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Friday, 24 January 2014

Preparing and Spinning Alpaca Fleece

I am the happy owner of two kinds of white alpaca fleece from TOFT. One bag of 650g raw fleece has a staple length varying from 5-12cm and a medium crimp, so it must be huacaya. The smaller bag has locks with more of a wave than a crimp, so I think it is the rarer type, called suri.  Both have incredibly fine fibres.  The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook says the average micron count is in the mid 20s. It may be fleece, but alpaca is not actually wool at all.
The dirt on these locks is just dust.  No grease, no guard hairs, raw alpaca is dry and apparently, the fibres are hollow, which accounts for why it is so warm.  Everyone knows it is soft and luxurious.  I read that alpaca yarn drapes well, but that this can easily become sag and bag in knitted garments.
Let the Alpaca Tribulations commence.  Combing it works, but the roving gets quite wildly electric.  Annoying.  Hand carders control the fibres better, but there is still a big fuzz to roll into a rolag. Spinning these just naturally created very fine singles.  You'd imagine I would be proud of that, but after struggling with a small piece of lace knitting, I'm not keen to stockpile lace weight yarn.
In order to create a thicker yarn with more durability, I blended some Gotland fleece in with the alpaca and made a bit of double knitting weight yarn, two plied. Bit hairy, but very pretty greys.  Next, to improve bounce, alpaca was blended half and half with the coloured portion of some Jacob fleece I had from Huxtable Farm.  I navajo three plied this.  The yarn came out rather heavy with a hint of barber's pole effect, which I don't much admire.

Knitted up, the look of the Alpaca/Jacob blend pleased me more than the Gotland.  My limited experience suggests alpaca does not take a plant dye as well as wool.  



In any case, there is no dye I like as much as the shades of brown, grey and 'lilac' in a Jacob.

Here are 300g of washed Jacob fleece drying on my own invention - an electric blanket, wrapped round a block of polystyrene and covered in an old groundsheet. Originally, I made it for bringing on seedlings in the greenhouse.  
This photo shows the invention of Louet, a small drum carder called a Louet Junior.  When I bought it at the Spinning Rally last September, I did get tuition and made a batt of Dorset Poll. Back home, I have struggled to get anything half way decent out of it. The fleece needs to be grease free and can be fed in after fluffing out clean locks into a cloud, if you know what you are up to.
I read more about drumcarding and got a reasonable result flicking out the tips of locks with the dog brush and feeding them in to the licker in thin layers.  With 600g alpaca and 300g Jacob, I am aiming for 20g alpaca and 10g Jacob in every batt and reckon I should be able to make enough double knitting weight yarn for a big, soft, drape shape cardigan.  I want a more even blend than I got on the handcarders, but not so homogenised that I lose the variable Jacob tones.  The initial batt is being split down the middle and drafted, before going through the drum carder just one more time.
Each Mark 2 batt is pulled in half again and rolled up like a rolag, to spin semi woolen for extra body.
When spinning, I am sticking to medium twist as the staples are quite long. Using fairly loose twist while two plying should maximise the luxury soft feel.  Washing the yarn, there is no need for high heat to lift out lanolin.  The Jacob is clean and just a long soak in warm water with a little Fairy Liquid gets the dust out of the alpaca.  
Fulling yarn is another new process for me.  Alpaca is an exciting challenge, quality gear, and I want it to do it justice.  I am giving each wet skein a few sharp twangs between my hands, intended to set the twist, then thwacking it about like I was Harvey Smith at the Hickstead Derby.  This does fluff it up and doesn't make it felt the way I feared.

My favourite sheep colours modulated by pristine, white alpaca .  I name this yarn Banquo, a spectral version of the yarn I made with my first ever fleece, a Jacob X Texel from Huxtable Farm.

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