After weighing your incoming fiber, we tumble it. The fiber is put into a screen drum and rolled for a few minutes to shake a lot of the loose dirt, short second cuts & debris out of the fiber. This makes the fiber easier to wash and puts less dirt into our septic tank.
All incoming fiber is washed before we process it. Although alpaca fiber does not contain lanolin, it is still very dirty with sweat & oils from the animal’s skin. We wash the fiber in very hot water in a special washer, as agitation will felt the fiber into an unusable mass. We use biodegradable detergents specifically made for scouring fiber. Unlike large, commercial mills, we do not use toxic chemicals to dissolve the vegetable matter (VM).
Once the fiber has been washed, it is spread out on racks to dry, usually overnight. We do not use heaters to force the fleece to dry quicker, as it could overdry and weaken the fiber.
Once the fiber is completely dry, we feed it through the picker to open up the locks & ready the fiber for carding. The fiber may be picked a couple times, depending on how well it fluffs up and if we are blending different fibers or colors. We then correct the fiber to 20% moisture content and add spinning conditioners to improve the elasticity of the fiber and to help it hold together better. The low scale height of alpaca and mohair that makes them so soft also makes it harder to spin them than wool, so we add a little ‘hair gel’ to help!
Once the clumps are removed in picking, and the fiber is at the correct moisture level, it is carded. Carding is a fascinating process! Not only does the card separate the fibers, but it also drops out most of the VM and a lot of the coarse, straight guard hairs. Most of the second cuts that made it this far are also dropped out. We are very excited to show you pictures of our new carder, delivered in October 2013! She is a real workhorse and produces a lovely, fluffy product. Can you guess why her name is Lucretia Borgia? The fiber comes out of the carder in the form of a thin sheet, called a web. This web is then wrapped around a drum to form batts or run through a pair of rollers to form a loose tube, often called roving. We can also drop the web directly into a bag to return a beautiful cloud for hand-spinning or felting.
Alpaca fiber does not form a nice, solid roving like sheep’s wool does. We run all roving through the pin drafter once, which combs and drafts the fibers into a nice, smooth stream. It is easy to spin and doesn’t require splitting or pre-drafting like some top does. Handspinners love it! For yarn, we usually draft the fiber three times, more for Suri and superfine yarns. This means the fibers are very smoothly aligned, resulting in a lovely sliver to be spun into a semi-worsted yarn.
Spinning is a very involved process, combining precise mathematical calculations and a ‘feel’ for the qualities of each individual batch. A fleece may vary greatly in staple length, fineness, strength, and other qualities that affect ‘spinnability’, which may require adjustments to the thickness of the sliver & the amount of twist used. The spinner is tuned to each batch individually. As the sliver is fed into the back rollers, it gets flattened out in the blue apron, and then is teased out by the fast-moving front rollers. At the same time, the bobbins are spinning below, twisting the yarn as soon as it comes from the front roller. The spun fiber is then wound onto the bobbin as a ‘single’. Singles are often used for commercial sock knitting, weaving, or are sent on for plying.
Most yarn and even thread are plied. Plied yarns are several singles twisted together to form a thicker and stronger yarn. We have a 12-head twister that loves to act up when no one is looking: VM often snags the singles & throws bobbins off the machine, hitting me in the head!
The most common misconception we come across is people who think that 2-ply is the size of yarn. It is simply the number of singles in the yarn. Both laceweight yarn and mop string can be 2-ply yarns.
We generally prefer a 3-ply yarn, as it is a rounder, fuller shape than the DNA-like helix of a 2-ply. We also prefer to use several plies to make a bulky weight yarn, to avoid the appearance of mop string & to increase strength.
However, we make lace yarns in 2 plies. The time needed to spin a yarn increases dramatically as the thickness decreases and the twist increases, so the finer the yarn, the longer it takes.
After plying, we usually wind the yarn off the bobbins into skeins. Skein size is completely up to the customer. We default to a 300-yard skein as it is a nice manageable size for all but the bulkiest yarns. If you prefer, we can wind the yarn onto cones for ease of use in knitting or weaving. Cones are a lot easier to manage when using a lot of yarn and don’t roll around & tangle as balls can.
Although we try to get the fiber as clean as possible during washing, it is never perfect. As the fiber processes through the mill, it picks up more dust. We wash the finished skeins again, to remove the dirt, and spinning aids, and to bloom & finish the yarn. If balls are desired, we then wind the skeins into center-pull balls for ease of use. The yarn is then returned ready to use or to sell! As coned yarns are wound onto paper cones, we cannot wash coned yarn. Simply wash your project when you’re done creating – don’t forget to wash your swatches!