What are batts, top, roving, and so forth?

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.

19 thoughts on “What are batts, top, roving, and so forth?

  1. Where does “pin drafted roving” fall into this spectrum? I have my raw wool processed by a small cottage industry business that uses this technique. I have been told that it is a combing process so I am assuming it would be best for worsted spinning but I am not at all sure.

  2. Extremely informative Abby. Thanks. So pencil roving is just thinner roving and pin-drafted has already been somewhat drafted?

  3. Peggy, more or less. Pin-drafted roving is, IMHO, the nicest of the big-machine preps to spin; the fibers are fairly aligned, but the prep is very open and lofty.

    Pencil roving is really an intermediate stage on the way to becoming yarn. Essentially, mill spinning equipment can’t draft in the same way that handspinners can; they must separate out the bulk of drafting from inserting twist. Basically, true pencil roving is what’s ready to get put on a spinning frame and have twist inserted. It’s at spinning thickness; to spin it, you would only insert twist. It usually doesn’t take well to a lot of further drafting.

    But, some people now use “pencil roving” to refer to any fairly slender, long strip preparation, many of which are now fatter than the intermediate mill stage, and which do still require some drafting.

    Some spinners love pencil roving, and others can’t stand it. In general, I prefer my rovings and tops thicker, because I get the most control handling the drafting myself; too thinned-down, and I have to give up a lot of options.

  4. 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.

  5. Hi Abby,
    I’ve been reading for awhile and I just wanted to thank you for sharing all this information. I’m a semi-new spinner and it is really great to be able to read about it. Keep up the great work.


  6. this is such a good discussion of the differences between different types of spinning fiber, that if you don’t mind, i’m going to put a link to this on the Daily Chum. thanks for the info!

  7. From a weaver’s perspective, this was an amazingly helpful explanation. Thank you! Several years ago my husband spent a winter in northern Iceland, and came home with an incredible amount of “yarn”, given to him by a local weaver (actually, one of the only ones in all of Iceland). She said that it was Lopi and that the word means roving. Having even less twist than commercial “Lopi”, I haven’t been able to use it in my weavings (certainly not as warp). From your description, it sounds like this is either sliver or pencil roving (it’s commercially prepared Scandinavian “yarn”). My spinning skills are rudimentary, plus I haven’t touched my wheel in years….if twist is all I have to add to this yarn, then it might not be as daunting a task as I had imagined when I was gifted! Guess I need to dust off my spinning wheel and attempt to turn this into a usable weft yarn…. Thanks again for your clear descriptions.
    Ruby in northern Vermont

  8. Thank you, Ruby! As a weaver myself, such arguably nitpicky details definitely matter to me.

    Lopi is a special case. True lopi is made from the fleece of icelandic sheep, which are double-coated, containing a longer outer coat and a downy undercoat. To get real lopi, these must be combined together, and they’re pulled into the lopi, which is a thin roving type thing, which is knitted directly as is, into the Icelandic sweaters (which are iconic, but only around 150 years old as a tradition, if memory serves).

    The Lopi yarn sold in the US does contain more twist than traditional Icelandic Lopi, and isn’t always Icelandic wool, either — it’s a thick, lofty, low-twist woolenish single-ply yarn (or sometimes a pseudo-singles, but that’s another whole digression).

    When knitted, or used as weft (because it certainly doesn’t work for warp, as you can see!) Lopi has wonderful insulating properties, and will full some, and tend to shed water.

    There’s no reason not to just add twist to it, though!

  9. Thank you Abby! What is and what isn’t is much more clear now. This is going to help me so much! It’s nice to be able to “speak the language” and avoid the struggle of communication.. You explained it so clearly!

  10. I have a friend who is raising Shetlands. She has had some of her fleeces processed into roving. The end product lacks the luster and softness of the same fleece after hand processing. Do you know of a company that will process relatively small amounts of fleece into a combed top or roving?

  11. Dear folks,
    I have 16-18 pounds of roving.

    How can I make it into a batt suitable to put in a quilt ?

    I am afraid if I just lay the roving side-by-side – that it will clump inside the ticking no matter how closely I sew/quilt it.

    Please give me your advice.
    Alberta, Canada

  12. Hi Abby,

    Could you please tell me if its possible to re-spin a skein of yarn? I have spun it by hand into yarn, but am a beginner and have spun it too thick to do much with. I have not set the twist yet and was just wondering if there is a way to re-spin it thinner?

    Many thanks


  13. Thank you Abby for this detailed discussion. I think the most confusing for me has been the various commercial preparations. You’ve helped clear that up a lot. I really want to learn to do the prep myself; I just have to finish spinning all this fiber I bought before I started doing all this research.

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