Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Skirting Carmella's Fleece
Late spring into summer is a busy time for alpaca farms, including ours (Golden Pine Alpacas). This is the time to tackle all those poly bags stuffed with fleece from the May shearing.
During shearing, the fleece from each alpaca is separated into three bags. The prime fleece comes off the alpaca's back and sides, the seconds are taken from the neck and lower thighs, and the thirds are everything else. The bags for each alpaca are weighed then stored in a cool room in the barn.
The prime fleeces are gone through individually to determine which will make the grade for processing into yarns or roving. A roving is a long and narrow bundle of fiber. Rovings are produced during the process of making spun yarn from wool fleece, raw cotton, or other fibers. Their main use is as fiber prepared for spinning.
The qualities we look for are fineness, uniformity, staple length, and brightness – the qualities that make alpaca fiber unrivaled even by cashmere. To make these decisions, we place the prime fleece, which usually weighs from 3 to 4 pounds, on a homemade skirting table made especially for this purpose. Not all fleeces make the grade. However, the rejected fleeces can still be used for other purposes.
The 4-foot by 4-foot skirting table is made from white coated metal grid closet shelving material. The legs are 1.5 inches white PVC water pipe and connected to the table with pipe fittings. The reason for the grids is to allow dirt and debris from the fleece to fall through onto the floor. Alpacas love to roll in the dirt!
The fleece, called a blanket, is first laid out carefully on the table, cut side up. Our shearer attempts to cut the fleece off the body in such a way that she does not need to go over the area again with the shearers. However, that is not always possible and what are called "second cuts" will appear on the fleece. These are very short pieces of fiber which must be removed as they will adversely affect the yarn and roving quality. An expired credit card will nicely flick off these unwanted second cuts.
"Skirting" is a good term for what comes next. The edges of the fleece are carefully examined for unwanted pieces, such as lower quality fiber, dung, and vegetable matter. These pieces are discarded. Next, small tufts of fiber are pulled from several places in the blanket to determine staple or fiber length. Hopefully, the staples will be uniform in length as variable lengths will make poorer quality yarn. Any fiber showing a variance over one-half inch of the average staple length is eliminated from the blanket.
A truly uniform fleece will be consistent not only in staple length but also fineness. Uniformity is an important quality in alpacas' fiber that we selectively breed for.
The fleece blanket is now turned over, cut side down. Here, we continue to remove unwanted material such as hay, burrs, and other debris which alpacas collect on their fleece over time.
Tumbling is the final step in fleece preparation before it goes to the mill for processing into yarn and roving. Here, the skirted fleece is placed in a large drum with wire screening and 14 fiberglass separators designed to penetrate the fleece and open it up during the tumbling process. The tumbler drum is attached to a belt driven electric motor and mounted waist-high on a wall behind a shed. We secure the drum cover, set the timer for the length of tumbling time, and watch the dust fall to the ground. It is amazing how much dust these alpacas retain in their fleeces!
Now the fleece is ready for the milling process. We deliver the fleeces to a small, family-run mill in Sunnyside, Washington which washes, picks, and cards the fiber before placing it in a draw frame to stretch and straighten the fiber before spinning and plying it into yarn.
Cottage industry mills in the U.S. are usually small operations. Because of the high demand from alpaca farms, the time from raw fleece delivery to finished yarn or roving can take up to 10 months.
It's a day to celebrate when we receive our newly finished yarn. Labels with the alpacas' pictures and information about the yarn are quickly slipped onto the skeins and local knitters are notified that their favorite colors from their favorite alpacas are again available. The yarn and other products from our alpacas are also sold throughout the U.S. from our websites.
[This Blog is a reprint from an article written by Barb Patterson of Golden Pine Alpacas for the Goldendale Sentinel: Alpaca Fleece Gets Prepped for Production| October 14, 2015 | Vol.136 No.41]