Category Archives: lanolin

Invest your Time, Increase your Fleece Value

Us fibre farmers are a hard-working lot. We work early mornings and often unplanned, late nights and we don’t get days off for bad weather or out-of-town visitors or the flu. Like toddlers, our animals don’t care if we woke up with a headache or have to get to the dentist, they just want to be fed and taken care of. All of them. Everyday. (“Didn’t I just feed you kids supper last night?”)

And so when shearing time comes along for the small-scale fibre farmer and you know you’re going to have to find a way to somehow squeeze in another 8+ hours of work into your already full schedule, the last thing you want to do is draw it out any longer than necessary. Get the fleece off the critter as calmly and quickly as possible, maybe do some herd maintenance like checking teeth, giving shots and trimming toenails while you’re at it, shove the fibre into a bag or two, thank the rare and wonderous volunteers who have given so generously of their time to help you and get back to your other farm chores.

But wait! You’re not done! Don’t be that guy!

This is the stage many fleeces are at when (if?) they arrive at the mill doorstep. We open the bag and find what would otherwise have been a beautiful, lovely fleece loaded with vegetable matter, dung tags and whatever else was swept up off the shearing room floor. Besides the usual culprits like straw and wood chips, (gasp! wood chips! no! no! no!) we have found rocks, branches, bailing twine, pine cones and paper clips. We have seen bags of wool that were so loaded with grass seed, we could have patched our lawn with pieces of them. Large commercial mills use chemicals to help dissolve vegetable matter – we have no such magic.

Whatever is in your fleece when you bring it to us will very likely still be in the finished yarn.

It is said that a fleeces value can be made or ruined in the 5 minutes prior to shearing. Set-up is key. Here are a few things we do here at Inca Dinca Do Farm to increase the value of our alpaca fleeces and make the job of cleaning them easier:

  • Assign each of your helpers a job. Someone to sweep, someone to bring animals in and out, someone to gather fibre as it comes off animals, some else to sort fibre, etc.
  • Arrange your shearing area is such a way as to have the animals penned close by. If you can, create a chute for them to walk (on lead or on their own) to the shearing matt. (Avoid having a tug-o-war trying to get them to the matt!)
  • Have a clean, straw-free surface to work in. Plywood or rubber matts work well. Do this even if you have a shearing table – it makes keeping things clean so much easier.
  • Shear like colored animals in groups. This will help to avoid contaminating fleece colors. (Best if you can start with the lighter animals and work your way to the darks.)
  • We use an air compressor to blow our alpacas out just prior to shearing. They not only tolerate this, but seem to really enjoy the feeling – they will actually push each other out of the way to get into the path of the air. The benefit? Amazing amounts of dust come off and our shearing blades last twice as long!
  • Have any medications prepped and ready. Trim toenails, do shots and check teeth AFTER the alpaca is sheared. Sweep area before next animal is bought in.
  • Finally, have a separate sorting area. A table to spread the fleece out on where you can sort, skirt and pick out the worst of the vegetable matter and any second cuts. Have your bags and labels ready to go – for each animal have a bag for the “prime” (blanket portion of the fleece) and another one for “seconds” (short or courser fibre, still usable). Use anything but black garbage bags! (Moths love dirty fibre. They also like dark places. Don’t do it.) Clear plastic is best but even inside out feed bags can work. And then have actual garbage bags for the garbage fleece (britch, topknot, birds nest, lower legs).

Sheep shearing is no different, with the exception of the air compressor – sheep are not dusty so much as they are sticky! The lovely advantage that a sheep’s fleece remains whole after it is removed – this makes skirting and sorting a breeze.

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An example of not-yet-ready-for-the-mill! Why pay us to wash and incorporate your barn floor into your yarn?

Now here is the crucial and final step that many farmers seem to forget:

Within a few days of shearing, we pull out the prime fleeces, spread them out on the table again and spend the necessary time to pick out the vegetable matter, second cuts, etc. Some fleeces require more time than others, but 10-30 minutes per fleece should be expected. Check your fleece for adequate staple length (spinning requires no less than 3.5″) and decide what is might be best suited for. From fine, beautiful lace weight (maybe blended with silk?) to courser but perfectly good yarn for socks, or maybe even core spun for rugs, every fleece has a purpose.

And now the fleece is ready for the mill!

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Yes! Ready for the mill!

 

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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.