Thursday, January 16, 2014

Series (Installment 1 - Huacaya Alpaca): Spinning my way through the Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook

Introduction to the Series: 

If you are a fiber fanatic (like me), then owning the "Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook" by Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson is not a "nice to have", but rather an essential guide to the wonderful world of fiber animals!!  It is one of my favorite books in my crafting library.  It not only shows a picture of the fiber animal, but also raw and washed samples of their fiber, yarn spun from said fiber and a knit swatch.  There are many breeds of sheep listed that are not common and it is by no means an exhaustive list.  The book while mainly sheep (because there are so many varieties), also contain other fiber animals like camelids, bison, goats, bunnies and more!

Many breeds were unknown to me as I read through the book and I am now on a quest to try to source as many "elusive" breeds as possible.  I have been actively searching out different breeds of sheep (of which there are 100s) in order to work with them, learn what they are best suited for, and just get to know them a bit better. Let's call it my "bucket list". If you own or raise conservation, heritage, rare or simply elusive sheep breeds mentioned in this book and would like to have your breed (and farm) featured, please contact me. Conservation and heritage breeds are of particular interest to me as they are very rare. 

Obviously as an alpaca breeder, I have spun my fair share of alpaca, so I thought it only logical to start with that. 

I will try to speak to the following points on each installment (fiber type):

  • Fiber characteristics 
  • Grades 
  • Blending  
  • Prep work  
  • Spinning ease 
  • Dye uptake
  • Setting
  • Knitting 

Huacaya Alpaca:

Alpaca fiber comes in 2 main types; huacaya (which I raise) and suri.  They have different characteristics, spin differently and behave differently once spun.  This installment will focus on huacaya fiber, which behaves more like wool.  I will do another installment on suri which should definitely have it's own feature as it truly is a different and unique fiber.

I have a program called Adopt-a-Paca which I have featured on this blog before.  This is another project from that program and features Dante (again) who is one of my most popular alpacas to adopt!  

Dante after shearing
This particular project was ordered by a gentlemen who wanted a purple scarf for his wife for Christmas in 100% alpaca.  I do not have a lock or sample of Dante's fiber, because I sent it all to the mill to be processed into roving.  Since he is a such a popular adoption candidate, I knew it would save me time.  I have included a very similar lock of another animal that matches Dante's in crimp style, brightness and coloring.  Dante is a beige boy and overdyes well. 

So my assessment of THIS particular huacaya alpaca fiber and some generalizations about alpaca: 

  • Fiber Characteristics - alpaca fiber has little to no memory, so when working with a fitted garment, one should look to blend with wool (in similar micron to the alpaca) or silk.  Alpaca/silk blends are decadent and one of my favorites.  Many argue that increased crimp in alpaca will lead to increase memory but I do not believe that to be true and do not see that when working with crimpy vs non-crimpy alpaca.  Dante has a bold to almost flat crimp (similar to the picture of my other animal, Buttercup), with a very soft, silky hand. 
Fleece picture similar to Dante in
crimp, length, color and brightness (Buttercup)

  • Grades - I separate my alpaca into 6 grades.  More info on this can be seen on my webpage.  Dante is a grade 2 which is considered baby 20-23 microns.  His guard hair and secondaries are very close so I did not separate them.   Guard hair (primary fibers) can be a much higher grade than the secondaries depending on genetics and age of the animal.  Care should be taken to remove them when there is a large difference or the resulting yarn can be prickly as the primaries will "stick out" of the yarn.  This is easy to see as the primaries tend to be straight as opposed to the crimpier secondaries.  Primary fibers (guard hair) contain the blood supply, so ALL alpacas have them, however we are breeding to get those primaries and secondaries as close in micron as possible to make the resulting yarn more uniform.  A 3 micron difference or less is ideal and with that separation is not necessary.  
  • Blending - Alpaca can be used alone for items where gauge or "growth" is unimportant.  For fitted garments like sweaters etc adding wool or silk is essential. For socks wool adding nylon will make them soft and strong and fitted.  For my socks I like to use grade 3 - 4 alpaca fiber and 60% alpaca, 25% superwash merino and 15% nylon.  In this project, Dante was used all by himself for a 100% alpaca scarf, which is fine as scarves do not need to "fit" . 
  • Carder on my drum carder and then pulled off
    rolags.  Rolags are my favorite way to spin. 
  • Prep Work - Alpaca contains no lanolin like sheep's wool does.  So it does not need to be scoured in hot water to come clean.  Alpacas do like dirt baths and the finer micron fleeces (grades 1  - 2) do attract vegetable matter like velcro. . . so depending on how much VM is in the fleece, flicking locks or "monkey picking" the VM out is essential prior to washing. Once washed, it is much harder to remove. Dante's fleece was picked almost free of VM, flicked were needed and sent to the mill to be carded into roving.  When skirting alpaca, it is important to pay attention to a large section of unusually heavy VM where the neck meets the back.  Hay accumulates on many alpacas who eat hay out of hay feeders.  I call this area a "bird's nest" and usually remove the whole thing without trying to salvage the fiber as it can contaminate the entire fleece.  Those with more time or who would like to salvage this fiber can pull out and comb this section to remove as much VM as possible, this is an important step to avoid VM contamination in the other parts of the fleece.  After the fiber is clean, it can be dyed or if not dyeing, it can be dried and carding/combing can begin.  Alpaca can be spun dirty, just be aware of the dust and sand contained in it and how that can cause havoc to your fiber processing equipment. Dante's fleece was mill processed into roving, which I then kettle dyed and let dry.  I carded the fiber and pulled rolags off the drum carder, because I really enjoy spinning from rolags.   Since this was mill prepped roving, I simply put it through my drum carder only once as I just wanted the color to be uniform.  I could have spun directly from the dyed roving instead.  
  • Spinning Ease - Huacaya alpaca is not as easy to spin as wool for newer spinners. Because the scales on the shaft of an individual fiber lay flatter than they do for wool, alpaca doesn't "stick" together as easily while spinning.  As an experienced spinner, alpaca is easy and pleasurable to spin.  It can be spun from locks, clouds, rolags, batts, roving or tops.  Long draw and spinning from the fold are also possible on alpaca depending on prep.  Alpaca can be spun woolen or worsted again depending on prep. Dante being grade 2 and with little crimp would be harder to spin for most beginners then say a crimpy grade 3.   Dante's resulting yarn, because his fiber was carded not combed would be considered Woolen.  
  • Dye Uptake - Alpaca is a hollow fiber and takes dye really well and dyes "true" on white fleece.  Different animals can vary in color depth and guard hair (primaries) do not dye as well or as true as the secondaries.  Dante's roving was kettle dyed and although there was some color variation in the dye pot, it was due to the dye pot and not the fiber.  Kettle dyeing is tricky on a grade 2 fleece, because disturbing the fiber too much to make the color uniform can lead to felting.  The water should run clear to exhaust any excess dye. 
  • Setting - setting twist on the finished yarn (Dante's is a ply) is similar to setting any other yarn. Wet and hang to dry.  Thwacking or using weights can be done if you think your skein is unevenly twisted or overspun, but it is not necessary. I did not thwack or weight Dante's yarn and typically do not on 100% alpaca because of the lack of memory.   Because it was dyed, I did do a warm water wash and 2 rinses.  I normally add hair conditioner to a rinse to keep the fiber soft and static free. 

One ply on the bobbi

finished yarn
finished yarn

  • Knitting - knitting alpaca is just like knitting any other natural fiber.  100% alpaca does need blocking.  If you want 100% alpaca to keep it's shape a little better due to lack of memory you can go down a needle size.  The finished scarf is one of my own design that as soon as I create a computer chart for it, I will be publishing here and on Ravelry.  I spun Dante at about a worsted weight and used size 9 needles to create the scarf.  It is an interlocking diamond design.
finished scarf - interlocking diamonds

Well, I hope you enjoyed the first installment of the series and found the information useful and accurate.  Next time - Corriedale wool.

Until then - Happy Spinning !!!! 


Susie Rose said...

Great blog. I'm looking forward to following your journey through the book.

Diane@Peaceful Acres Farm® said...

Have you heard of the Explore 4 with Deb Robson? My friend Bobbi Hayward is the owner of Blended Threads Workshops and Deb will be exploring 4 rare breeds in Oct in St Michaels MD at this 4 day workshop. I hope to attend if I can work out the details on the farm.

Can't wait to follow your posts of the most asked questions....I still have so much to learn as far as hand spinning.