It’s common nowadays for a lot of folks in the fiber world to use the word “roving” to refer to any unspun fiber. This isn’t really accurate and doesn’t give a clear sense of what the preparation really is—and the preparation is relevant!
In most European-derived spinning traditions, yarns are categorized as worsted or woolen; worsted yarns are tightly spun without air trapped between the fibers; they are spun from combed prep with all the fibers parallel, producing a smooth, long-wearing yarn. Woolen yarns are produced from carded prep using more hands-off techniques and resulting in a more heterogeneous fiber alignment with air trapped in the yarn. Woolen yarns are lofty; worsted yarns are dense.
Traditionally, it is not possible to spin a true worsted yarn unless you use both worsted prep and worsted technique. Likewise, for a traditional woolen, you need woolen prep and woolen technique. However, I think of these categories as defining the ends of a spectrum of possibility and urge mixing and matching for results that traverse that spectrum.
There are also Andean, African, and other non-European textile traditions whose yarns don’t exactly fit in that spectrum. Nonetheless, English speakers tend to discuss those techniques with terms from Western European traditions.
Another important thing to note about the types of fiber preparations available for handspinners today is that many of them are not prepared specifically for handspinners—they are intermediate stages in industrial processing, adapted (or adaptable) for handspinning.
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.
A true handcombed top is the only thing from which you can spin a traditional worsted yarn. For a worsted yarn, all the fibers are parallel, smoothed down into the yarn with the air squeezed out, and there is no twist in the drafting zone. This prep is really best suited to true worsted spinning, but can be spun semiworsted (using woolen technique).
A commercial top is a machine-produced variant of the above. The fibers are mostly all parallel, but whereas a true combed top will present them tip first every time, a commercial top does not. This causes commercial top to draft a little less smoothly than true handcombed top, a tendency that is heightened by the fact that commercial top will often become a little compacted in shipping and storage, while handcombed tops are usually very fresh. Once you’re used to this prep, you can spin a pretty fair worsted yarn, a pretty fair woolen-ish yarn, or a range of yarns in between.
A rolag is made with handcards—it’s a puffy roll of fiber. Traditionally, for woolen spinning, you spin a rolag from one end, and your fibers end up circling around a hollow core as you use a fast longdraw technique. You could spin this with worsted technique, but it would be slow. You’d still get fuzzy, not smooth yarn, but it would be stronger than a traditional woolen.
A batt is made on a drumcarder and is like a blanket of fibers, carded, but more aligned than you get in a rolag. You can strip these, predraft them, tear off chunks, or roll them up, and then 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 preparation whether produced by hand or industrial equipment. It is commonly wrist-thick, though thickness can vary; one way or another, a roving is usually made from a batt, either pulled off the carding equipment in roving form, or in some cases, pulled later from a batt.
A sliver is a thinner variant of a roving. 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. (Note: it’s pronounced sly-ver).
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.
A puni is similar to a rolag, prepared on handcards, after which the fibers are rolled on a stick and compressed by rolling this stick on a flat surface. Punis are a common prep for cotton and other very fine fibers.
Hankies, caps, bells, and mawatas are common terms for silk preparations in which silk cocoons are stretched out wide and layered together. These do look rather like a handkerchief, cap, or bell, depending on how large they are and what they have been stretched over. These are typically spun by loosening the fibers from the middle and drafting (or predrafting) from the inside out to the edges. These preparations don’t lend themselves to spinning yarns that are as smooth as those from silk top or sliver would.
Abby Franquemont, raised in the fiber arts, lives in Ohio where she runs abbysyarns.com and serves on the board of directors of Andean Textile Arts. She spins, weaves, knits, crochets, braids, sews, mends, and designs, and talks about it all nonstop.
This article was published in the Winter 2007 issue of Spin Off, published to the web on November 11, 2015, and updated on April 26, 2021.