Freshly updated, now with more questions answered, Fri Aug 10 09:02:08 EDT 2007!
It’s common nowadays for a lot of folks in the fiber world to use the word “roving” to rever to any unspun fiber. The thing is, this isn’t really accurate and doesn’t give a clear sense of what the preparation really is — and the preparation is relevant! So, here’s a list of some of the preparations out there, and an explanation of terms (photos to come).
– a true top, a combed top for real, not just a commercial top, is the only thing from which you can spin a true traditional worsted yarn, in which all the fibers are parallel, smoothed down into the yarn with the air squeezed out of it, and no twist in the drafting zone. This prep is really best suited to true worsted spinning, but can be spun semi-worsted (using woolen technique).
– a commercial top is a machine-produced variant of this — sort of. The fibers are pretty much all going the same direction, but there’s a ton more of them and it actually feels fairly different from spinning a true combed top. Once you’re used to this prep, you can spin a pretty fair worsted, a pretty fair woolenish, and a range of things in between, from this prep.
– a rolag is what you make when you use hand cards in the traditional way — it’s like a poofy roll of fiber. Traditionally, for woolen spinning, you use these, spin from one end, and you have your fibers going multiple directions and around and around, sort of. You could spin this with worsted technique, but it would be slow and you’d still get fuzzy yarn, not smooth yarn; but it would be stronger than a traditional woolen.
– a batt is made on a drum carder and is like a blanket of fibers, carded, but more aligned than you typically get in a rolag. You can strip these, pre-draft them, tear off chunks, roll them up, and spin them with what’s considered either woolen or worsted technique; and you can pull them or tear them into rovings.
– a roving is a carded thing, sort of wrist-thick a lot of the time though it can vary; one way or another they’re usually made from something that might as well be batts, either pulled off the carding equipment in roving form, or in some cases pulled later from a batt. On really big carders, the industrial ones that produce roving at small mills nowadays for example, the batts you’d get would be bedspread-sized, so you don’t see those too often; instead you get roving.
– a sliver is a thinner variant of a roving (to simplify). Sliver doesn’t have any twist to it at all, while roving has a tiny bit of twist (not spinning twist, but a slight twist to the entire rope). Sliver is what mills generally call their intermediate stage.
– pin-drafted roving has been carefully drafted through a series of pins, producing an open, lofty roving with a more aligned prep than is typical of other rovings.
– Puni – similar to a rolag. Prepared on handcarders, then the fibers are rolled on a stick and compressed by rolling this stick on a flat surface. Used a lot for cotton and other fine fibers. (thanks Glenna!)
In the European-derived spinning traditions, things are broken up into worsted and woolen yarns; worsteds are tightly spun, without air trapped between the fibers, and from combed prep with all the fibers parallel, producing a smoother, longer-wearing yarn. Woolens are produced from carded prep, using more hands-off techniques, so to speak, resulting in a more heterogeneous fiber alignment and air trapped in the yarn. Woolens are loftier, worsteds are denser. In these traditions, it is not possible to spin a true worsted unless you use both worsted prep, and worsted technique; same for woolen: you need woolen prep and woolen technique. However, these just define ends of a specific spinning spectrum (mmmm how alliterative!) and you can mix and match for results which traverse that spectrum. And of course, there are non-European textile traditions which don’t exactly fit in that spectrum, though when they’re being discussed by English-speakers they are often shoehorned in and those terms are used to describe things, as people don’t necessarily have a familiarity with the other-language and other-culture terms and distinctions.
Another important thing to note about the types of fiber preparations available for handspinners today is that many of them are not handspinner’s prep — they’re intermediate stages in industrial processing, adapted (or adaptable) for handspinning. This gives rise to new, hybrid techniques, new conventional wisdoms, and new debates about “best practices” when spinning from one type of prep or another or with various different goals in mind.
The bottom line is that there are more preparations of fiber, done by hand or done by machine, available to the handspinner now than at any time before. Familiarizing yourself with the offerings can take a while, but be a real thrill — and it can lead you to decide you would like to learn how to do more of your own prep, and open whole new worlds in handspinning.