Processing Alpaca Fibre by Hand

Washed suri fleece

Washed Suri Fleece

Last year, after shearing, I ended up sending everything to the UK to be processed. It cost a lot of money (you pay for the postage, the processing, the return postage…) I thought it was crazy, but I didn’t know what else to do.

This time I have decided to process the fleece myself. This has opened up a whole new world for me. I have always loved knitting, but to actually create the yarn from raw fleece is an amazing feeling. There’s something very special about spinning too, I think it hotwires you to ancestral DNA!

Processing alpaca fleece is actually quite a long and complicated process. I taught myself using suri fleece which I later learned is very hard to spin, but I seemed to manage OK. I am going to do some huacaya next so will keep you posted on how that compares.

From Fleece to Yarn Here are the stages:

1 skirting. Skirting involves removing long hairs, course or discoloured fleece, second cuts, dirt and “vm” (that’s vegetable matter, yarn making has its own vocabulary you know!) It is best to do this on a skirting table so the dust and stuff can fall on the ground as you work. Being a bit of a DIY fan I have made my own skirting table from an old washing airer and chicken wire. The airer has wonky legs so the table is on a bit of a slope, but hey – the price was right.

2 washing. After watching several YouTube videos (yes, there are videos on how to wash alpaca fleece) I bought a net lingerie washing bag from ebay. The idea is that you put the fleece in that, fill a basin with hot water and handwash, immerse bag for 30 mins don’t swoosh it around too much or it will felt – rinse twice by immersing in hot water, press dry in towel then air dry away from dogs who like to play with fluffy stuff. I have also – shock horror – tried washing the fleece using the wool handwash cycle in the washing machine and it didn’t felt, it was just fine! I think people get a little paranoid about raw fleece felting, so far mine hasn’t.

a wool picker

Lethal looking wool picker!

3 picking. This appears to be more of a US thing, it means opening up the washed fleece before carding. The videos I watched featured wool pickers – a wooden box with lethal-looking nails diagonally hammered into the box base and box lid which you then move backwards and forwards over small pieces of fleece. It makes it much fluffier and gives you a chance to remove knubs (more vocab – tiny lumps of wool) and other stuff you don’t really want in there. Anyway I found a picker on ebay.co.uk and bid on it successfully. After getting it couriered over it probably cost as much as a small piece of gold bullion, but at least I have one!

classic drum carder

My classic drum carder

4 carding. Although you can do this by hand with things that look like a pair of wire dog brushes, and in some cases actually ARE wire dog brushes, the fast way of doing it is to use a drum carder, which is another machine with two rollers covered in tiny metal bristles and a handle. You have as much chance of finding one of these in Italy as seeing a flying alpaca so I got mine from Paul Brittain at www.classiccarder.co.uk, who ise wonderful and delivers stuff extremely fast. His wife is a spinner and he makes the carders by hand from woods like beech and oak. They are quite beautiful. Anyway, you feed small amounts of the fleece in one end, turn the handle and gradually the roller gets covered in carded fleece which you then prise off the carder to give you a batt. This looks like a long wooly beard. I have discovered you need to card the fleece at least three times to get a good result.

a diz

A small wooden diz which makes rovings from the batt

5 dizzing. I find it is easier to spin from thin strips of carded fleece called rovings. These are made by threading the batt through a small disc with a hole in it. It sounds impossible but it can be done! I was surprised that such a small hole produced quite thick rovings, but you can also split those.

6 pre- drafting. Once you have satisfying coils of rovings, you can pre-draft them. This means pulling them apart as much as you dare without them breaking before spinning. It’s a bit of a knack, but worth doing in advance as spinning is so much easier.

a batt and a drop spindle

A batt and a drop spindle

7 spinning. Finally it’s time to spin. I have got a drop spindle and after watching a few trusty YouTube videos I got the hang of it. If you have a spinning wheel then that is also the next stage! I am not 100% convinced I am doing the spinning correctly, but I am getting lovely yarn, so that is the main thing. I like fat yarn, knits up faster!

8 washing yarn. You thought you had finished didn’t you? No, before knitting or crocheting you have to loop the spun yarn around a chair back, tie it in four places in a figure of eight knot and then wash it as described for the fleece earlier. This sets the twist of the yarn. After washing and air drying you can leave it in skeins or roll it into balls.

Knitting with suri yarn

Knitting with my lovely thick suri yarn

9 knit or crochet. Yeay! At last! But the long process is so worth it. There is nothing as satisfying as making something from your own alpaca fleece!