Alpaca shearing time in Montana has become very iconic for us. Shearing season marks the beginning of summer. Our alpacas have braved the long winter months here in the northern rocky mountains continually growing their super fine fiber keeping them warm from the bitter cold. Here at our small alpaca ranch in Bozeman, Montana its not uncommon for the winter months of November, December and January for the temperatures to be below zero for days on end. I always wonder, will colder climates produce finer and more dense alpaca fiber? Why not? Evolution and adaptation have a way about them.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years of owning alpacas, it’s important to know what to do with all of my fiber. Knowing what I want in the end will help me at the beginning. The outline for harvesting and processing fiber is pretty straight forward:
Prepare for shearing > Shear > Sort/Grade Fiber > Tumble > Pick > Wash > Card > Spin/Felt > Sell/Assemble End Product
Many times I find we all do a good job of getting the fleece off the animal into bags only to deal with it later. Then it sits in the barn. The anxiety of opening up each bag is devastating. So we procrastinate and there it sits. I like to reduce the amount of times I touch the fiber throughout the process. I’m finding having a plan and properly preparing is key. Here is some brief information to help understand the basics in alpaca fiber harvesting and processing. This is information we’ve learned along the way that has helped us.
Prepare for Shearing
This is one of the most critical aspects of the entire process. Preparation should be done well in advance of the shearer showing up at your door step. Know what your going to do with all your fiber before shearing will help in proper sorting, grading and processing into yarn or felt. Don’t forget about the other details of the day such as electricity, a clean shearing area using tarps and matts, and proper lighting if inside the barn. Barns are nice if you experience bad weather. Yet, they can be inefficient if there isn’t proper lighting to get the job done.
Make sure to have plenty of help planned for the day. Communicate with your shearer what exactly he or she will be providing and what you are responsible for and to provide. Determine how many people he will be bringing and how many is sufficient for the day. Will there be two shearing stations or just one? I’ve found 5-7 people total is ideal. Especially for larger herds. 1 Shearer, 1 head person (controls the head of the alpaca. Usually comes with shearer.), 1-2 people to blow out and bring alpaca to mat, 1 to collect fiber, 1 to sort/grade, and 1 additional for support where needed.
Have a plan for moving alpacas around and who is responsible for the task. Use corral panels to create an in and out door for passage out of the way of the work stations. Create a work station area dedicated to fiber collecting. We have all the fiber bags labeled and ready to go before shearing day. Any fiber histograms have the information already printed out and in the bags.
Prior to your shearing day watch the weather. The worse thing that could happen is to plan for the iconic fiber harvest day only to leave your alpacas out all night and it rains. If you have wet animals, you will not be shearing. Period!
Plan to have help there before the shearer arrives. It’s always a good idea to have plenty of food and water for all those joining you for the special shearing day event. We like to make it an occasion inviting friends and families over for the yearly event which usually ends with grilled burgers, beers, music and laughter.
Another thing to consider when the alpaca is down for shearing, it may be an opportune time to trim toe nails and inspect the animal of any unhealthy conditions. Make notes along the way and address health conditions as needed.
Sorting and Grading
We know that each alpaca is going to have different grades of fiber on the body. Typically, the blanket is going to be the prime (or firsts) fiber on the animals. The blanket is covers from hips to shoulders and down the side to the top of the belly. The seconds are hip, shoulder, and neck. Thirds are leg, belly and whatever is left on the mat. Knowing what you are doing with each animals fleece will help in this process. If you know an older female has course fiber and is well suited for rug yarn, then there may be no need to collect fiber in 3 different bags. Put it all into one bag and move on to the next.
My goal is to reduce the amount of waste associated with processing fiber thus reducing my cost to process. Time does equal money. Reducing the number of times the fleece is touched can lead to less time spent dealing with fleece. If you have a small herd, before shearing go through each animal and evaluate the grade of fleece and determine which pile the fleece will be sorted into. Or, once the fleece comes off the animal, take it directly to your sorting table. Sort it by removing vegetable matter and separating the coarse fiber from the finer fiber. You’ll find around the “arm pits” or where the leg meets the body will have coarser guard hair. Legs, belly, arm pits, tail, chin and cheeks (Thirds) will all be much coarser and shorter than the rest of the body. The neck (seconds) generally is finer than the thirds. Neck fiber is generally shorter than the blanket and a little more coarse. Fiber mills like to spin fiber that is no more than 2 inches difference in length and within 2 microns of each other in fineness. However, it all depends in what you want and for what. Sometimes the neck and blanket can go together in the same pile if you plan to make felt. Felt doesn’t have the same requirements as yarn fiber.
Tumble/Pick/Wash and maybe Tumble/Pick/Wash some more
If you are sending to a fiber mill for processing, they usually handle the tumble/pick/wash. Shipping fleece can be quite expensive. To reduce our overall weight and to help aid in removing dirt and vegetable matter, I choose to tumble my fleece before sending to the mill. My goal is to reduce the amount of waste associated with processing fiber thus reducing my cost to process. Tumbling is nothing more than the fleece tumbling around in a wire cage allowing short fibers, dirt and debris to fall out. I highly encourage everyone to use a leaf blower and blow the animals fleece out. This helps everyone out. There is less dirt and debris you collect with your fiber and it helps keep the shearing blades stay sharp.
Picking is a process of the fleece being picked apart or opened up whereby allowing dirt and debris to fall out.
Washing is washing the dirt out as much as possible. Always keep in mind, water, soap, agitation or washing results in felt. Once its felt it cannot be yarn.
Carding for spinning or felting
I have spent many years and many visits to different mills to understand the process. In doing so, I’ve also realized why yarn can look great or look horrible. It all comes down to better preparation and proper sorting and grading. I know for good consistent yarn the mills needs fiber with little to very little vegetable matter, micron or fiber diameter within 2 microns of each other, and staple lengths with 2 inches of each other.
Felting is a little more forgiving in that it can be different microns and different fiber staple lengths. Always consult with your fiber mill on exactly what you want and what is needed to achieve the desired results. If you plan to try it yourself, experiment and have fun. Keep notes about what you learn and what you can improve on. Always remember, it is alright to fail. Learn from it and try it again.
Create, design and manufacture
For many people, the use of alpaca fiber is what it’s all about with alpacas. Once you have an idea or plan of what you want to do with alpaca fiber, then develop the process. A business plan might be to design and manufacture alpaca yarn selling direct to retailers whereby you are the manufacturer wholesaler. Or maybe you open your own retail shop and sell yarn farm direct to consumers. What ever it might be, it helps to establish a plan, develop the process, accept failure, and continue to move forward with a smile.
In the end, we all got into alpacas to raise livestock and use their wonderful special fiber. Don’t loose sight of the dream you created.