Three years ago a holiday meander along unfamiliar country roads led us to a sign marked “Alpacas”. We followed further signs and soon caught sight of our first alpacas. As we approached, long necks were raised and bright, curious eyes followed our progress. Obviously we could not touch the alpacas, although this was an instant reflex for me, being a total fibre enthusiast. I contented myself by mentally noting the different fleece colours and types. As might be expected I purchased three paper sacks full of alpaca fleece from the breeder.
Since then I have seen and admired many alpacas belonging to friends and breeders. I have also had to face a fairly steep learning curve in my efforts to convert this truly beautiful fibre into equally beautiful handspun yarns. Commercially, alpaca is most usually spun into a worsted-style smooth yarn. The fibre is particularly well suited to such yarns as it is dense without being too heavy. The fineness of the fibre is further accentuated by a relatively soft twist. Such machine spun yarns vary in thickness from 2 ply to Aran weight. Additionally, individual fleece colours yield a considerable range of whites, greys, browns and blacks.
Handspinners will probably want to imitate the buttery softness of well spun commercial yarns but they may find they are constrained by the fineness of the fibre and, consequently, the amount of time they have to spend on spinning.
I think handspun yarns should always look handspun but not overly so. We start with a very high quality fibre which, if carefully handled, will result in a totally individual spun yarn. It is necessary to sort, wash, possibly card and then spin. Dyeing (using synthetic dyes or natural dye extracts) is the final option and arguably this is the most creative. Over the next few issues I should like to pass on what I have tried to learn from the three sacks of alpaca fleece and also from many generous samples from breeders all over the British Isles.
SORTING A FLEECE: Handspinners need to work with the blanket and neck of a fleece to be able to produce high quality yarns. The fineness of the individual fibres has to be the responsibility of the breeder and the micron count looms very large in any meaningful conversation about alpacas. I would suggest that a well shorn fleece, with the integrity of the staples maintained as much as possible after shearing, is truly worth its weight in gold for the hand spinner.
Second cuts need to be removed before spinning. This is time-consuming but they will show up during spinning and will markedly downgrade the appearance of a fine yarn. Even more of a problem are bits and pieces of vegetable matter (seeds, burrs or short lengths of grass/hay.) Some of this debris and dust may be removed by gently shaking the fleece after shearing – that which remains needs to be picked out. Hand-carding or drum-carding may help slightly but will open up good staples unnecessarily before spinning directly from the fleece.
WASHING ALPACA FLEECE : The question is whether to wash or not to wash before spinning. Most of my spinning has centred on woollen fleeces. Almost without exception, sheep’s wool is greasy and dirty, but is transformed after washing. The situation is much less well defined with Alpaca fleeces, which may not appear to require washing before spinning. I have experimented with these two alternatives and have now come down quite firmly on the washing before spinning approach. The fleece is so much pleasanter to handle. Individual fibres are more relaxed, while staples are still well defined. The natural colours have greater clarity. White alpaca is white and not biscuit coloured.
Instructions for washing follow:-
Washing Alpaca fleece – before spinning. If you are preparing fleece for a particular project weigh what you need plus 100 grams to allow for weight loss during processing.
I use old rectangular washing–up bowls or a baby bath. Buckets tend to tangle fleece.
Three quarters fill the bowl or bath with water that is slightly hotter than comfortable for your hands (approx 140oF). . Squeeze in Fairy Liquid while counting to three (quite slowly if you live in a hard water area). Using an old wooden spoon, stir to mix in the detergent.
Press weighed fleece – in the piece preferably – into soapy water. Fleece needs to be submerged but it will take time for the alpaca to become saturated. Continue pressing until fleece sinks below water.
There is no need to touch it again until you check the colour of the washing water some 24 hours later.
Push the wet fleece to one side and look at the colour of the water. If it is only slightly discoloured the fleece was probably not very dirty. However, if the water is a good rich brown, leave the fleece to soak for another one or two days !.
To rinse. Place a couple of clean old towels spread flat on working surface. Scoop out the fleece from the bowl, (discard dirty water) squeeze gently and place on towels. Refill bowl with clean, just warm water and lower soapy fleece into rinse water, handling very gently. Press into clean water.
Repeat rinsing two or three more times until water is absolutely clear.
Place another towel on working surface. Squeeze rinsed fleece (by hand) and spread on dry towel. Ease locks into shape – gently.
Roll up fleece lined towel (like a swiss roll) and leave for half an hour or so.
Unroll towel and leave impressively clean fleece to dry naturally on a dry towel.
Store in paper or fibre sacks – marked “Washed”.
Do not be tempted to use fabric conditioners if you plan to dye your alpaca fleece at a later stage.
© Shirley Simpson 2005