Amazingly (at least amazing to me) many yarns are created here in Minnesota from both wool and alpaca. Sometimes this is the yarn that is made for personal use, like Alyssa's aunt Sue Langer who has been known to buy the coat off a sheep and process it into yarn herself. There are farmers like Salisbury Hill Farm who produce fiber for sale on a small scale - they spun a sample from their California Variegated Mutant Sheep into yarn and dyed it for Ashley. And there is also the yarn made from the alpacas we visited at Cozy Acres and their neighbors at North Country Alpacas, who helped us tour the farm. Erin wrote about their yarn; her paper below will give you a better idea of how a commodity chain is constructed. All of her information comes from an interview with Kit Almich.
After visiting an alpaca farm and getting the chance to talk to Kit Almich, an alpaca farmer in
Alpaca yarn, because of the nature of the alpaca fibers, is extremely soft. This quality really sets alpaca yarn apart from wool. Wool fibers tend to poke out of a strand of yarn because of their shape. This is why wool is often itchy. This is not the case with the crimped fibers of an alpaca. It also kept its twist which surprised me. Because it is handspun, I expected that the two-ply yarn would separate as I was working with it. The yarn feels great in my hands and is an absolute joy to work with.
The alpaca yarn from North Country Alpacas began its journey into my hands right here in
The first step in actually producing the alpaca yarn is to shear the alpacas. Once each, year, typically in early May before hot weather sets in, the animals are sheared by an expert shearer. The Almich’s choose to hire a shearer so as to provide the most comfortable experience for the alpacas. An expert is also able to shear very quickly allowing for the entire herd to be sheared in one day. When being sheared, the animals are laid down on a sheet or plastic tablecloth, and are stretched out. The sheet allows for the fiber to stay as clean as possible during the shearing and collecting process. The alpacas are then sheared completely. After shearing, the fibers are separated based upon their quality. The first quality fibers are those from the blanket of the alpaca. This is the area from the base of the neck to the tail and down the sides of the animal. The second and third quality fibers, which are coarser and would not create high quality yarn, are those from the neck, belly, and upper legs of the alpacas. These fibers can be used to make yarns which would not probably be used to make products worn next to the skin.
The next step in the process of making yarn is called skirting. During this step, the blanket is laid on top of a mesh table and both sides are examined. The mesh table is used because the blankets typically contain a great deal of dust and debris which comes loose and can fall through the mesh and away from the fibers. While examining the blanket, Kit is looking for any second quality fiber which needs to be removed. After this step is complete, the first quality fiber can be sent to a mill or, in the case of the handspun yarn, Kit can begin the hand spinning process.
To begin the process of hand spinning the yarn, Kit removes individual chunks of first quality fiber from the alpaca blankets. She puts this fiber in a lingerie bag and places it in a mixture of hot tap water and a fine fabric soap called Delicare. She allows this to sit for about twenty minutes being careful not to agitate it as this would felt the fibers. The lingerie bag is then removed from the water, now filthy from dust and dirt, and the process is repeated one more time in clean hot water and Delicare. Following the second soaking, the fiber, still in the lingerie bag, is rinsed, squeezed to remove excess water, and rolled in a towel. The fiber is then removed from the bag and spread out to air dry in coated wire baskets. Drying is typically finished after eighteen to twenty-four hours. When the fiber is dry, Kit is ready to begin the carding process. The fiber is slowly fed into a four-inch hand carder, purchased from a
To spin the yarn, Kit uses an Ashford Traveller spinning wheel from
After spinning, Kit begins plying the yarn. Typically, she makes and sells two-ply yarn. This requires her to twist two strands from her spinning wheel around each other. She then has to set the twist in the yarn by placing it into another bath of hot water and Delicare. This process, similar to blocking a finished knitting project, helps to ensure that the yarn does not split when it is being worked with. The yarn is then placed on hangers to dry.
Finally, Kit takes the dry yarn and places it on a tool called a Knitty Knotty which allows her to easily put the yarn into skeins. The yarn is then labeled and is ready to be sold. All North Country Alpaca yarn is purchased directly from Kit herself. A few times a year, Kit takes part in a sale or exhibit where she is able to sell the yarn. The Minnesota State Fair and the Landmark Center Holiday Sale are examples of these. Typically, as was the case when I purchased my skein of North Country Alpaca yarn, yarn is ordered over the phone and is mailed to the customer.