This series will go through each step of the process all the way to the finished product.
Part 1 will go through the part of prep that happens in the barn or outside.
|“Brandy – You’re a Fine Girl”|
|“Alma Park – Rosalita Vito”|
Step 1 – Growing the Fiber
Alpacas are sheared only once a year and in my neck of the woods this occurs usually around the 3rd week of May. In NJ, the summers are too hot and humid for an alpaca to survive in full fleece as they are prone to heat stress. A full years growth produces on average a 3 – 4 inch staple length and 3 pounds of prime (the best) fleece. There are animals that grow much longer (I have a record 7.5 inches on my farm) and some shorter. An older gal on my farm who has had many babies typically does not grow past 2 inches. Prime fleece weight can also vary. Some of my finer animals only produce 2 pounds and some of my larger breeding males produce 6 pounds. Micron counts (fineness) ranges as well. I categorize my fiber into 6 “grades” that range about 3 microns a piece. The chart I use can be seen on my main website here. In order to grow a good, healthy fleece, an animal must have optimal health. Nutrition, environment, parasites, pregnancy, weaning and stress can all affect the fiber quality. As one who breeds for fiber production, these factors are of utmost importance and are monitored when I am sorting and grading the fiber. I also use a fiber test as a tool which can show weak spots in the fleece through a test we call “OFDA 2000”. It is a two part measurement. The first part shows the average micron of the fiber and the second part is a graphical representation of the micron along the shaft of the fiber. Higher micron typically occurs with spring grasses, lower with winter hay and generally varies a few microns throughout the year. Sharp downward spikes on the graph can show illness, stress, weaning (for babies) or parasitism. If you have questions about your OFDA or other reports, feel free to contact me, I would be happy to discuss.
This is Brandy’s report from 2010 – as you can see she is 21.4 microns which is still considered baby and she was 3 1/2 years old when this report was done. She did not change much in 2011 or 2012. She is typically 3.5 – 4 inches in length and is a dream to spin. She has no downward spikes in her second report which represents a healthy fleece with no weak spots. Weak spots can break when carding, combing or spinning in the mill or even when being hand processed. The weak spots can produces neps and noils, which is great for hand spun art yarn that I make (and get requests for noils and nepps in my spinning batts as well) but NOT what you want when you are sending 30 pounds of fiber to the mill in one batch and one animal causes issues in the whole lot. It is best to make sure all the fiber in the batch is ALL healthy. For me, I can do most of the grading by hand and also can “hear” weak spots, but I do still test about 30% of my herd each year (mostly young ones and my herdsires), so I can gauge breeding decisions etc.
|Average Micron Count Chart|
|Graphical Chart – Micron over the year|
Alpacas love to roll in the dirt!! This makes for a pretty sandy fleece and in the case of very fine animals lots of VM (vegetable matter). We actually have made the decision to coat our fine animals after shearing this year as it will make processing my fleeces easier and more fiber usable.
I blow out my fleeces with a special blower to get out as much dirt and VM as possible. It also helps to remove 2nd cuts (which are little short short pieces of fiber that are made when the shearer cleans up the body of the alpaca after the prime fleece is removed).
I do not tumble my fleeces because in my experience, it embeds the 2nd cuts and VM even more so. I know some folks swear by tumbling and maybe someday I will try it again.
Next time. . . .Part 2 – we move into the fiber studio.