The Doffer and the Fancy … who exactly are they?

For that, we need to go back to my first love – the magnificent carding engine._DSC8272

The carding engine is made up of sets of rollers, all covered in metal toothed carding cloth. Its purpose is to disentangle the woollen fleece and align all the fibres, ready for spinning.

You feed fleece in at one end and you get lovely soft slivers of wool at the other.


I have a more modest but also much-loved equivalent at home where I prepare fibres for feltmaking, either carding fleece or creating colour blends.


I only have two drums on my carder – one to draw the fibres in, which then feeds them onto the main drum.

I was curious to know why the big carding engine had so many cylinders arrayed around the main drum like a rainbow.  So I did some research and discovered that…

carding machine research

…not only do they have different functions, but they also all have names!

The main drum is called the Swift.  The deliciously-named Licker-in draws the fibres in and feeds them onto the Swift.  A series of Workers and Strippers then keep the fibres on the Swift, catch any loose fibres and feed them back into the system. Finally, the Fancy raises the fibres a little from the Swift ready for the Doffer to catch them and feed them out from the machine.

For me, the power and resonance of the names immediately imbued the rollers with character and personality.  I wanted to stand them up and see them as individuals, but also as a group, close and conspiratorial in their actions.

D&F sketch

I was struck by the tensions of their work which brought them together as a team but also the tearing apart which was at the heart of what they did.  The irresistible force of the rollers to drag in and shred anything (and, sadly, anybody – these were dangerous times for the workforce, adults and children alike) which intentionally or unintentionally fell prey to the teeth of the Licker-in.

My initial plan was to wet-felt spiked cylinders – human sized vessels.  I worked out the logistics, but it didn’t quite do what I wanted. Too soft. No bite.

Then I came across Texfelt – a Bradford company who make thick needle-felted carpet underlay using recycled woollen textiles.  It is beautiful stuff – not too processed so you can still see some of the original fibres – but better than that, it made a connection from the present to the history of the Mill.  West Yorkshire mills, including Armley, were famous for the production of shoddy – a cloth made with a mixture of recycled wool fibres, mixed with a little new wool for strength.  I liked the look of the Textfelt underlay, I liked that it was felted, I liked that I could stitch and needlefelt into it and I liked that it was locally produced and resonated with the recycling of the shoddy tradition.

A decision was made.


But what of the teeth?  I wanted to introduce a new texture. One hope I have for this exhibition is that it will give me the opportunity to widen the scope of the materials I use.  After some experimentation I settled on aluminium mesh – a crisp colour and texture, a good contrast with the underlay and relatively easy to manipulate.


So….materials sorted… time to get making.

Next time: cutting corsets on the floor, struggling with scale and getting sticky with silicone!

2 thoughts on “Re-imagining

  1. I find your posts fascinating and love how they get me thinking. It must have been a very noisy and quite unpleasant environment for those using the machines and presumably Health & Safety didn’t feature as prominently as now. Yet the names given to the various components appear to indicate a degree of affection. Your own carder looks far more benign but I bet that’s given you a few scratches!


    1. It was horrendous for the workers and the carding engine claimed many lives, largely due to the combination of long working hours and hence fatigue, and the lack of safety precautions. I’m guessing through the hardship there were close relationships within the workforce though and an intimacy with the processes. I love my drum carder, but, even at my busiest, I don’t do 14 hour shifts on it!


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