Category Archives: learning

Machinery Misery

Some sort of craziness has settled in around the farm these days. Winter has overstayed its welcome and can’t seem to take a hint, yet the sun seems to need convincing that she really has been invited to the party. Deciding what to wear in the morning takes on a whole new challenge. The mill is busy, shearing season is upon us (relative to rain) and everything needs to be either pruned. mowed or weeded RIGHT NOW.

Earlier in the year, we spent a good two weeks fighting with and figuring out issues with the pin drafter. The pin drafter is a vital step between carding and spinning. Combs kept jamming up just as they changed direction in the worm drive. Too much tension and they jammed every time, too little tension and they had the potential to break right off. As I watched customer orders come off the carder and stack up at the now-defunct pin drafter one by one, waiting for their turn, we took the entire machine apart -twice. We inspected, cleaned and re-greased everything. Still jamming. We finally got lucky when Jacquie managed to track down a local machinist (via facebook of course) who had a keen interest in old machinery and was up to the challenge. (Thanks Greg, for your ingenuity in rigging up piano wire to provide the combs with a little extra push as they cleared – genius!) And a sigh of relief as backlogged orders start to move through the mill again.

Then we broke a piece on the carder. A very important, can’t-work-without-it kind of piece. Where does one go to find replacement parts for a machine built in 1870? Foreman CNC Machining in Sidney! New, perfect replica steel piece manufactured within a week! Yes! Thank-you!

And then we had to replace the cloth on the fancy. No problem, I think. The backlog is moving once again and smarty me, had the replacement fancy cloth ordered and delivered months ago.

The fancy is the large drum at the output end of the carder. It’s job is to take the fibre off the swift (in fact, it is the only thing that ever touches the swift directly), and pass it on to the doffer. The old cloth was on it’s last legs – leather backing was started to break down and the wires beginning to let go. (Read, wires ending up in the sliver. Bad news.)  The new cloth is very pretty – shiny new wires, red background. Only the wires are longer. And a heavier gauge. And more densely concentrated on the cloth. No worries – fancy can be adjusted closer or further from swift.

Two things happen. When fancy is too far from swift, fibre loads up on the fancy cloth but does not release. As it goes round and round, it actually gets brushed into little miniature rolags right on the fancy. Not pretty rolags. Tight little useless rasta rolags. No way these are going through pin drafter and even less chance they’ll cooperate in the spinner. We could clean the fibre off the fancy 3x per fleece but customer is going to wonder where 2/3 of their fleece disappeared to! Alternative? Move fancy closer to the swift. Suddenly, the nice white fluffy fleece we are feeding into the carder is coming out filthy GREY. The fancy is brushing the swift cloth itself and taking every little speck of dirt, dust and who-knows what with it. And no, it doesn’t eventually get better – it steadily gets worse. It is suggested that the surface of the fancy, because the wires are longer, is actually moving at a much faster speed than it was before. Slow the fancy down. We have no separate control but we can add rubber to the drive pulley. This helps somewhat but not enough. I am lost. I don’t know what else to try. I send a sample of old cloth to carding cloth company with a rush order – they can replicate a custom order but no indication of how long this will take.

Machinery issues can cause you to second guess everything. I admit that some days when it comes to the mill, I swing wildly from “This is the best thing ever” to “Why didn’t I just raise Irish Wolfhounds instead?” The mill has come to a complete stand still. We have 2 or 3 fleeces waiting to be spun and a whole lot washed, being washed or about to be washed and that is where we sit until new cloth comes. Oh mercy. No one said this would be easy.


photo credit: Tania E. Veitch



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.


Bonanza Jellybean and co., waiting for breakfast.