Preparing your fleece

Preparing your fleece for processing

alpaca_hairdoWe can only make beautiful yarn from good quality alpaca fibre – not from bags of thirds, or from hay, seeds, twigs, toenails, or alpaca poo! Our processes can remove a certain amount of guard hair and vegetable matter but we can’t work miracles; so if your fleece is very contaminated, so will your yarn be. Or putting it more positively, the better skirted your fleece, the better quality your yarn will be and the higher the return rate!

So here are some extracts from our Fleece Guide which we hope will be helpful in preparing your fleece for processing. But if you’ve got any queries, please do get in touch.

A word about vegetable matter…

alpaca_messyAs we all know, our exuberant, mischievous beasties love nothing more than rolling in dust, splashing in puddles, and generally doing anything they can to get lots of vegetation and general gubbins stuck in their lovely fleeces.

The phrase ‘groom your paddocks, not your animals’ is all very well in theory, but pretty difficult in practice. But if you can control the most troublesome weeds such as thistles, goose grass (‘sticky willy’) and burdock, which have sticky seed heads or burs, you’ll avoid a lot of ruined fleece. Moss is also a real pest, as it clings to the fibres, and because it’s lightweight it doesn’t fall out in the fibre separator.

There are also some simple things you can do to try to avoid too much contamination. For instance, don’t give the alpacas any hay or barley straw before shearing; and never use wood shavings as bedding – they get stuck in the fleece and never come out! (Cardboard chips are much easier to remove). And keep them away from the dustbath just before shearing – particularly if the rain has turned it into a mudbath!

But at the end of the day, alpaca yarn is a wonderfully natural product; and we’ve found that most knitters are happy to forgive the inconvenience of picking out the odd grass seed or small bit of hay or moss for the joy of knowing that the animals concerned live such carefree, happy, outdoor lives.

Shearing time!

Shearing-diagramThe most important thing is to use a professional shearer if at all possible (and that’s an alpaca shearer, not a sheep shearer! – although the latter will of course be better than leaving them with overlong fleece, which can lead to overheating and the risk of fly strike as well as ruining the fleece).

Sort and label the fleece as you go, separating into:

  • 1sts   blanket
  • 2nds  neck and tops of legs
  • 3rds   belly, chest, tail, and lower legs.

Avoid colour contamination by going through your herd in colour sequence (e.g. light to dark). Using a shearing table can also help, but this depends on your shearer’s preference. In other respects, though, remember that you’re the customer, so ask the shearer to separate the fleece in the way you want it, and keep everything at a pace where you feel in control.

If there’s a fleece you think you might want to enter for a show, tell the shearer in advance and they will keep blanket in one piece and give you a wider skirting margin.

Most shearers will also check the alpacas’ toenails and teeth and insert microchips for you. (We’re perfectly happy giving our herd their routine injections, but putting that big microchip inserter needle into the tiny little neck of a cria is just too scary for us!)

And make sure you keep your new herd of fuzzy stick creatures warm and dry afterwards.

So what now?

ShearingWhether you want to show your fleece, sell it, process it by hand or at a mill, or just keep it in the shed for a year or two while you think about it, the most important thing is to keep it (or get it) dry.

Some people do this by storing the fleece in paper sacks, (e.g. potato sacks), which allow the fleece to breathe, but these can be quite expensive to buy. Don’t use empty grain or oat bags, as these will almost certainly turn out not to have been completely empty and will contaminate your fleece with seeds! Polythene bags with small holes at the top will be fine if the fleece is dry. If it’s damp, a good trick is to roll the fleece in wall lining paper and then stand it in a plastic bag open at the top, allowing the paper to ‘wick’ the moisture out of the fleece. Avoid using woven polypropylene sacks if you’re planning to send off your fleece for processing, as these can shed plastic filaments which contaminate the fleece and are extremely bad for the mill machinery.

Make sure that the bags are carefully labelled – ideally by writing on the bag with an indelible marker and/or putting a label inside the bag: sticky labels on the outside almost always fall off sooner or later!

If you can store the fleece somewhere dry with no temperature extremes, moths or mice, it can keep for two or three years without coming to any harm (after that, then it seems to go a bit ‘flat’ and won’t make such nice yarn).

But you’re going to have to sort it eventually…

Five Really Simple Steps to prepare a fleece for processing

  1. Lay out the blanket out on a large table – preferably made of mesh so that any dirt, dust, and short cuts fall through. If you can put the two halves of the fleece together it will help you get a sense of the ‘geography’ of the fleece (where the neck, tail etc. would be), but it isn’t always easy to do this.
  2. Remove as much vegetable matter as possible – pay particular attention to the ‘crow’s nest’ in the centre of the blanket between the shoulders, which often has a lot of contamination. If this or any other parts of the fleece are very matted with vegetable matter, just take these parts out – it’s worth sacrificing a small amount of fleece to avoid contaminating the rest of the batch. You don’t have to spend hours doing this, but make sure that the fleece is reasonably tidy and you’ve taken out any larger twigs, leaves, seeds, burs, bits of hay, toenails, and those pesky little ‘alpaca beans’.
    Unlike when skirting a fleece for show, it’s perfectly OK to use a pair of scissors to cut out any clumps of fleece or to snip off the ends of the staples where there’s a concentration of vegetable matter.
  3. Skirting-diagramNow look at the edges of the fleece
    – you’re looking for the ‘skirting line’ around the blanket where the nice long, soft, crimpy fleece starts to get shorter and coarser, or where there starts to be a lot of straight, stiff guard hairs. For some fleeces, this is really easy to see – browns and fawns in particular can often be ‘colour coded’ for you, as the point where the colour starts to fade is usually where the fleece quality reduces. First (cria) and second fleeces may have little or no guard hair, so concentrate instead on where the fleece gets shorter, or less fine and crimpy.
    The main thing is to trust your sense of what feels nice and what doesn’t. If it feels soft, leave it in; if it doesn’t, chuck it out: it really is that simple!
  4. Turn the fleece over to look at the ‘cut’ side – you may find some more stray bits of guard hair, but the main thing you’re looking for here are any ‘short cuts’ – little clumps of short fibres from the shearing process, which will cause slubs in your yarn, but are easy to pick out. Again, remember that, unlike when you’re skirting a show fleece, you don’t have to keep the blanket in one piece, so you can take a bit at a time and put it into the bag, which saves the danger of going round in circles and continually coming back to the same piece.
  5. Have a look at the seconds bag – the fleece from the neck and upper legs is often very fine, but just a little shorter than the blanket. For our semi-worsted process, this will be fine to include with the blanket providing it’s a minimum of 5cm. (But other processors or purchasers may have different requirements, so do check with them first.)

And that’s it – congratulations!

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