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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The Carder: The speed of the carder can (& should) be adjusted according to fineness of the fleece! Duh.
- 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.
- 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.