I bought a mill! (You bought a what?!)
After operating Qualicum Bay Fibre Works for more than a decade, proprietor Anna Runnings decided she’d done her time and put her mill equipment up for sale earlier this year. When I jokingly passed the idea of a fibre mill by my Dad and step-mom one day, (which happened to be just as we were winding up our annual alpaca shearing and we were waist deep in freshly shorn fleeces), they both thought about it for a few days and decided it was a darn good idea. (And when I say they thought it was a good idea, what I mean is that they both insisted! Here was a way to make the farm viable again, for me to buy the farm and keep my herd long into the future and most importantly, to live my dream of investing my time full-on into the fibre world. As a bonus, I would be around to help my Dad with my step-mom’s dementia. How could I say no?)
As part of the deal, Anna included her wisdom on the ins and outs of the business, the use and maintenance of the equipment. Over the summer, I dragged my friend Brenda up to Qualicum for the weekend many times and went a few more times myself. To my delight, Brenda did not run away screaming when she saw what she was getting into!
The carder is the heart of the mill and she is lovingly referred to as “The Duchess”. Built in Philadelphia in 1870, weighing in at just over 4800 lbs, she consists of a giant swift, 5 sets of workers & strippers and a massive doffer that together, purr like a contented kitten. This beast takes your washed fleece and combs it into manageable batts. Add the roving deck to the output end and you get a beautiful, wispy sliver ready for spinning. As a long time customer of Anna’s, I can attest to what The Duchess can do.
Raw fleece must be skirted, sorted and picked by hand before it arrives at the mill. The equipment will get some vegetable matter out but not all – like anything, the more time spent in preparation, the smoother and lovelier the end result. At the mill, the fibre is washed and spread out to air-dry. A run through the Picker will open up the staples to allow the fleece to feed consistently into the carder. After The Duchess has worked her magic, the slivers are most likely to require pin-drafting. The Pin Drafter uses very fine combs to turn multiple slivers into consistent, stable rovings – perfect for handspinners and an absolute must as a prerequisite for the mill’s spinner/plyer.
The 14-head spinner/plyer was originally part of a larger machine built in the 60’s. “Her Majesty” converts the rovings to singles, then later to a 2, 3 (or more) plied yarn. This is the stickiest part of the process – too thin or too thick rovings will just pull apart, too slippery and the same thing happens. In Anna’s years of experience, she has found that exotics often don’t cooperate unless they have had the addition of a small percentage of wool. As we get to know our equipment, we should be able to judge whether or not your fleece might benefit from being blended.
Blending of fibre types and/or colors can be done at any stage of the process. For a homogenous end result, the blend should be introduced as early as possible, (i.e., in the picking or carding stages). If the preference is for a streaky, variable roving or yarn, then introducing the blend at the pin drafter is advised. In many cases, we can provide the necessary fibre for blending (with a preference for local fleece whenever possible) but are happy to accept fibre procured by the customer too.
We will process wool, alpaca, llama and mohair. Our equipment does not include a dehairing machine for fibres like cashmere and some llama, nor will we be doing any custom dyeing at this time. We did however, invest in a rug core spinner. This machine will take your courser, lower-grade fibres, spin them around a cotton, jute or burlap core and spit out a strong yarn perfect for weaving into rugs. (This is a fibre-farmers dream! What to do with all your spinnable, but lower grade fleece or even seconds!)
As of today, the building that will house the equipment is a few weeks away from completion. Anna has brought me all of her not-yet complete orders and I really hope to get started on them by first week of January, with an official opening date before the end of January. This will be a long road involving a ton of hard work and a huge learning curve. I expect to work ridiculously long hours (at first), to have unpredictable things go wrong (at the worst moments) and (ideally) to be proud and delighted at the results. May the demigods of cast-iron, caterpillar drives and rotating shafts smile kindly upon our endeavours! Whether you are a previous customer of Qualicum Bay Fibre Works or are new to using a local mill, we look forward to surpassing your expectations!