Shearing is done, the table and equipment are all cleaned and put away for another year, and the alpacas are all out in the field already growing next year’s crop.
There are multiple bags of fleece piled in front of you (if you’re lucky!)
Now what to do with all the fleece…………
This is the beginning of a long and vitally important part of alpaca fleece’s journey from farm to fashion.
Sorting alpaca fibre and making the decisions as to what each animal’s fleece will become is part science and part art and experience. It is also a much longer process than you might think. When I sort I consider the following characteristics before making any decisions.
Grade – alpaca fibre is quantified by a grade that is based on the diameter of the individual fibres. This is measured in microns, though with time and samples to refer to this can be done visually. The grades are 1 through 6 with the lower the number the finer the fleece. Finer fleeces are used in next to the skin wear, while higher grades are used in anything that needs more robust fleece that can take harder use without wearing out quickly. A rug or pair of socks created in grade 1 fleece would be lovely and soft but would wear out very quickly. A fine lace sweater in grade 6 fleece would be like wearing steel wool and would have been much better in a rug or a duvet batt.
Length – different animals grow fleece at different rates. In a year fleece can be any length from 1 to 6 inches or more, this is called the staple length. Most commercial mills get the best results from fibre that is 2.5 inches or better. Anything under that I hand spin into one-of-a-kind yarns. There isn’t anything wrong with short fleece, it’s just short. Short and long fleeces processed together are difficult to run through the spinning process and we achieve the best results by spinning fibres with a similar staple length.
Colour – This is one of the last considerations when making decisions about use or a product. While the colour of a fleece doesn’t affect how it feels, I must consider what might be created with the yarns in the future.
Additions – Alpaca needs help maintaining its finished shape sometimes so wool is added to the spinning process to help that. Wool is the usual fibre blended with alpaca, but there is a multitude of others. Silk, mohair, cotton, linen, and a multitude of man-made fibres are also available. We use only natural fibre that’s locally grown whenever possible.
Cleaned and Tumbled
Each fleece is laid out on a special table and any large bits of vegetation, stained sections, bits of fleece that aren’t the same as the main portion or any parts that are too dirty to use are removed and set aside for other uses.
Once clean the fleece is bundled and dropped in our tumbler to roll around and remove small bits of grass and dirt. The tumbler looks like one of those bins that are used for lotteries that roll and mix all the tickets up.
Following the tumbling, fleece is batch into the groupings that I want to be spun together. All preparations are documented for our personal records and to simplify everything at the mill.
You would be correct if this sounds like a lot of work when you read this. This normally takes weeks to work through all the fleece before packing it in the car and heading out for a date at the mill.
Then it’s back to the farm to look at all the fleece to hand spin, but I’ll talk about that next!