Handspun vs. Machine-Spun Wool Pile

Turkmen spinner
Turkmen woman spinning wool with a drop spindle.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 3 Part 3

Spinning is the process of twisting together and drawing out massed short fibers into a continuous strand. The technique of spinning wool by hand has been known for some thousands of years, and was in exclusive use for preparing the wool that constitutes the pile of a rug until the invention of machines for the purpose. Spinning wool was an almost unceasing activity for girls and women in rugmaking cultures. Women would spin whenever they were free to do so, even while they walked. It is not surprising that, when machines were invented for spinning wool, rugmakers abandoned their traditional methods.

We can surmise that some village and tribal rugmakers continued to spin wool by hand, but by World War II nearly all wool used in city-made rugs was spun by machine. Strangely, I don’t recall that the subject of hand versus machine spinning was ever spoken of or written about by rug experts during the 1970s and ’80s, which were my first twenty years in the rug business. I first heard the subject mentioned in about 1985 when a San Francisco rug dealer boasted that a new production of rugs he was carrying (in retrospect I think they must have been Ayvaciks from Turkey) were made with hand-spun wool. That startled me. Until then, I must have assumed that all rugs were made with handspun wool. I was wrong. In fact, most Oriental rugs have been made with machine-spun wool since about 1945.

Handspun Wool
Handspun wool absorbs dye unevenly and produces variegated color. It has an uneven, nubby surface. This creates an informal, hand-made look in carpets.

The distinction between hand- and machine-spun wool is far from academic. The wool we are speaking of is the material used for the pile of a rug; for all practical purposes, it is the rug. Handspun and machine-spun wool have different properties that crucially affect how a rug looks. Handspun wool yarn is irregular in the tension of its twist; it is inadvertently spun looser in some places and tighter in others. One practical effect of this irregularity is that, when soaked in dye, handspun yarn absorbs less where it is spun tightly and more where it is spun loosely. Without perhaps meaning to, the spinners have created yarn that, when dyed, is never uniform in color. Another practical effect of the lack of uniformity is a slightly uneven, ‘nubby’ surface on the rug. Because of these two factors — the irregularity of colors, and the rug’s irregular texture — such carpets have a very handmade look.

I am becoming aware of a problem that purchasers of rugs with handspun wool sometimes encounter. During the first months of using them, owners notice that loose ends of the pile are pulled up by vacuuming. Pieces of pile stick up a half-inch to an inch above the rest of the pile. All rugs have this problem when they are new, though it is clearly more pronounced in carpets with handspun pile. Though it can be scary to rug owners, the phenomenon is harmless. The loose ends of pile can be and should be clipped the same height as the rest of the pile. If proper care has not been taken by the rugmaker in the clipping, the situation can, on rare occasions, be annoying enough to be considered a real problem — though one that affects the appearance of a carpet, never its longevity.

Even though handspun wool is seen much more often today than even a few years ago, it still is found in only a small minority of new rugs. I know of no source for hard information about this, but I estimate that perhaps 3 percent of today’s production is handspun.

Machine-spun Wool
Machine-spun wool absorbs dye evenly. Color is uniform and the surface of a machine-spun wool rug is even.

Machine-spun (sometimes referred to as mill-spun) wool in an Oriental rug looks quite different from handspun wool — at least in new rugs. (I believe, though I’m not certain, that, as rugs age and the pile is loosened with use, the difference between the two becomes less apparent.) Because the tension of its spin is so uniform, machine-spun wool absorbs dye evenly, and colors are more consistent. And because of the uniformity of the tension in machine-spun yarn, a rug made with it will have a very regular and finished look. You will easily be able to see the differences in handspun rugs and machine-spun rugs if you examine them side by side and look for the differences I have described.

Now, which is right for you, a rug made from handspun or one from machine-spun wool? The considerations are so tied to considerations about natural vs. synthetic dyes that it is best to discuss them together — which we’ll do in the next post.


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    Andrew January 8, 2008

    Very infomative, thank you

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    tcscheel@yahoo.com July 4, 2008

    I am looking to buy a hand spun wool rug. Price is more than the acrylic rugs. I have heard that it is really worth the money to buy wool. I need an opinion, please. How do you clean a wool rug? 8×10

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    Dave July 5, 2008

    Hand-spun wool means that the wool has been spun into yarn by hand rather than by machine.

    Wool is a fantastic material; it’s environmentally friendly, long-lasting, and stain-resistant. It looks great and feels great. Of course, there are different grades of wool and the price varies accordingly. The best wool is very soft and supple to the touch. Cheaper wool feels dry and scratchy in comparison.

    In addition to regular vacuuming, we recommend getting your handmade wool-piled rugs professionally washed every five to seven years — more often if they get heavy wear. Professional washing is done by hand with a mild textile soap and water.

    See this article for more details: long term oriental rug care.

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    uli January 21, 2009

    hi, do you have the copyright for the picture of the women spinning wool? would you allow me to use the picture in an exhibition about the history of spinning? best wishes, uli

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    admin January 24, 2009

    Hi Uli. Actually, that photo comes from a book called Caravans to Tartary by Roland and Sabrina Michaud.

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    deb May 30, 2009

    I am looking at a rug on Overstock.com. This is the hand knotted rug Roma wool rug (9×12) for $840.99. I don’t know if it is hand spun wool pile or not. Could you tell me if this rug is a good deal?

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    polip October 19, 2009

    I don’t understand – is wool pile made from natural wool, or synthetic ?
    I just purchased an amazing wool pile rug, but wanted to know if it’s wool and if I can/should ever wash it ?


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    Criss February 13, 2011

    No, handspun isn’t always spun unevenly–it depends on the skill of the spinner and the desired result. And often the fiber is dyed first (“dyed in the wool” isn’t just an expression!), so it wouldn’t matter anyway.

    Polip, I imagine if it says “wool” it means wool. As in sheep hair. Not necessarily, but probably.

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    Sally Bunker December 4, 2011

    We have a new rug from Sam’s Club. It is an oriental wool. When I vaccum the wool keeps coming out and plugged the vaccum. Then it just spun out gobs of wool. Is this normal?