Musings From the Mill Floor

I have been blessed with the most wonderful staff. Something about fibre folk and an enthusiastic work ethic – all of us as anxious to see the beautiful transformation from raw fleece to finished product as our customers always are. There are some gorgeous fleeces out there on Vancouver Island!!

One of my hardest working employees has to be Jacquie. She’s been logging enough miles in the mill to make her fitbit easily sing with joy long before quitting time everyday. She has figured out how to make all the equipment work as hard as she does, with a no-nonsense approach and a great sense of humour. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is not to have any concerns whatsoever about how efficient the mill is being run. Thanks Jacquie!

And on that note, please allow me to introduce Jacquie via her own words:

I noticed the blog was not being updated and knowing how busy Tracy is, I thought perhaps I could write some things about working at the mill – my own musings as it were.

To start, I thought I would tell you about some things I can now put on my resume.

First thing: I have become a poop expert.  That’s right. The number of people who bring us fleeces that have poop still attached is far too many.  I grew up on a hobby farm, I have cleaned chicken coops, goats pens, and other assorted poops.  And now I am becoming an expert on sheep poop.

The second thing I can add to my resume is mechanic.  Yep, me, who barely knows the difference between a screwdriver and a wrench, yet here I am working out how to repair a 148-year-old machine.  Now at this point I still don’t understand why wrenches are in 16 of something. 16 of what not a clue? So usually the whole wrench set comes out until something fits.  Some how I am working it out, so ‘mechanic’ added to the resume.

The third thing added to my resume is a brand-new way to swear.  You see Brenda thinks I swear too much, Tracy’s dad says not enough, and I am not sure what Tracy thinks.  I am Jacquiethinking I might start a new trend, using sheep breeds as swear words, (though at this point, the only sheep-swears I use are ‘baby doll’ and ‘silk’).  Why I do will be for another musing, but I will tell you that if you are at the mill and hear me using those two words, then yes that white van setting land speed records with one father, one Irish Wolf hound, fifteen alpacas and a llama jammed in, tied on, and hanging on for dear life because something has gone really wrong at the mill. So, are any of those skills something you thought you would need to work at a fibre mill? Me neither.

Until the next musing,

Jacquie

 

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Nobody said this was going to be easy.

If one was to plot the learning curve of starting up a fibre mill, I am convinced it would appear neither as a gradual or steep curve, but as a long wavy slippery staple of fibre, maybe something like Teeswater. One with lots of crimp. And still attached to a moving sheep. This is how our journey begins – so many ups and downs, so much learned and I am sure, much more learning to come. We are hanging on for the ride.

Brenda and I just came back from Michigan. We spent a week at Stonehedge Mill in East Jordan, watching, learning and absorbing as much as our little brains could possibly fit in. Stonehedge mill is owned and operated by the oh-so-generous, Deb McDermott, who graciously allowed us to bombard her and her staff with question after question while they enlightened us as to how things should work. It was a totally worthwhile trip that we should have embarked on months ago. Here is a short list of things we learned:

  1. The Spinner: Our spinner is missing a whole wack of parts! Clearers, condensors, tensioners, dividers and hoops. The back roller should move according to staple length, gears replaced according to draft and twist. Oh and those little orange plugs on the rings? Those are for oil.
  2. The Pin Drafter: Our pin drafter should have a release for the rubber roller, as well as multiple gears to swap out for desired roving weight. The formula for calculating the ratio is written right on the outside of the machine itself, but we didn’t know how to interpret the formula.
  3. The Carder: The speed of the carder can (& should) be adjusted according to fineness of the fleece! Duh.
  4. Dealing With Static: What we understood to be a 2-part fibre conditioner to keep static at bay is actually made up a fibre conditioner and a separate fibre cohesive. Although they can be used in combination, the cohesive is designed to help non-crimpy fibres hold together through the carding process. This cohesive on fleece still containing lanolin is a recipe for disaster.
  5. The (OH-SO-IMPORTANT) Extractor: 54C is not hot enough to remove lanolin! We have been washing at too low of a temperature & the ph of our water was not alkaline enough.

Early in the development of the mill, we tested all of the equipment on wool fleeces from my old herd of Cheviot x Suffolk sheep, as well as on my alpaca fleeces. I wanted to be confident that we understood the operation of each piece of equipment and that we were getting good results before I attempted to process any customer fibres. We had been handed a large backlog of orders from the previous owner (some customers had been waiting for more than 2 years already) that I was anxious to get to. The backlog included fleeces in various stages of processing, some of which were not at all obvious and very few of which had been washed.

The extractor was a new piece of equipment I’d purchased from Belfast Mini-Mills in PEI. It came with a pitiful 2 & 1/2 page (double-spaced) set of instructions that included details for choosing the wash cycle using a rotary dial that doesn’t exist. The electricians couldn’t hook it up until we paid to have a CSA technician come and slap a CSA sticker on it. The plumbers had to guess how to hook things up and after they did, it was discovered that the joins in the pipes included with the extractor had not yet been soldered. The belt that spins the tub was taped up inside the underbelly of the machine – this was not discovered until after we’d bolted it to the floor, hooked up all the pipes and filled it with water and then stood wondering why it wasn’t spinning. Belfast recommended 54C for wool washing so the plumbers set the hot water tank accordingly. Of all the pieces of equipment I’d purchased, silly me thought the NEW one should be working just fine and turned my attention elsewhere.

For awhile, fibre was going through the carder and coming out beautifully. And then we had one that pilled. Then 5 more that were fine. Then the next one pilled, etc. What was going on? I am embarrassed to now admit that the problem we started to experience with neps and noils in some of the fleeces were likely caused by lanolin left in the fleece from inadequate washing. Water temperature was far too low (Stonehedge aims for 80C) and our perfectly balanced well water PH of 7 was not alkaline enough for the soap to work properly. Had we known this, it would have saved us hours of frustration in our attempts to avoid neps on the carder. We spent a great deal of time adjusting workers and strippers on the carder, trying to find the sweet spot for the fleeces that were coming out nubby. We spent $5000 on new carding cloth. Some fleeces were coming out incredibly gorgeous, others, we spent days trying to coax through the pin drafter and spinner, lanolin and all. It was incredibly frustrating for all of us and I admit to considering swapping out the mill equipment for something less traumatic, like dog grooming. Or medical marijauna.

So here we are today, having learned a great deal from Deb at Stonehedge and a new spinner on it’s way. I am so very sorry for those first few customers who took home pitifully pilled fleeces as a result of our inexperience and I am grateful that all of them have been so understanding. I am also thankful for the rest – the success of which may have been total fluke on our part but is absolutely what we are striving for. We are learning, one crazy crimp at a time.

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Bonanza Jellybean and co., waiting for breakfast.

 

 

It’s Official. Spinner is Toast.

Hi all. Our fussy McFussy-Pants has officially been retired. She has come to the end of her useful life and will be replaced shortly with a spankin’ new shiny spinner from Stone Hedge mills.

It may take some time for the new spinner to arrive. Anyone with orders already in process will be notified of the delay via email. Our apologies for the inconvenience and we thank-you in advance for your patience.

Fussy McFussy-Pants (or why your yarn is not yet spun).

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I am there. My staff is there. It looks like we’re all headed to the looney-bin together.

“Her Majesty” as she was introduced to me, is a Roberts Arrow 14 spindle spinner/plyer built somewhere around the early 20’s. I was under the impression the title was a pet name, a moniker bestowed as a testament to her supreme power and poise.

Nope. “Her Majesty” is a disparaging, taunting label ripe with sarcasm for this persnickety, hoity-toity temper-tantrum of a machine. If you’re going to call her “Her Majesty”, you have to say it in the tone of a 13 year-old boy referring to his little sister who just got away with not doing chores because she has to go to dance practice. Most days, I have a hard time referring to her as anything but Fussy-Mcfussy Pants.

To take a fleece from sheep to yarn, you must first shear the animal. By all indications, some farmers choose to do this by first herding their flock into the workshop and rolling the sheep around in the wood shavings under the table saw, then a quick trip through last year’s rotting leaf pile for good measure.  (The milling process will not magically dissolve all that vegetable matter…you either have to pick it out before you bring your fleece to us or expect it to end up in your finished yarn. Pretty much.) (Sorry, I digress. Back to the process.)

We gently wash the fleece to get it clean. We lovingly spread the fleece on racks to dry. We put the fleece through the picker to open up the staple. We feed the fleece in to the carder and tenderly coax it into sliver. We painstakingly guide it through the pin drafter to line up the fibres and make them presentable for… “Her Majesty”.

There are many variables to be decided before we can even approach Her Majesty. What is the weight of the roving we are working with? How many twists per inch is suitable?What weight of yarn has the customer requested? How many plies will there be? This in turn determines the speed of the back roller, the speed of the front roller, and the speed of the spindles. The roving must be presented in a perfectly tidy and suitable coil. It must be fed “just so” over the dowels, under the rollers, through the aprons and the eye and finally though the traveller. Her Majesty is a ring spinner. Things have to be just so.

And we think we have it all good, hit the start and she laughs! Cackles even! Spits the roving back in our face. If she had arms, they would be folded, a head, it would be tilted up and off to the right in disgust. A “humph” in distaste of our mortal efforts.

And so we try again.

And again.

And again.

We adjust slightly, tweak a bit here, fiddle a bit there. Try again.

Every once in a while, she will actually spin something. A little tease just to keep our hopes up. Something to encourage us there is hope.

We are Charlie Brown. She is Lucy with the football. Please bare with us as we struggle to figure out a way to get her cooperation.

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Heather, attempt #347 & still smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

Working out the Kinks

Ah, the joys of working with old equipment! We are all learning and tweaking and learning some more as we get to know this quirky, finicky and somewhat particular old equipment. Not being experienced enough yet to know whether our stumbling blocks are equipment or fibre related, we are giving all the equipment a run for it’s money. We managed to put a 7-8″ staple alpaca fleece through the picker, carder and pin drafter last week – a challenge all round. We have not yet found the sweet-spot with the pin drafter and the poor carder has a completely bare stripper that is affecting the whole process – we’re anxiously awaiting our replacement cloth from the states. This week’s focus: the spinner/plyer. We want to be confident in our ability to provide a variety of yarn weights specific to the type of fleece and the requests of our customers. Luckily, I have a good inventory of my own rovings to test out the settings with. Experiment, experiment , experiment! (Who’s idea was it to buy old used equipment anyway?)

We are now accepting orders for April 1st. If you are contemplating sending us your fleece, feel free to email us and we will reserve your spot in the queue and let you know what date to have your fleece to us by. Can’t wait to feel like we’re in full production mode!

 

 

 

Whodathunkit?

Inca Dinca Do is almost a mill! (Almost.)

Lots of time being spent on getting the machinery all cleaned up and running smoothly this week. So much excitement as each piece of equipment roars to life and begs to be put back into production! There are some quirks of course, and some parts that need attention or even replacement but who wuddathunk a non-mechanical, can-never-remember-which-type-of-screwdriver-is-which kinda gal like me could be so satisfied by the whirring of a bunch of gears? I am learning so much.

We had some concerns from the electricians over the lack of CSA certification on any of the machinery, including the 2 brand-spankin’ new pieces I just bought from Belfast Mini-Mills. Every electrical cord and plug had to be inspected and almost all of the replaced or upgraded somehow. Luckily, Mike and Wayne from Current Electric are both incredibly hard-working and up to the challenge. Matt, John and all the guys from Rimfire Construction have all put in some very long days doing everything and anything else that demands their skills and Dan and Murray the plumbers have shown up more than once over the weekend just to get things caught up. I have much appreciation and respect for all of these fellas.

Meanwhile, I believe I finally have all of the fibre-in-progress that Anna’s lovely customers had dropped off with her. It is an impressive pile of fleece in any and every stage of processing!! I will be sorting, organizing and detailing every bag this week and hope to confirm all orders as soon as possible. Those of you that have contacted me about sending more orders have been slotted into the queue – I will follow-up to let you know when to begin shipping/dropping off your fleece.

Getting closer!

Electricians are getting equipment hooked up this week, plumber hopes to finish connecting all plumbing by Tuesday. I have been blessed with a bunch of friends helping to clean the equipment and things are starting to look like a mill!

I will be contacting each and every customer who had unfinished orders with the mill in Qualicum this week to confirm requests and to let you know where you’re at in the queue. I will also contact the many lovely people who have inquired about dropping fleece off – I am keeping track and reserving your space! If you have not heard from me by Monday Jan 22, PLEASE email me at incadincado@gmail.com.