Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Joy of Fiber Mills

There was a comment on my previous post about using mills, so I thought I would explain a little further. (Click any photos to see them larger.)

Last year I bought eight fleeces from my favorite shepherd. She raises Romney x Wensleydale x Cotswold sheep and their fleeces come in all colors. They hang in long ringlets and have a wonderful sheen to them. I hand washed all of the fleece and then balked at hand-combing it all. I also had some alpaca cria fleeces in a wide range of colors - fawn, beige, grey, rose grey and a deep cinnamon. These fibers are gorgeous because of their color and I wanted each fleece processed into roving separately. Who would want to mix such unique colors?

When I buy a fleece, the first thing to do is wash it to get the lanolin, suint (sheep sweat) and dust out. I pick through by hand to pull out the obvious second cuts, big pieces of hay and matted locks. The detailed procedure is fodder for a later post, but suffice to say it's time consuming. Each batch goes through two or three soapy washes and two or three rinses until the water runs clear. This photo shows part of two sheep fleeces and one of those lovely alpaca fleeces from last year (blanket only) drying in my studio. It's taken me several evenings to wash all of this and now it's setting on racks with a fan blowing to dry. Part of the time limitation is how much shelf space I have to allow the fiber to spread out for fast drying. You can see the wet fiber on the lower shelves, and how much it fluffs up when dry.

I have equipment here to hand-process smaller amounts of fiber. I can use my mini-combs, which are great for longer fiber and which may come into use when I work on the really long Polypay fleeces. I've also used these on an alpaca fleece that was full of hay and straw. If that were run through a big machine, all the bits of hay would get smashed into the fiber and it would be unpleasant to spin. Combs are great because they comb through the fibers, straighten them out, and allow me to separate the good fiber from the chaff, so to speak. Short pieces of fiber, second cuts, tangles and vegetable matter all stay behind. There is more waste, but nothing beats the soft, clean fiber that results from combing. It's VERY labor intensive though because I can only comb a few locks at a time - maybe 1/4 to 1/2 ounce per batch.

I also have a drum carder. This is a mini-version of what a mill would use to card fiber into roving. I run the fiber through and the little teeth on the drum catch the fibers, sort of straighten them out and let me blend in other fibers like silk, bamboo, sparkle and other colors of wool. I can fit about an ounce and a half at a time on the drum. It makes lovely batts and I can pull those batts into roving if I want to. If I'm working with fleece, I need to fluff the locks up first, before running them through. Otherwise the tips catch on the teeth and too much fiber feeds in at once. This will jam the whole thing up. I love making batts with add-ins, but this would also be a lot of work to card through many pounds of wool.

For example, this is about 25 batts adding up to about two pounds total. You can see a soda can for scale. This took me several evenings to do and would maybe be one fleece worth of fiber.

I searched around and found a lot of mills have minimum orders for a batch. They need to clean the drums on their industrial size carders between each batch and it's a lot of work. Most of the local mills required two pounds or more of clean fiber per run. That's a problem when an alpaca cria blanket weighs less than that washed. Most of my colored sheep fleeces were also under two pounds each. I was going to have to cave in and blend them, when I found a mill that will process any size batch. I drove up there a month or two ago and dropped off all of my washed colored fleeces, several alpaca fleeces and a few other odds and ends where I had one fleece of each breed, like one Corriedale, one Rambouillet, one Shetland x Merino and one Romney. All of these breeds have different characteristics and the staple length of the fibers varied. I wanted to keep them separate so I could take advantage of their unique qualities, even if they were white.

When I found a source for Polypay fleeces, I ended up buying 20 pounds, which is about seven skirted fleeces. They were all thrown together in a bag because each sheep was similar to the next. The fiber had the same characteristics and it was all about the same length. There's no reason to keep all of this separate, so I found a mill closer to home that had affordable prices for both washing and carding fleece. I dropped off the big bag of greasy locks and walked away knowing that I'll end up with clean roving. I'm going to do the same with three Texel x Targhee fleeces (about 12 pounds total) I bought last weekend. They look like this right now:

When I get them back, they'll look like this:

In this case, it's very worth it to me to have someone else with better equipment do all of the work. I'd rather spend my time dyeing and spinning, especially since the shop is taking more of my time. I'll hopefully have the individual fleeces back by the end of the month so I'll have new photos to share. It also means I may be able to offer locally-raised wool roving in my shop. I can sell locks, but many spinners without this specialized equipment would rather buy roving.

No matter how much work it is or what the added expense may be, I really love working with fresh fleece. The smell of lanolin makes me happy and it's a chance to work with local shepherds. They have a market for their fleeces since I'm connected with the handspinning world, and I have a source for fiber that hasn't been treated with chemicals or over-processed to remove the bits of hay. It also means I have the chance to work with breeds of sheep that aren't often commercially available. Merino, Corriedale, Shetland and Blue Face Leicester are common, but unique breeds or cross-breeds are very difficult to find. Every breed of sheep has a purpose and their wool varies wildly. It's so much fun exploring all the different types.

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