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Preparing and Machine Milling Alpaca Fiber
by DVA Fiber Processing (Barn Sturm)

There are a few factors to pay attention to when preparing your fiber for machine milling. Doing this will help to assure better quality of your final product.

Before shearing:

Put the animal in a clean, dry environment for the two weeks prior to shearing. This could mean paying special attention to stalls by removing fallen hay, straw, etc. during these two weeks. The result is less vegetation in the fleece at shearing and less work for you during skirting. Note that very small vegetation does not leave the fleece during machine milling, especially from very crimpy fleeces or tight lock structures; the clean environment will help minimize the vegetation remaining in the final product.

After shearing:

Skirt your fiber right away. Remove any objects larger than a thumbnail. Especially remove dung, toenails, pinecones, burrs, pieces of plastic or wire, etc. Also remove second cuts to reduce your percentage of loss during processing; these fall out as noils.

Store your skirted fleece in a breathable container. Do not use black plastic trash bags. Clear or white plastic bags are good, provided you pierce the bag with small holes in several locations to allow the escape of moisture and to prevent the growth of mildew. Store these bags in a dry location. While we do not suggest adding mothballs to the fleece bags, an open box of mothballs kept with the bags is a good idea.

Sorting fleeces:

If you will be combining fleeces for a single unit, you can sort your fleeces for the most even, best quality yarn. Sort by grade, which should be the micron count of the fleeces. Grade I can be your softest fibers, around 18 microns, with Grade VI as the coarsest, around 30 microns. Also sort by staple length, to avoid slubbing in the yarn. Combine 2” to 4” fibers together; combine 4” to 6” fibers together. Fibers shorter than 2” will fall out as noils; we will not accept fleeces with staple length above 6”. Differences in length and thickness of fiber will cause variation, often unwanted, in yarn. The greater the differences, the greater the potential variation.

Combining colors is fine. It is like mixing paint: you will not see bands of the colors you combined, but rather a blend of the various colors. For instance, combining equal parts of white, black, and dark brown has produced nice dark rose gray yarn.

Sometimes we are asked if adding a nicer fleece to a coarser fleece will make the coarser fleece better. This does not work. You will get a softer yarn which has a coarse, prickly halo. Remember, if you add a teaspoon of wine to a barrel of sewage, or a teaspoon of sewage to a barrel of wine, you get sewage either way.

Choosing a Fiber Mill:

There are several factors to consider when choosing a fiber mill, including cost, turn-around time, yield, quality, and choice of product.

Cost: This can be difficult to evaluate since the pricing structure of various mills differs so greatly. If you are confused by the pricing, call the mill in question and ask for approximate numbers. For instance, offer specifics: “If I bring in 15 pounds of white huacaya to be spun into 3-ply sport weight yarn, what will I be charged?” Ask what the mill’s average loss/waste is after processing. What will the shipping charges be, if any? Be aware of hidden costs, such as how much you will pay to ship your fleeces to a remote location, plus the shipping charge back. A seemingly lower-cost mill 2000 miles away may actually increase your costs due to shipping charges when compared to a local mill. Also, note how much loss occurs during processing.

Compare two actual mills, Mill A and Mill B. Mill A is in the NorthEast, Mill B in the West. Mill A charges for each step of processing; Mill B has a set price per final product plus a setup fee. Mill A quotes approximately 50% loss at the dehairer on exotic fibers including alpaca, while Mill B specializes in alpaca and llama and quotes 35% average loss. Mill A charges $11.85/lb to dehair, $8.75/lb to card, and $9.75/lb to spin. Mill B charges $1.90/oz for all three steps. Comparing mill costs, it would appear that Mill A is charging $1.89/oz for 3-ply yarn, and Mill B charging $1.90 plus a $40 setup fee. Both mills will lose about 10% more fiber during carding and spinning. Thus, at the end, Mill A’s loss is about 59.5 %, while Mill B’s is about 39.25%. If you sent 12.5 lbs (200 oz) to each mill, your bill from Mill A would be $261.03; your Mill B bill would be $270.85. On the surface, Mill A would seem cheaper. But it is not, due to the higher loss. Assume you in turn sell the yarn you receive for $6.00/oz. The 81 oz you received back from Mill A would sell for $486.00. The 121.5 oz you received back from Mill B would sell for $729. Despite higher-seeming costs, Mill B nets you $233.18 more than Mill A!

Turn-around time: How soon do you need your product back? Before a certain show? By Christmas? No particular time? Ask what the processing turn-around time is. DVA Fiber Processing’s turn around time is about 8 weeks after we receive your fiber. We are currently scheduling fiber send-ins around 7 months away.

Yield: as previously discussed in the section regarding cost, yield is important. If a mill has too high of loss, you may have a difficult time recouping your costs when selling the final product.

Quality: Does the mill consistently produce good product? Turn-around time may be short and price may be cheap, but is there too much vegetation left in the product? Is the yarn over twisted? Did the lace-weight yarn you requested come back as a single ply? Ask for referrals from any mill you are uncertain about.

Choice of product: Will you get what you want? Some mills only process one or two thicknesses of yarn. Others combine your fleeces with others fleeces in a “pool”, then return to you a “share” of the final product. Ask questions: Will my cria fleece be spun by itself? How long can my suri’s staple length be? Do you blend with angora? Etc. Every mini-mill has its own criteria; be sure you know what your mill of choice requires.

Scheduling with the DVA Fiber Processing Mill:

We process fleeces in cycles of approximately 200 pounds each. Call the mill to have your name scheduled for a cycle. When your cycle is about 6 weeks away, we will contact you to bring or send in your fleeces. The per-unit processing fees are due upon receipt of your fiber. Do not send fiber until you are contacted; we have very limited storage space.

Choosing the best product:

We can help you choose a good product if you are not sure. Things to consider are the softness of the fibers, the final application, such as whether the yarn will become a sweater of mittens, or will be the warp on a loom.

Reducing loss:

As mentioned before, loss can be best reduced by good skirting for both foreign objects and short second cuts. We can also reduce loss by saving the fibers that fall out during dehairing; we combine all your different colors and card them onto the batt roller and felt them. These “utility felts” have become a popular choice with our customers. They can be used in a variety of applications, from stadium blankets to dog coats to rugs to craft felts for wallets, etc. We have several examples for you to see at the mill.

Loss also occurs when we remove slubs. While you may be seeking a very even yarn with little texture, slubby yarn is also in demand by knitters and crocheters seeking it by various names, including “textured”, “novelty”, and even “mogul” yarn. Let us know how much of the slubbing you want removed from your yarn.

Final product:

We have 6 choices of final product from which to choose: clouds, batts, carded rovings, drawn rovings, felts, and yarn.

Clouds: bagged fiber, which has been run through the dehairer to remove most vegetation and coarse hair.

Batts: bagged fiber, which has been carded after dehairing, producing a pad of parallelized fibers, and are great for felting projects and hand spinning.

Carded roving: small bags of roving up to about 60 yards, perfect for the experienced hand spinner. We take the busy work out of washing, picking, dehairing, and carding for you; you just do the fun part! Packaged in attractive clear bags for easy sale.

Drawn roving: carded roving that is drawn through the draw frame 2 or 3 times to produce a more even roving; great for the new hand spinner who is not as used to drawing and attenuating by hand. Packaged in attractive clear bags for easy sale.

Felts: Batts are put on our 3’ x 4’ felting table and compressed into felts. The most popular weight is 16-18 oz., but thicker or thinner felts are possible. “Utility felts” reduce your loss from the dehairing process and cost the same as prime felts.

Yarn: we make 2- or 3-ply yarn, from lace weight to bulky weight. We steam and cone the finished yarn, and mark it for length and weight. Our skeining service can give you skeins between 4 and 9 oz. See our current price sheet for cost.

Invoicing and payment:

When all your fleeces in one cycle are finished, we will send you your invoice. Payment and receipt of your product is due within 30 days. Shipping is available. We accept checks, Visa, and MasterCard. Unpaid invoices incur penalties after 30 days. Due to our very limited storage space, a storage charge also applies after 30 days if prior arrangements have not been made in writing with Mick Leighton.

Other questions:

Our friendly and helpful staff is available from Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Please call us so that we can be of assistance.

DVA Fiber Processing, LLC
1281 S Cleveland Ave Loveland, CO 80537
(970) 669-4131
(888) 669-4131 toll free

c) 2004 Barn Sturm/DVA Fiber Processing


The following comments are for "Preparing and Machine Milling Alpaca Fiber"
by BarnSturm

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