Every alpaca owner follows this annual cycle. An alpaca is born on or brought home to the farm. It is cared for by feeding hay, minerals, and usually pellets, water buckets are cleaned, emptied, scrubbed, and re-filled, given pasture to graze on, poop is scooped, toenails are clipped, vaccines and de-wormers and other medications are given when necessary, straw bedding is put down when winter is arriving, snow is shoveled away from paddocks and gates, gutters put up, and mud is cursed when spring rains come and melt the snow.
The warmth of spring arrives and our alpacas are sheared. For a fiber farm, that shearing day is our annual harvest! The fleece is usually put into bags according to alpaca and divided into 3 units: firsts (blanket), seconds (neck), and thirds (leg, belly, chest). A lot of farms will store their fleece this way in their barns, basements, and attics, later on skirting some of the blankets for fleece shows, or for submitting to mills to be made into yarn. Some farms have chosen not to do anything with their fleeces! The bags are piled up for years, sometimes allowing for mice to build their nest with, sometimes just rotting away, and sometimes it just gets composted. To hear stories of this happening to beautiful alpaca fleece saddens me. :(
Beautiful alpaca fleece is a simple joy of life.
From the onset of our farm, we have had our fleece sorted as well. We have always been focused on the fiber part rather than the show aspect and learned early on that alpaca fleece is generally not uniform in micron across the entire animal. ‘Sorting’ separates the fleece into grades (small ranges) of micron, and by length, and by color. So now some of my bags of fleece are combinations of alpacas, if their colors are the same. And yes, my sorted fleece has been sitting in our house in the bags! My rationale was that we’re a small farm (we only started off with 4 alpacas) and I wanted to combine fleeces of similar grade, thereby making the yarn process much more cost effective. I also have 2 white alpacas, Bo Jangles and his full brother Arlo, and although I love them both dearly, white just isn’t my favorite yarn color! I was also hoping to have different colors but same grades to blend in with their white fleeces.
Yarn is the basis of all textiles. Fleece must be carded into roving and then spun into yarn before it can be woven into fabric. It only makes sense that the basis of your product (yarn, fabric, roving, and batts) be as uniform as possible. To Dan and me, submitting fleece by grade for processing makes more sense than submitting fleece by individual animal’s blanket.
In April I decided we’d waited long enough, and I dropped 2 batches, i.e. several bags of fleece, to our local mini-mill, Sallie’s Fen Fibers. Sallie Whitlow has a fabulous reputation for the beautiful yarns she spins and we are so fortunate that it is really just a short drive. My yarns now and most likely in the future will probably always be some kind of ‘Herd Blend.’ Alpaca is said to come in 22 natural colors, which to me means when I blend grades of different colors, the outcome (color) will always be a surprise! Sounds like a lot of fun to me! Most people tell me ‘oh but the white fleece dyes so wonderfully.’ And they’re right! And, guess what, the non-white alpaca fleece dyes wonderfully too! Lots of time the (naturally) colored yarn will take on a heathered look when dyed, especially if some of the raw fleece is dyed first and then blended in with un-dyed fleece. It’s all so lovely! For now though, I am enjoying the natural shades and natural blends.
Last week Sallie called to tell me my yarn is ready! I drove over Friday in a storm and was absolutely delighted with the results. My first batch is my herd blend, ‘The Geldings’ Dark Chocolate.’ Guinness’ medium brown huacaya fleece was blended with Julio’s bay black suri fleece. Sallie did blend in a little black merino for stability for the suri fleece, and the yarn is an awesome grade 3 in a fabulous dark chocolate color. The other batch is my herd blend, ‘Cria Coffee Ice Cream.’ Here I blended Bo’s white cria fleece, Coty’s medium fawn cria fleece, and Arlo’s white/beige cria fleece. Sallie spun this as a 2 ply, and then plied those again, creating a really neat cabling effect. This cable method helps to strengthen that tender cria fleece. I now have darling coffee ice cream-colored, super soft, grade 1, baby alpaca yarn to enjoy.
I am in yarn heaven!
Slowly but surely the remaining fleeces will be sent off to be made into yarns or my new favorite fiber process ~ felt fabric! I can only weave so fast!