Sweet Harmony Farm

  (Deerfield, New Hampshire)
Simple joys of the alpaca life ...........
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The Fiber Twelve Days of Christmas

once again, it's time for our annual song ...................

On the twelfth day of Stitch-mas, my true love gave to me:

Twelve knitters knitting

Eleven cones a’ winding

Ten orders shipping

Nine rugs a’ hooking

Eight yarns a’ dying

Seven needles felting

Six sample cards

Five spinning wheels!!!

Four pounds of fiber

Three nuno scarves

Two socks on one needle

 And a yarn store that understands me

 Merry Christmas Everyone!!!

 
 

For Lisa and Val

The camera is working again!  Definitely operator error folks, so we'll just leave it at that.  :)

In honor of the camera finally working, the first picture is for you, Lisa!  Here in front is Desi in full fleece, just before shearing this year:

Desi full fleece May2013 

And the second picture is for you Val!  This is adorable little EarthWind&Fire, whom Dan and I call Earthling, in full fleece:

Earthling May 2013

And for all of you, here are all of our fiber friends!  The first picture is missing Guinness; he was probably just out of camera range.  The second picture is missing Bo.  Bo was probably in the barn.  Bo loves his barn.  Yes, our beloved Julio is in both pictures.  Enjoy everyone!

Alpaca friends full fleece May 2013

alpacas in full fleece 2013

 
 

The Ultimate Fleece-washing Adventure

My usual routine for washing fleece has been to:  pick open the fleece by hand, pull out any large bits of VM [that’s vegetable matter for you non-fiber folks, i.e. bits of hay, straw, seedheads, grass, weeds, etc.], shake that handful, stuff said handful into a sweater-sized mesh laundry bag, repeat, repeat again and again, until the laundry bag appears ‘full enough’ which is probably about 3 or 4 ounces at most.  Then I step outside and shake the laundry bag again.  Now mind you, while originally sorting/skirting the fleece, which I only do outside, I have shaken the living daylights out of the fleece while it’s on the sorting table.  Huge clouds of dust billow out like smoke signals and I jump out of the way until it disperses.  The next day my throat and sinuses are on fire but hey, the fleece in the bag is much cleaner.

And why all the shaking of the fleece?  Because alpacas love to roll in the dirt.  They roll in the dirt piles that we silly humans create for them, they roll in the bare earth spots under trees, and they roll in the barn in the stonedust.  When they roll, you can watch really huge clouds of dust billow out from around them.  Needless to say, I don’t bother to ‘dust’ the barn.  Because alpacas have no lanolin like sheep do, the dust doesn’t adhere to their fleece so a lot of it can just be shaken out prior to washing it.   Or so you’d think.

So, I’ve been washing these mesh laundry bags of a few ounces of alpaca fleece in a large painter’s tub in the bathtub.  Washing fleece is really a matter of soaking it in hot, soapy water, removing the bag, dumping out the water, re-filling the tub with hot water and then soaking the bag in plain water to rinse the fleece.  Depending on how dirty the fleece is, you may need more than one soapy and one plain water soak; usually 2 of each will suffice.  You can’t agitate it or else the fleece will felt into a big blob and be unusable.  All you do is soak it.  As you can imagine, washing fleece just a few ounces at a time has been taking me forever and a day to do.

So encouraged by friends on Ravelry [thanks Maple! thanks Connie!], I decided to take the plunge and wash a pound in the kitchen sink.  Similar process, just more fleece at a time.   But before I even tried that, I instead ventured into the Ultimate Fleece-Washing Adventure:  washing alpaca fleece in my washing machine, an older top-loading model.

I decided on Arlo’s blanket fleece.  It’s white, with an easy-to-see dirt line, so it will be very easy to follow the cleaning process.  Besides, Arlo is such a cute little guy.  :)  After sifting through the bag to prepare it, I put it on the scale: exactly 3 pounds.  I filled the washing machine with hot water on the lowest setting, liberally squirted in the dish soap, and then gently stuffed all 3 pounds [silently telling myself:  You Go Girl!]  into the water until it was all submerged.  Mistake # 1:  probably not enough water.  This just means it will need another soapy soak, which I would have done anyway.

After about 25 minutes, I flipped the dial to spin, said a quick prayer, closed the lid, and waited for the machine to do its thing.  Mistake #2:  definitely too much dish soap.  And how did I know?  Soap bubbles were popping out of the drain pipe and dripping down onto the floor.  Oops.

When the machine was done spinning, I opened the lid.  All the fleece was attached to the sides of the machine.  It was attached so well that I think if there hadn’t been 3 pounds worth, I probably could have pulled it all out in one circular piece.  It came out in a few pieces, which I gently separated into more sections, and placed into the bucket.  There was sand at the bottom of the machine, but in reality not all that much, and easily cleaned out with a wet paper towel.  Now, wet, white, alpaca fleece looks kind of yellow-ish and so much dirtier than when it’s dry!  At least I already knew this so no panicking ensued. 

I re-filled the washing machine with more hot water, this time on the medium setting, and much less dish soap.  While it was filling, I started pulling out bits of VM that seem to all mysteriously appear in wet fleece.  When the machine was done filling, I gently pulled the fleece apart in smaller sections as it went into the machine, also pulling apart locks that obviously still had dirt.  Alpaca fiber floats!  When I was done re-loading fleece, I gently pushed it all back under the water.  

When this second load was done, it was all stuck to the sides of the machine again but not as tightly as the first time.  It easily came out in sections as I pulled it out.  This time it was noticeably cleaner.  Wiped down the machine again [not as much sand this time], re-filled the machine for a third time with just a quick squirt of dish soap, added the fleece, submerged again, spun it out again, pulled out the fleece again, wiped down the machine again, etc.

Now it’s time for the rinsing.  After filling up the machine for a fourth time, I added about a cup of vinegar.  Vinegar re-sets the ph of the fiber so the fiber is not dry and also helps to make it sparkly clean.   Added the fleece, spun it out, etc.  Then I did one more plain water rinse just to be sure.

I put all the clean, wet but not dripping, fleece into the painter’s bucket and went upstairs to spread it out to dry.  Mistake #3:  not anticipating that 3 pounds of fleece would take up substantially more room to dry than a mere 4 ounce laundry bag full.  Oops again.  Well, where there’s a will, there’s a way!  Half of it is drying on oven racks, the rest on the old screen I usually use, all spread out across our ridiculously huge bathroom.  I’ll pick apart the fleece and flip it around as it dries.  It was spun out in the washing machine so it’s not dripping wet, so should be all dry and looking very white in about 24 hours.

3 pounds down, a gazillion more to go ................

 
 

February

This winter continues to be warm and weird.  Most nights are still well below freezing but the days are still rather mild for New Hampshire.   We’ve hardly received any snow.   It’s the middle of February and we can see the grass and weeds.  Of course everything is brown and rather dreary looking, rather than bright green and colorful.  We’ve been joking that the winter of 2011 – 2012 has been one very long mud season.

fresh bale of hay

The alpacas are loving this weather.  Usually in the winter they prefer to be snuggled into the barn in the deep straw, behind the front wall of tarps.  All that hanging out in the barn makes them cranky and usually I find fresh spit on someone’s neck in the morning.  This winter most of the alpacas usually sleep outside, cushed under the stars, chewing their cud and looking very content.  During the day, they romp our frozen yet muddy pastures, playing and wrestling with each other.  Some days that wrestling quickly turns into an all out tussle match and Stella and I run outside to try to break it up.  Stella runs out barking and usually it subsides before I make it out to the barn. 

Needless to say, fresh spit abounds.   :)  

To keep myself occupied this winter, I’ve been playing with my bags and bags of alpaca fleeces.  Opening each bag, I know immediately which one of my alpacas formerly wore the fleece inside. :)  I smile, thinking of them running through the pasture or greeting me in the barn with alpaca sniffs and kisses.  I can feel their spirit running through my body and into my heart and embracing my soul.  I am so attached to each and every one of them.  I could never sell any of them.   It’s hard for me to even think of selling their fleece!  As I work with their fleeces ~ sorting, skirting, washing, combing, spinning ~ I smile even more.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  There is joy in working with an animal’s fiber that you’ve raised yourself.

 
 

Creating with Alpaca Fiber

We had a really, really nice summer here in our little corner of the US.  Most days I was able to enjoy utilizing my outside Fiber Studio.

 This is my outside Fiber Studio:

my outdoor fiber studio

weaving while watching the alpacas graze

I, sitting in my backyard in my trusty little beach chair, with Stella snoozing nearby, have been spending the summer weaving, crocheting, spinning, felting, knitting, flicking, and washing and sorting fleece while watching the alpacas serenely graze.   Sometimes they stop to curiously watch the passing wildlife or roll in the sand pile.  They are very peaceful days filled with warm sunshine on my shoulders and soft grass under my feet.

The rains and snow and sunshine feed the soil which grows the grasses that in turn feed the alpacas who in turn grow the fleece that eventually can clothe people.  What a sensation to watch this transformation happening over a year’s time.  As the alpacas go about their daily job of, well, being alpacas, I stand back and just imagine what their fleeces turned into yarn will look like and what I can make with that yarn.  My alpacas' different colors along with their individual personalities inspire me.  Periodically I also stand in the barn and thank the alpacas for growing their lovely fleeces for me.  They stare at me blankly then sniff at me for a treat.

There is something magical, meditative perhaps, most definitely purposeful, to caring for animals daily and then creating something to wear from their fleece, with your own hands.  I spend a whole year watching the fleece grow as I care for the alpacas, by hand.  In the spring the alpacas are shorn, by hand, and the fleece is carefully separated and then sorted by grade, by hand.  Then the fleece is washed, by hand, dried in the sun, and by hand still, processed into a roving of sorts to be made into felt, by hand, or spun into yarn, by hand, and then crafted into a wearable, useable item, by hand. 

Then you put this scarf or cowl or hat or shawl or sock or mitten or whatnot you've made yourself onto you and you just feel good.  It’s a warming and peaceful sensation like summer sunshine on your skin after a long and snowy winter.  I close my eyes and smile with gratitude for the alpaca that gave me this gift of soft, warm, comforting fleece to wear, who is living in my barn.    

There are no words to describe it.  Pure joy perhaps?  It’s similar to the feeling of anticipation you get when you plant your garden and watch it grow, then pick the veggies from your own garden, and finally sit down to eat and oooh, it tastes so good. 

Knowing where your food ~ and what’s really in it ~ comes from is very important.  And joyful.  And knowing where your clothing ~ and the fiber in it ~ comes from is equally important.  And equally joyful.  And it’s from own backyard, made with my own hands and soul.

 
 

And Happy New Year 2011

I had a wonderful end to last year / start to the New Year on Friday morning ~ I went to Sallie’s Fen Fibers to pick up another batch of my yarn!   I had this yarn done in a twist.  There’s a ply of white yarn, courtesy of Bo Jangles, and a ply of medium fawn yarn, courtesy of Coty and his mama Alana.  It’s a perfect rag-wool style yarn!  I think I’ll just call it ‘The Twist.’  Funny, Bo and Coty are always wrangling, wrestling, playing ‘Twister’ with each other, so a twist yarn from their fleeces is just perfect.  There was actually more fawn than white (yeah!) so I also have a small cone of just fawn. 

Yummmm........  Yes, yes, pictures will come. 

Wishing you all a joyous, peaceful, healthful, and prosperous New Year!

 
 

Growing the Herd

Next weekend, our little farm will be growing.  Our cria from last year, Henry (Hank), will be coming home to our farm to live!  We thought it best to bring home his buddy, so another little guy named Earth, Wind, and Fire (Earth for short) is coming home too.  Since the male weanlings are all penned together, Val wants to be sure her remaining alpacas are happy as well, so she is bringing along 2 more buddies:  North Wind (North) and Cowboy.  Four alpacas are joining our five here, bringing our little herd to nine alpacas.  Nine!  It's not so little anymore.  Counting our 2 gals, Dreamer and Alana, who live at Val's, we have 11, and next year's crias will make 13. 

So I'm getting sentimental and started looking through pictures stored on the camera.  I found many wonderful shots.  Hope you all enjoy these 2, both taken right before shearing days this past spring.

Just before shearing, 2010

Dan with Henry, right before shearing, May 2010

 
 

Got Yarn?

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!

 
 

Support Your Local Farmers

Sometimes, a sign says it all. 

Support Your Local Farmers

We strongly believe in the 'Buy Local' movement.  Just call us locavores!  Locally grown food is by far fresher than any produce found in a grocery store, and therefore much tastier.  To me there is nothing tastier than a tomato or apple or fresh herbs that I grew right in my own backyard.  And when weather has other plans, I just head for the farmer's market.  Luckily here in New Hampshire we have plenty of those, so we can eat local 7 days a week during the gardening season.  We also prefer that our alpacas 'eat local' too so we try to buy hay only from local farms as well.

Fall has arrived!  With this cooler weather we're all getting back to our knitting and weaving and other fun fiber arts.  Locally raised fibers are also a good thing!

(Thank you to our neighbor on South Road / Route 43 for putting up this sign in his hay field.  In case you can't read the fuzzy picture, it says 'Do You Like this View?  Support your Local Farmers')

 
 
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