First of all, we carefully sort through the fleece by hand to separate the best quality “blanket” from other parts of the fleece. Sometimes the fleece from the neck and tops of legs can also be included – although there tends to be a bit of guard hair mixed in, this is removed later in the process.
We also pick out as much of the grass, straw, twigs and seeds as we can, together with any bits of muck and poo (those pesky little “alpaca beans” get everywhere, and although they’re great on the strawberry patch, they’re not so good in knitting yarn). Of course, the more of this you can do yourselves before sending in the fleece, the greater the percentage of the incoming weight we can return to you as yarn.
Then we put the fleece in small batches (about a kilo at a time) into the tumbler. This is a big rotating cage, which slowly tumbles the fleece about, helping to get rid of more of bits of twig or grass, and any “short cuts” from the shearing process. Quite a lot of dirt usually drops out, too – we push the tumbler outside on fine days, and it’s amazing what a cloud of dust blows away even from what seemed to be a pretty clean fleece. And a little group of birds then appears to pick up any stray bits of fleece for their nests!
We wash the fleece in batches of about 4 ½kg (but we can keep individual fleeces separate if needed). We use a specialised machine which keeps the water at a constant temperature and minimises any movement of the fleece in the water in order to avoid felting, so the wash cycle takes over three hours. Alpaca fleece contains hardly any lanolin, so doesn’t need any harsh chemical scouring agents. The detergent we use is based on citrus oils, and is virtually 100% biodegradable. After washing, we lay the fleece out on racks to dry naturally.
If you’ve ever tried washing fleece you’ll know that, however gentle the process, what you end up with is a bit of a matted mess. So the next stage is to pick this apart, opening up the fleece ready for carding and spinning. The fibres are fed into a rotating drum and are rapidly “teased” by some rather scary sharp spikes as they pass through. The picker blows the fleece into a small room where we spray it with a light mineral oil which helps to protect the delicate fibre through the processes to come, and reduces static. Any time we’re handling the fleece, we also take the opportunity to pick out any remaining bits of vegetable matter, short cuts, or clumps of guard hair.
5. Fibre Separating
The fibre separator (sometimes called the dehairer) does exactly as the name suggests – it separates fine fibre from coarser fibre and vegetable matter. It’s basically a series of rollers rotating rapidly in opposite directions. Finer fibres will easily follow the path of the rollers, but straighter, coarser fibres or bits of hay don’t bend so easily to follow the change in direction, and so fall out into a collecting chamber underneath the machine. Our fibre separator has two sets of rollers, dehairing the fibre twice.
The fine fibre is combed from the end of the machine as a beautiful, soft “cloud” of fibre. Depending on the speed of the rollers, more or less fibre will fall out, so there’s a careful judgement to be made to maximise the quality of the fibre without reducing the yield too much.
The carder is the heart of the mini-mill. It takes in a random mass of fleece, separates and aligns the fibres, and transforms it into a fine continuous web. For fibre to be spun, this is then drawn together into a long “sausage” of fibre called a “sliver”. The rate of feeding fibre into the carder and the length of sliver produced are carefully measured to ensure that the sliver is of a consistent weight and thickness.
For machine spinning, measured lengths of sliver (about 100m at a time) are collected in cans. We can also wind the sliver into a large roll or “bump” for hand spinning. Not only that, but the clever carder can make “batts” – thick sheets of fleece for felt-making or duvets; and we have a special attachment for making rug yarn.
The next machine is the draw frame, which – as the name suggests – draws out or “drafts” the fibre.
The sliver is passed through the draw frame several times, firstly combining two or three slivers together, then drafting it out again into a finer sliver. As part of this process, the sliver passes over a very fine-toothed roller, helping to align the individual fibres. After two or three passes, we have a smooth, fine, even sliver, ready for spinning.
There are two elements to the spinning process – the draft and the twist. The spinner firstly drafts the sliver out again, this time much more thinly (the draw frame drafts the sliver to about 2 ½ times its length, whereas the spinner drafts at 10 or more times, depending on the thickness wanted). The drafted fibre is extremely fragile, but is immediately twisted, which gives it much more strength. The resulting “singles” (curiously it’s called that even if it isn’t plural) is wound onto a bobbin at high speed. The finer the singles, the more fiddly it is to set up and the longer it takes to spin and to ply, which is why the finer yarns cost a bit more to process.
It can take a fair bit of adjustment to get the level of drafting and the amount of twist right, as well as the pressure on the rollers (too much and the fibre may break, too little and there’s a risk of unevenness or slubs… or sometimes the other way around!).
But once it’s up and running, it’s very satisfying to see something that’s starting to look like yarn finally being produced.
The singles will usually (although not always – weavers sometimes prefer to work with singles) be plied – twisting two, three or more singles together to form a thicker, stronger yarn. The thickness of the singles and the number of strands plied together is what determines the weight of the finished yarn – 4 ply, double-knitting, aran or chunky.
The term 4 ply yarn can be a bit misleading, as it relates to the weight of the yarn and how it knits up (usually measured by how many stitches and rows it takes to knit a 10 cm square using a particular size of knitting needle) – not to the number of strands or “plies”. So a 4ply yarn may be made up of four strands plied together, but it could be eight or five or three or two…
We tend to use two plies for 4 ply yarn, three plies for double-knitting, and four for aran or chunky yarn,
but we can easily alter this to suit your preference.
The steamer “sets” the spun and plied yarn, which otherwise has a tendency to ‘relax’ and untwist itself.
The yarn passes from the bobbin into a steam chamber, through a heated drying tube, and is then wound onto cones. Each cone holds 1-2 kg (that’s at least a kilometer and sometimes more than 4 km!) of yarn.
The cone winder includes a “slub-catcher” which stops the machine when it a knot or slub comes through. These can then be cut out and the yarn either spliced using a compressed air-driven splicing tool, or neatly tied. The yarn can also be waxed at this point if it’s going to be used for machine knitting.
For some uses, such as weaving, the yarn can be left on cones. But often people prefer to have skeins or balls of wool. We can produce either. The skein winder takes the yarn from the cone and winds it into a large circle that is then twisted into a neat hank for sale, storage, or further processing, such as dyeing.
The ball winder is a marvellous little machine (and mercifully quiet, compared with some of the other noisy monsters), which produces perfect centre-pull balls of yarn – usually weighing 100g, but we can produce whatever length or weight is needed. We can also produce ball bands for you, providing information on the yarn weight, length, washing instructions etc., and including your brand name or logo.
And that’s it. We’ve turned that mass (sometimes mess) of fleece into lovely soft, lustrous alpaca yarn ready to sell on to knitters or weavers, or to make up into gorgeous alpaca knitwear and textiles.
So you can see that a fair deal of effort (and the occasional bit of angst – sometimes the fibre or the machines just refuse to cooperate) and lots of love goes into the processing. But for such a luxurious product, we think it’s worth it.