anna for a one-week spinning course. The teacher was Lena Köster, a Swedish master spinner. She taught us to whip the wool, and it was great fun.
The origin of a word
Since the technique has been performed with soft sticks, usually willow, it has been called willowing. This word root (!) has remained even after the start of the industrialism. A machine that was designated to open up the locks, remove vegetable matter and blend the wool was called a willowing machine, willy or willower. As a linguistic geek, I just love the substantial origin of the word.
Angels and devils
I was told that the flying locks used to be called angels. The higher the angels flew the more air had been let in to the wool and the better the wool was whipped. And they do look like angels – white, fuzzy and endlessly beautiful. And, oh, another word for the willowing machine was devil. If you have ever seen a willowing machine (or a wool picker for that matter) you will understand. It looks like your average Tudor era torture tool.
The origin of a video
As it happened, I had a bunch of willow sticks lying around the house. I had made a low hurdle for a flower bed and bought willow sticks for this purpose. Yes, I shouldn’t need to buy sticks when there are lots of them in the woods, but I have made this hurdle several times with maple saplings, and it just won’t last. But I digress.
It also happened that I had a fleece in the fleece storage (aka our sofa bed) that had a little too much vegetable matter in it. Recently, there has been lots of discussions on a facebook spinning forum about vegetable matter and the best way to get rid of it. I had suggested whipping the wool. so I had recently picked the thought up from deep within my memory storage.
Willowing wool – shooting
So, I picked a spot on our terrace to shoot a video of willowing wool, sat myself down on the floor and started willowing. It was a lot of fun. My daughter came by and helped me whip for a while. She said: ‘You look really happy, Mum, like a five-year-old who just got an ice-cream cone.’ Indeed. An ice-cream cone made of wool.
I shot the video from one angle unpaused. The whole uncut clip was about 50 minutes (I edited it down to four minutes). I spent a lot of that time gathering lost wool angels. There was a breeze, and I can vouch for that the time spent chasing wool increases proportionally to the increase of wind speed. This particular wind was a whimsical one, it had a hard time deciding where to blow.
I got the music from the free music archive. Using the search words ‘fly’ and ‘high’, I found this beautiful harp piece by Anne van Schotorst. It’s called Birds came flying. I think it suited my flying angels quite well.
I hope you like the video.