Many novice and veteran alpaca farmers know that alpaca fiber is a very important and valuable part of alpaca farming. But before you take out your shears and begin shorning, take a few minutes to read this informative article on the steps involved in fiber processing.
First, a few prerequisites:
1.) If you have a small, manageable herd you can reasonably take care of the shearing on your own. It is a time consuming yet satisfactory process that will keep you engaged with your herd.
2.) If you are not skilled at shearing or are looking for a considerably professional job, consider hiring an itinerant shearer with the relevant skills to shear.
Fiber Processing Steps
Once per year you shear your alpacas. How does this raw fiber eventually become a sweater, a hat, mittens, slippers, a vest, or a variety of other garments? There are many creative ways to process fiber and ways to use fiber that will not be listed here. This list will be the basic steps for making yarn, and a little bit on wet felting as well.
Step 1 – Skirting: Take the freshly shorn fiber and spread it out over a mesh table. You will looking to remove two types of matter:
a.) You will first remove grass clippings, dirt, twigs and any other organic matter. The mesh table will allow all these organic matter to fall through the mesh while you pick out the imperfections.
If you have a fiber tumbler, skip to Step 2.
b.) You also want to remove the non-premium part of the fiber. This is usually derived from the neck, belly, legs and rump area of the alpaca. You can distinguish this as the fiber from these areas will be coarser and/or shorter than the “blanket” part of the fiber. This part of the fiber can be placed in a separate bag so as to separate it from the “blanket” part of the fiber.
Step 2 – Tumbling (optional): A tumbler is usually a mesh box or hexagon with a door on one side. If you are lucky enough to have one you can use this helpful tool to remove much of the unwanted particles in the fiber This is spun to allow the fiber to tumble a while, letting the small particles and short clips to filter out.
Note: the tumbling step should be omitted if you plan to submit a freshly shorn fleece to a show for judging. These fleeces must remain somewhat in tact with the fiber connected to itself in the way that it was on the animal.
Step 3 – Washing: For beginning alpaca farmers, it might be confusing as to why the washing is not done in the beginning. The answer has to do with the makeup of the alpaca fiber. It is not greasy like many other wools and so there is no need to wash it at that stage. More experienced alpaca farmers have their own methods as well. Some prefer to wash before spinning and some after spinning. The reasons can be varied from the brightness of the wool to the whether it will be dyed to whether you will be spinning a relatively tight yarn. Regardless of your choice, washing is best done with mild soap and warm water. There is really no need for special soaps or even laundry detergent since alpaca wool as mentioned earlier is not greasy due to the absence of lanolin.
Place the fiber gently into mesh bags, keeping them loose and using enough water so the fibers are thoroughly cleaned. You want the fiber to soak a while. Be careful to clean with little or no agitation. If you mix it or agitate the water much, the fiber will interlock and become one large matted fur ball that is useless. Once you’ve soaked them enough, drain your mesh bags and then spread out the fiber to dry.
Step 4 – Picking (Optional). After washing, the fiber will naturally begin to clump slightly. You can separate these clumps with your fingers, or use a picker. This device contains a series of very long, very sharp needles that separate the clumps into a consistent pile of soft fiber.
Step 5 – Fiber Drafting. This process is a way to blend colors of different fibers into new colors. This can also be done during the Carding step.
Step 6 – Dehairing. This is a process to remove long, coarse guard hairs from the mixture. It it can be done by hand during the skirting step, or by machine in a processing mill when being carded
From here you must decide if you want to make yarn or felt.
To make felt, it is a process of using soapy water in the fiber and working it into a layer that is the consistency of felt. When it is rinsed, the soap is removed and the fibers are interlocked.
To make yarn there are a few more steps…
Step 7 – Carding. This is a process to align all the fibers in the same direction. This can be done by hand with a couple hand-held carders that resemble brushes that you use to brush fiber back and forth until they are aligned. This process will yield a worsted-type yarn. To do more at a time, you can get rotary carders that will align more at a time, and give a woolen type yarn.
Step 8 – Spinning. This is the classic step that you use to spin the fiber into a consistent thickness of yarn. This can be done before carding also as some spinners prefer.
Step 9 – Plying. This process takes several strands of yarn and twists them together into a multi-ply yarn which will be much more strong and durable than a single twisted spin.
The important thing is to not get overwhelmed and not to expect perfection in the beginning. Try your best and get some alpaca fiber ready for spinning and see what you come up with. You won’t know until your try.
The beauty of alpaca fiber processing, is that still remains to a certain extent a cottage industry, so there are many alpaca farmers out there who are processing their own. Share your results with other alpaca farmers. You will get valuable feedback and so much more satisfaction knowing that you did it yourself instead of sending it off to be processed at a mill.