Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Which I Visit a Spinning Mill

I live in a big city, but not too far from us is countryside. In that countryside there are many hobby farms (and "real", for-profit farms as well), some of which support small numbers of fleece-producing animals.  There are some sheep, some llamas, and quite a few alpacas (for some reason these appear to be popular here on the west coast).

And, because these animals need to be shorn at least once a year, for health reasons (like clipping their nails), these farmers support the existence of a couple of fiber mills. Not a luxurious existence, by any stretch; more on a "home business in the country" sort of basis.

I went to visit such a mill recently. It was quite a drive into the country, on some back road, to a barn surrounded by chickens.

The mill is run by a lady called Anna. She handles and maintains the machinery (all of it well-used, decades old), grades and washes the fleeces, cards and spins it up, and does some dyeing as well. She has contacts with many local animal-owners, and her business is based on either processing their fleece for a fee and returning it to them, or buying it from them and then selling the resulting product.

The input she gets from the small hobby farms is quite variable. The most popular breed, apparently, is Vancouver Island "GKW" or "God Knows What". There is also a lot of fluff that is not of very high quality: matted, coarse, or weak. Because of the large variability of the input, she has to spend quite some time setting up her machinery for each new batch. This eats into profits in a big way.

Anna washes all her fleeces and picks them over to remove most of the VM (vegetable matter: straw, dirt clumps). This is dirty work.

Then, they go into the carder, which is rather a narrow affair (1.5m or so) with many carding rolls. It produces a fine web of carded fleece.

[the carding machine, input side]

[carded rovings coming off the carder]

The rovings can be sold, or fed directly into the spinner, or can be further processed in the pin-drafter, shown below. This thing is a sort of automatic "comber", with a couple of layers of really nasty teeth that straighten all the fibers out.The pin-drafter is a temperamental beast which takes a lot of time to manage. One has to watch it constantly or it will get plugged.

[pin-drafter. The white fiber is coming out of the teeth and being wound into a spiral]

Finally, here is the spinner, which I found the most interesting. One can vary the speed of the front and back rollers (those 2 rows of orange rubbery wheels near the top of the picture) and thereby change the rate of twist insertion. The drafting length is limited to the distance between the two rollers, so Anna's setup can't handle longwools (longer than about 15 cm). She can play with the machine's settings to get high-twist, fine yarns suitable for weaving and for socks, and also lower-twist, thicker yarns. The spinner doesn't do well on Aran or Bulky weights though. It's really tuned for fine yarns.

[the spinner]

She can spin up to 12 bobbins at once; while I was there she set it up for a 3-ply yarn.  Anna spends most of her time doing carding, as this is the most profitable part of her business. She told me what her hourly wage worked out to be for the spinning machine; it was well below minimum wage. Yikes!

I bought some spun yarns from her (a local oatmeal-coloured DK Romney with a lovely sheen to it, and a Dorset sock blank) and will be knitting them up soon. I learned of a local "fibershed" event coming this spring that I will certainly be attending! 

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