Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Commodity chains

A commodity chain shows the path that a product takes as it travels from raw materials to a finished product in the hands of the consumer. Students selected a yarn and researched its path and we thank all the companies and people who helped them learn more about the yarns they've been using in class. Although they selected a great variety of yarns, many of them traced the raw materials back to Peru, where the materials are also often processed into yarn. This includes Blue Sky Alpacas, Cascade, and Mirasol yarns. Green Mountain Spinnery is proud to say that almost all of their fiber for their yarns is raised and purchased within the U.S. and every skein they sell is created at their spinnery in rural Vermont.

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.

North Country Alpaca Yarn

After visiting an alpaca farm and getting the chance to talk to Kit Almich, an alpaca farmer in Le Sueur, Minnesota, I was very interested in learning about alpaca yarn and the process required for making the yarn. For this reason, I chose to research North Country Alpacas handspun 100% alpaca yarn. The particular skein of yarn that I received from Kit is a two-ply yarn and is somewhere between a worsted and chunky weight yarn. The handspun yarn is not dyed so remains the gray-brown color of the alpaca from which the fiber was taken—Bandit.

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 Minnesota. Of course, the yarn is made up of fibers from alpacas that were bred and raised in Minnesota. Kit and Richard Almich, the owners of North Country Alpacas, purchased their first alpacas from a Minnesota breeder eleven years ago. Since then, their herd, raised in Le Sueur, Minnesota, has increased and they have been able to breed and sell a number of their own alpacas. Taking care of the alpacas is an important part of the process needed to make quality alpaca yarn. In order to ensure high quality fiber and, therefore, a high quality yarn the Almich’s alpacas eat a very specific, four-part diet. First, they eat pasture grass which is growing on the farm. It is important that this is orchard grass, not alfalfa, as this produces a higher quality fiber. The alpacas are then given a mixture of grass and hay which is also grown here in Minnesota. This provides nutrition for the alpacas even during the winter when the ground is covered in snow. A grain mixture, developed by the Almich’s and a veterinarian in cooperation with the local farmer’s co-op, is given to the alpacas to improve their health and fiber quality. The mixture consists of rolled oats, minerals and vitamins, beet pulp, and flax pellets. The rolled oats are from local farmers, the beet pulp is from western Minnesota, and the flax pellets are from Iowa. Together, these provide roughage, add shine to the fiber, improve heart health, strengthen bones, and provide extra calories during the cold winter. The final part of the alpacas’ diet is free choice minerals. This means that there are bins of minerals in the animals’ pens which they go to and eat when they sense they need more of a particular mineral. The use of these bins is seen most commonly amongst pregnant females and young, growing alpacas.

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 Minnesota distributor, which aligns all of the fibers. By turning the handle of the carder, Kit is able to produce long strands of roving. The roving is about an inch in width and is ready to be spun into yarn.

To spin the yarn, Kit uses an Ashford Traveller spinning wheel from New Zealand. The wheel itself is made of New Zealand silverbeech wood and was purchased by Kit from a North Carolina supplier called the Woolery. While spinning, Kit, who is very concerned with the quality of the yarn she creates, focuses on maintaining a consistent weight throughout the yarn.

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.

Contact Information

North Country Alpacas

Kit Almich

(507) 665-6059


Peter H said...

I was interested in using a photo you own on your Flickr site. A landslip/erosion photo on the loess plateau in China for my recent blog on erosion in China. See
I shall indicate with permission and I shall also indicate origin and copyright ownership.
Sorry this is via this medium but could not find an e-mail address.

Cathy Dowd said...