Friday, November 9, 2012

Preparing your Fleece - From Skin to Skein

The most successful alpaca breeders are those who have developed a formal marketing program for their livestock.  When it comes to fiber produce by their livestock each year, however, few breeders have any type of marketing program. The function of the alpaca is the fiber, and most bypass this crucial aspect of the alpaca.  Some send part or their entire annual clip to AFCNA to support the national cooperative, which, of course, a very important use.  However, there are many ways for a farm to profit directly from its fleece production that most breeders seem to ignore.  Income from fiber sales could contribute significantly to a farm’s profitability.  You work hard to improve the fiber produced by your alpacas; it’s time to take advantage of what that offers to your farm in terms of income and sustainability.

First, you need to create a good product. 

Evaluation

Know your product.  Not alpacas are as soft as cashmere…some are Brillo Pads! 

Have your fleece tested.  You need to know the representative micron value of each fleece, the uniformity and comfort value.  This will tell you the most suitable end use for your fleece.  Yocom-McColl has an excellent, standardized testing method. If you obtained an OFDA report, you can use the annual growth chart to check for stress points – areas along a fiber’s length where stress may have caused a weak point that could result in breakage during processing.

A very fine (low micron) fleece with good uniformity and a high comfort value can be used for products designed to be worn close to the skin, such as sweaters or lingerie.  A moderately fine fleece may be best suited for products such as hats, gloves, or mittens, which will be worn on the head or hands where the skin is less sensitive.  It may also be blended with coarser fleece to add a degree of luxury to sock yarn without sacrificing the durability of the coarser fleece.

High micron (strong or adult) fleeces in the low to mid-30’s micron ranges are suitable for socks or other garments that will receive heavy wear and thus require greater tensile strength for durability.  Very high micron (coarse) fleeces can be used for blankets or felting and needle craft projects such as rug yarn.  Regardless of micron, all clean alpaca fiber is usable, so take the time to gather and market those seconds and thirds.  As long as fiber is clean and unstained, and of spinnable or feltable length, it is a valuable commodity that can add to the bottom line of your farm enterprise.

Preparation

Pasture Management.  The first step to producing marketable fleeces is to maintain your pasture and barn facilities so that the alpaca are not exposed to excessive vegetable matter.  Setting up feeding stations to prevent waste hay from falling onto the backs or embedding itself in the neck fiber of your animals will help significantly.  Alpacas love to burrow deep inside their hay to find the choicest morsels.  If you can keep their heads above the hay mass, it will force them to eat what is available at the top, thus saving hay and keeping their neck fiber free of waste.  Keep your pastures and yarn areas mowed so that grasses and weeds do not have a chance to set seed.  Not only will this keep your forage source growing over a longer period of time, but it will prevent alpacas from being exposed to seed heads and weeds while grazing.  Be particularly careful to eliminate burrs and other weeks that produce clinging seeds which become entangled in your alpacas’ fiber and are very difficult to remove.

Shearing to simplify skirting

Whether you do your own shearing or use a professional shearer, it helps to perform that shearing task so that fleeces are shorn in stages, with the blanket shorn and collected first, separately from the belly, brisket, legs and neck fiber.  Please each shorn section in a separate bag.  This will facilitate the skirting process, since you will have already segregated based on your areas of micron divergence.

If you hand shear, you will be able to assess each handful or “clip strip” before placing it in its appropriate container.  It’s also very easy to shake out debris and dirt as you work, thereby simplifying the skirting process.

Clean your fleeces

A clean, well skirted fleece will bring significantly more than a stained or dirty “raw” fleece.  Educate your tactile senses and employ them in conjunction with your visual sense to distinguish between prime fibers and the secondary fibers found around the edges of the blanket fleece.  Remove the coarser fibers and set them aside for sale seconds.  Unless you are skirting for a specific hand-spinning client who prefers random color shifts, you should remove any color contamination (spots or areas where color changes occur in patterned alpacas) and set those fibers aside with others of like color and quality.  Be sure to remove all dung tags.  Dirty or stained fibers can be set aside for washing and use as stuffing.  Pick or shake out and discard sand, mud clumps, seed heads, burrs, and other vegetable material.  If there are areas that are clumped with burrs, try Cowboy Magic or similar equine mane and tail products to help you to remove them. 

Once you have skirted your fleece, place it in a clear plastic bag or storage box so you can locate it quickly.  It is very helpful to write the name of the animal and grade on the bag.  If you wish, you can combine fleeces of a single color in the same container, as long as all fleeces included fall within a comparable 2-3 average micron range.  Poke holes in the bags so the fiber can breathe and release excess moisture.

Sort  Gather the seconds and odd-color bits and combine them in like groups for marketing to those seeking those specific qualities.  In small quantities, you can use Zip-Lok freezer bags to keep those items collected and clean.

Add Value  If you want to go beyond the basics, you can add value to your fiber production by having some of it processed.  Some breeders have learned to car and spin, and make their own handspun yarns for sale.  There are also many small mills available where you can have fleeces washed, cared or combed and turned into roving, batt, top, or felted sheets for sale to hand spinners, crafters and weavers. Many mills can spin, ply and dye your fiber so that it is retail-ready yarn or felt.  Obviously, the expense of processing will increase the price you must ask to recoup your investment and make a profit, but having value-added product can broaden your marketing base. 

To get money out, you must put time and some money in.  You can get out more than double what you put in if you create a quality product.