Introducing Inca Dinca Do Farm & Fibery!

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!

1870 Carder(2)

“The Duchess”

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.

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“Her Majesty”

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!

 

 

 

 

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Notes from an Evil-as-hell Farmer

I read an article online the other day that addressed the non-existence of ethical eggs. The author talked about how all chickens are mistreated and abused and in his opinion, that the term “free-range”is a con. Sad, but I suspect the author lives in a concrete and glass box overlooking some bustling metropolis where he has to push through a crowd of similar lost-souls, into a smaller, moving metal and plexi-glass box for his morning commute to another concrete and glass box called work. I doubt very much he has ever set foot on a real farm, let alone considered supporting a local farmer in his consumer choices.

Yes, I acknowledge warehouse farming does exist. It is ugly and I want no part of it. Hence, I make a conscious effort to buy local and to know my source wherever possible. I choose to buy organic if I can but I actually place more value in buying local. (I think the benefit of buying Mexican organic tomatoes is defeated by the carbon footprint of getting those tomatoes here. I’d rather take the local greenhouse heritage tomatoes even if they aren’t labelled organic thank-you-very-much. Our farm grows kiwi-fruit, fertilized with alpaca manure but can’t claim organic status because my Dad used treated posts when he planted the vines back in 1989.)

Real farmers have to deal with a lot of shit. We really don’t need to be lumped into a generic category with giant commercial warehouse manufacturing conglomerates. It is entirely possible to be an ethical, responsible, respectful farmer. Some of us (gasp!) even like our animals.

When I had chickens, they were let out to roam and forage freely all day, every day. They often helped me weed the garden and would delight in the sight of the shovel, knowing full well this meant free worms. At the end of the day, they would make their way back to the coop and be safely closed in for a good nights sleep. None of them ever complained. In fact, I’m pretty sure they were ‘happy’ chickens who’s eggs really did taste better than anything you can buy at the local supermarket. (And on this note, don’t be fooled by the very odd “vegie-fed” label: chickens are omnivores. Vegie-fed translates to a confined bird being fed a highly unnatural diet.)

PETA had a horrendous ad campaign in 2016 aimed at sheep farming and suggesting the wearing of wool was supporting “a cruel and bloody industry”. They posted shocking videos of sheep being abused and slaughtered with the tagline, “Sheep are killed and left to die for our wool”, and made it seem that this was the norm in the industry, that all sheep were treated this way and that you couldn’t possibly shear a sheep respectfully, nor wear wool without being a heartless, evil-as-hell consumer.

I no longer support or believe anything PETA has to say. But I also buy my wool as yarn or roving from my local sheep farming friends.

Sheep need to be sheared. Chickens need to be locked inside at night. And yes, sometimes the flock or the herd needs to be culled. These are not inhumane & cruel things evil-as-hell farmers do for fun. They are part of being a responsible farmer.

And a responsible consumer is aware of that.

In This Faraway Place

 

When I see you again I will run into your arms
I will hold you and hug you and be held by you
And I will breath deep of the love in our hearts
And the world around us can go on spinning
But for the moment when I see you again

We will talk of wind and fire and other earthly things
And your smile will lighten the load I have carried
to your door
Somehow you will make me laugh and cry
With the same words.

I have been so hungry for your company
Your love will dry my misty eyes
and feed my soul
We will talk long into the night
And not be tired
Our voices will carry us back to the days of
Legs before they shuffled
We will bake bread and ride horses and swim
And I will know that
All that I am, I am
Because you have loved me.

And even now, in this faraway place
You can make me laugh or cry
With just a thought
In that even your memory gives me purpose
To continue on this road

And when I see you again
I will run into your arms
I will hold you and hug you and be held by you
And the world around us can go on spinning
But for the moment
When I see you again.

September 1998. For Grammy.

Washing Alpaca Fleece

Fall is here. The leaves have all turned and the mornings are suddenly crisp enough to need a sweater. I love this time of year. Growing up, we had a cabin on Windermere lake and all of my very best childhood memories involve my time in that place. No phones, no TV,  no radio. My bedroom was an old canvas army tent set up next to the cabin. We ate, slept and lived in our bathing suits all summer long.

I still hear that train whistle from across the lake in my dreams. Sometimes an image will flash across my mind and I swear I can smell moldy orange canvas life jackets.

Fall was my favourite time at the cabin. The lake grew quiet as the “city-folk” all headed home and it always felt like those early days of fall belonged just to our family. The water seemed to get darker and more still, reflecting the vibrant oranges, reds and yellows of autumn leaves. The incredible solitude of an early morning swim. May we all know that peace at some point in our lives.

To wash a sorted, picked alpaca fleece, I use 20 gallon buckets filled with the hottest water I can get out of my tap. Add dish soap without allowing any suds to form. Divide the fleece fleece into 3 mesh laundry bags and lower each bag gently into each bucket. Let this soak for 30 minutes. Gently lift the bag out of the bucket, refill the water and soap and repeat. At no time do I allow water to run onto or off of the fleece – always lower it into the water and remove from the water. Keep the temperature of the water consistent throughout. When the water runs clear (expect this to take 5-6 repeats), replace the dish soap in the next rinse with vinegar. (This will help to neutralize the soap so that it doesn’t weaken the protein fibres.) The final rinse should be water only, to remove the vinegar.

If you have a top loading washing machine, you can use the drain & spin cycle to get some of the water out. (Mine has a glass top so that I can see what is happening.) A salad spinner also works well. Be very careful at this stage – you have a warm fleece and are introducing agitation, the risk of felting is high. Spin only long enough so that your fleece is no longer dripping, but still wet. Skip this stage entirely if it makes you uncomfortable.

Remove the fleece from the mesh bags and gently spread it out a bit to dry. (I use plastic utility shelving for air flow, away from direct sunlight.) Do not handle it any more than necessary right now – leave it in clumps for first 12-24 hours, then spread it a bit more, repeat until dry. Your small ‘clumps’ of fibre will grow back into full fleece size each time you spread it out more.

Now, go for a walk in the woods. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a train in the distance.

 

thesandhill

On Green Llamas & Gentle Persuasion

Sometimes life gets away on us. We all get busy tending our day-to-day obligations and suddenly realize we’d meant to clean out the chicken coop last week, the weeds are taking over the garden and the dog has gone yet another day without a proper walk. Farmers are not slackers. We work hard.IMG_0511

But still, sometimes life gets away on us.

So it was without judgement that the Vancouver Island Llama and Alpaca Club (VILAC) put together a team of volunteers last weekend to take on the task of helping 4 llamas who had not been sheared, or even handled, for at least 5 years. All 4 were heavily matted, dirty and full of all matter of debris. Snowdrop, the big white, had a distinctive green tinge, the after effect of 5 years of our mild & moist west coast climate. Makes me think Bigfoot might exist after all – given time, this llama would have all but disappeared against the forest’s green backdrop.

Rosemary agreed to do the shearing.  We used a chute and did our best to keep all 4 animals as calm as possible throughout. We started with Snowdrop, using hand shears to figure out where the fleece stopped and the animal started. The weight of the fleece as it was cut off meant extra hands were required just to support it while we worked. Snowdrops fleece alone must have weighed about 50 pounds!IMG_0512

The difference in these llamas before and after shearing was astounding. What might appear to the uneducated as 4 very large, very intimidating, unapproachable animals would later reveal themselves as the sweet, gentle-natured beasts almost all llamas truly are. They seemed to know we were there to help and they reacted accordingly. Ask any camelid owner and they will tell you, llamas and alpacas know what you’re saying. They watch what you’re doing. And yes, they can read your mind. You have no choice but to work with them rather than against them.

Our shearing team consisted mostly of women. I believe that we have an advantage over men, in that we tend to rely more on technique than strength. Camelids are stubborn! Pull hard and they pull back harder. In the long run, respect and gentle persuasion will always get you further than the old cowboy mentality of overpower and control.

Nessa, Molly, Voldemort and Snowdrop are now pronking happily in the woods at the top of the Malahat on Sali & Bill’s farm. Sadly, this situation may be brief. The island highway is being widened and as a result, the old road to their farm has to be rerouted – the new one will be smack dab in the middle of the farm. In order to get the llamas from the barn to the pasture, Sali & Bill will have to halter them up, lead them through a gate, across the road and through another gate into the pasture.  Twenty years ago, this might have been manageable but Sali & Bill are no spring chickens – both are dealing with their own health issues. They would like their llamas to go to good homes as a group or at the very least, in pairs. For further information, please visit www.VILAC.org.

Snowdrop

Snowdrop, 50 lbs lighter and practically hugging Rosemary.

Ode to Tallulah

“I will give thee a dog which I got in Ireland. He is huge of limb, and for a follower equal to an able man. Moreover, he hath a man’s wit and will bark at thine enemies but never at thy friends. And he will see by each man’s face whether he be ill or well disposed to thee. And he will lay down his life for thee.”

(from “The Icelandic Saga of Nial”)wolfhound&girl

How lucky am I.

My ex-husband and I were married for almost 28 years, together for 30. We had been in business together as self-employed restauranteurs for 20+ years and had wisely invested our profits into the purchase of 5 acres of amazingly beautiful farmland. Our 2 adult boys were both doing well, one out on his own, the other on the verge. At the risk of sounding bitter but for reasons I will never understand, my ex decided all of this was not good enough – not the business, not the farm, not our life and not me. When we went our separate ways in 2013, I suddenly found myself facing life as a divorced, homeless, unemployed empty-nester about to be facing menopause.

Throughout the months after the separation, the comments from my friends and family were mostly along the lines of how well I was holding up, how I seemed to be so positive and how I even looked better than I ever had. What was my secret, they wanted to know.

These are the people who kept me strong, they were my “secret”:

My boys, for being amazing people. My oldest is so incredibly interesting, always learning and so darn good at everything. My youngest is a rock. I’ve never seen him give anything but 100% to everything he touches.  A beautiful, giving, considerate human being.

My siblings. So much love. (And yes, that includes my lovely sister-by-choice, Carolynn.)

My parents, for being there for me. No hesitation in offering to board my alpacas the moment they found out I was losing the farm. The collapse of one relationship has presented the opportunity to develop another. What a gift, this bond that has formed with my Dad and step-mom, at this stage in our lives!

My man, who helped restore my self-worth, my happiness and my desire. (And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a darn good dancer too!)

Life is how you choose to see it. Yes divorce sucks. Yes losing the farm was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. But I have so much to be thankful for. On a good day, I can be found sitting at my spinning wheel, walking my crazy dog, shearing my alpacas, weaving at my studio or dancing the night away.  Someday, maybe I’ll get the chance to live on a farm again.

Meanwhile, how lucky am I?

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“It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before” – Bill Bryson