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Step-by-Step Process

Alpaca clothing are made on different scales ranging from large fashion manufacturers to individual artisans. Every process of turning Alpaca wool into fabric or a knitted garment is essentially the same with some variations regardless of who makes it.

The steps in alpaca fleece transformation into clothing include

  • Sheering alpaca;
  • Skirting: the removal of debris from alpaca fleece;
  • Washing and dyeing fleece (dyeing is an option);
  • Picking clean alpaca fleece;
  • Carding or combing the fleece;
  • Spinning and plying alpaca fleece into yarn;
  • Washing yarn. (Dyeing can be done at this stage if the fleece wasn’t dyed earlier.)
  • Making knitted, woven, crocheted, or felted fabric and clothes from the yarn.
  • Washing fabric or garment. (And again, dyeing or printing can be done at this stage as well.)
  • Blocking fabric or garment.

These basic steps of turning alpaca fleece into a garment can have some variations depending on the clothing design and purpose. For example, the dyeing process may happen after washing the fleece or after spinning fleece into yarn. Alternatively, fabric or even the garment itself can be dyed or printed much later in this process.

Oftentimes, you can skip dyeing wool if you want to have natural colors. That’s what I did this time in my project. I selected my fleece based on the natural color of the animal itself. My project resulted in a very rich chestnut-brown piece.

Once a year, in early spring, farmers sheer their alpacas. The animals feel very good after this alpaca sheering. It’s like taking your pet to a groomer or going to a spa.

Removal of Debris from Dry Alpaca Fleece

Skirting and Cleaning Raw Alpaca Fleece

When a alpaca farmers sheer the animals they obtain so called raw fleece. Raw basically means that the fleece is in its virgin state before washing. This fleece has plenty of dust, debris from vegetation that the animals rub on, dirt or staining under the tail, grains or feed grass on the neck and chest areas, etc.

While the alpaca runs around happily from feeling light and liberated after sheering, the farmer does the dirty work of skirting. Skirting is manual removal of soiled and stained parts of the fleece. Typically, it’s the farmer, the family members, farm employees, seasonal or outsourced laborers, or any other helpers do this part of fleece cleaning.

I always imagined that skirting work is very tedious and monotonous. But, when I watched private small farmers do this work I was amazed how quickly and efficiently they go through one fleece after another.

Farmers’ goal in this process is to remove the smelly and unattractive stuff and large pieces of vegetation from the raw fleece to make it presentable on the market.

Drum-Cleaning Alpaca Fleece

The next step of this cleaning process is to remove as much dust, seeds, and vegetation from alpaca wool as possible. This process also takes place on the alpaca farm. A farmer places dry skirted alpaca fleece into a large drum. It’s a cylinder made of metal mesh. The drum spins just like clothes dryer with the alpaca wool inside. If you have seen a raw sheep fleece you know that it looks like a carpet. Alpaca fleece, on the other hand, looks like separated locks of wool. When it tumbles in the drum, small vegetation and dirt particles separate and fall through the metal mesh while the wool stays in the drum.

This is where the farmer’s work ends. Normally, farmers don’t wash their fleeces unless they also spin yarns and make clothing. A yarn spinner typically does the fleece laundry.

Purchasing Alpaca Fleeces

A spinner is a person who spins fleece into yarn. I buy my fleeces from farmers and go through the entire process of turning alpaca fleece into garments and other items.

I went to a small family owned and operated alpaca farm. Judy and Ron have a picturesque setup on grassy rolling hills with a pond in the middle. The farm hosts 23 alpacas that roam, play, and interact with curious visitors. When the visitors are not around, two vigilant Great Pyrenees dogs guard the fancy alpacas. Every alpaca has a name. And every bag of sheered fleece has the animal’s name on it so that the owner knows exactly the origin of any specific fleece.

So, I bought two fleeces from Ron and Judy and brought them to my Wool Barn to transform this natural beauty into something to wear for me and my family.

Below is the photo of the alpaca fleece that I bought from my friends. This fleece is sitting on a drying rack covered with a breathable burlap after all night of drying. I already washed this batch. Raw alpaca fleece looks almost exactly the same.

Image: alpaca fleece

The Process of Scouring

The next step in this alpaca wool journey is to wash the fleece or scour the fleece to be precise. Scouring is the process of washing raw fleece.

Scouring Sheep Fleece

I think that the reason for the word “scour” is that we use a very strong detergent to wash sheep fleeces. That’s because raw sheep wool contains lanolin. Lanolin is a wax that lubricates sheep’s coat and protects it from matting. Removing lanolin is not an easy process.

Scouring Alpaca Fleece

On the contrary, alpaca fleece does not have lanolin or any other fats. Raw alpaca fleece feels very dry to touch. But regardless, alpaca’s wool still needs washing from dirt and vegetation (vegetable matter or VM).

Some fiber artists combine fleece scouring with dyeing. By doing so, they eliminate an extra drying and re-wetting step and reducing the risk of felting. Any animal fibers should be washed with great care.

A combination of water, soap, and agitation can easily turn fleece into a felt. In fact, that’s one of the felting methods. A soapy wet fleece is evenly spread on a large table. This table has a lid made of a flat metal sheet of the same size and shape as the table top. If you turn the switch, this sandwich contraption starts to vibrate. The rubbing motion of the metal plates against each other felts the fleece into a felt fabric.

So when you wash wool, and it can be any wool, you always have to think about felting and how to avoid it. (The only exception is superwash wool, but we won’t talk about it in this post.) Each time you make your wool wet, you encounter a risk of felting.

In my case, however, I selected fleeces from a very deep red alpacas so that I could use their natural colors without having to dye my wool.

Picking and Carding alpaca Fleece

This is really like a wool spa. After washing and drying your fleece you want to align the individual fibers to prepare them for spinning. There are different tools for this depending on what you want to get in the end. The first step in separating the fibers is picking.

A picker is a tool that separates fibers without lining them up. The long box in the foreground of the picture below with nails sticking in two directions is the picker. The fleece on the right dry and clean alpaca fleece after scouring. The fluffy bunch on the left is the fleece of alpaca fibers after picking.

Image: a picker

In the same picture above, the contraption with the belt behind the alpaca fleece is the drum carder. Carding will be the next step in preparing my alpaca fleece for spinning.

After I finished picking, a pile of alpaca fleece turned into quite a mount of fluffy fleece (below).

Image: Alpaca fleece after picking

Carding Alpaca Fleece

Just like in pet grooming, you would brush your pets after giving them a bath. The same holds true with fleeces. The only difference is in the name. We call it carding. When you card wool, you feed small portions of fleece into the small drum of the drum carder and let the tool do its work.

Image: Feeding drum carder

The result after the first run may be still quite lumpy. If that’s the case, you need to repeat the carding until it looks smooth and lined up.

Image: carding alpaca wool

Preparing Alpaca Fleece for Woolen Spinning Method

If you take a close look at a carded alpaca wool, you will see that the fibers are not strictly parallel, but rather with some degree of freedom. That’s because I prepared my alpaca fleece for a so called woolen spinning method.

This blanket of carded fleece is called a batt.

Image: carded alpaca wool

At the end of the carding stage I rolled the batts into wool burritos called rolags. We make rolags for woolen type of spinning and top rovings for worsted spinning. I will describe the difference between woolen and worsted spinning in a different post. Please see my Glossary of Spinning Terms for definitions.

Image: alpaca fleece and rolags
Washed alpaca fleece in the background and the resulting rolags in the front.

I prepared my alpaca wool for spinning in woolen fashion for a very warm but delicate lace cowl.

Spinning Alpaca Fleece into Fiber

Image: alpaca spinning
Spun alpaca fiber on the bobbin of the spinning wheel.

As you can see, when the fleece is fluffy, it looks light, but when it is condensed in a spun fiber it becomes very rich chestnut brown in color. After spinning yarn, I usually let it stay on the bobbin for 24 hours before removing it from the bobbin. The newly-spun yarn sets by the tension during this time.

Sometimes, I feel very inpatient when the yarn is setting that I want to keep working on it. But a day of rest is very important for the yarn quality. When the yarn was finally ready for plying, I double plied the treads with an intention of keeping my yarn very thin.

After plying, I transferred my two-ply yarn onto a niddy-noddy, washed and dried the yarn, and wound it into a ball with the yarn winder. You can see this section of the process in my earlier post, White-and-Blue Romney Wool Rugged Mittens.

Unlike the yarn in my mitten project, this 100% alpaca yarn is very fine as you can see it on the photo below. This lace-weight yarn is ready for knitting.

Image: Handspun alpaca lace weight yarn

Knitting my Lace Cowl

The pattern for my cowl is very intricate. Usually, I don’t use commercial patterns. I design my own garments instead. Knitting this cowl was a laborious process. I used circular knitting needles for the body of the cowl. Then, I crocheted the border with a very fine wooden crochet hook made of Sorbus (Rowan or European Ash) tree.

I was very happy with my resulting project. See how happy I am in the photo below?

Image: My lace alpaca cowl
My lace alpaca cowl

And here is a picture of the cowl itself.

Image: Lace alpaca cowl

I hope you like it too. Please let me know in the comments below what you think about this process.

Kimberly

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