Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Little About Fiber Skirting (or what do you have to do to get fiber ready to spin?)

Can you find the puppy sleeping in the alpaca fiber skirtings?  
Yes, that is Rowdy, just a couple days after we got him. I was skirting fiber and he found a nice bed on the ground among the fiber I was discarding.  What is skirting?  Read on!

As we shear each alpaca, its fleece (or fiber) is sorted into 3 categories:  Prime or blanket, which is the nicest part of the fleece,  seconds, which is usable for  some items, and that which goes on the floor of the barn to be swept out the door.  The blanket and seconds are put into bags and stored in my summer kitchen until I have time to sort through, or skirt them.  Here is a day's shearing, ready to go into storage:

Before I can send my fiber off for processing into roving (ready to spin fiber) or yarn or sell it to other hand-spinners, I must sort  or skirt it to get rid of any undesirable  bits.  So, I get out my skirting table, which is very simply made from a 4' X 5' piece of cattle panel with plastic hardware cloth attached to it with zip ties.  Yes, I have seen very fancy tables at alpaca shows made with wood frames that fold up and also from stainless steel, but I love mine.  It can be stored behind the summer kitchen just leaning up against the wall until I am ready to use it and it was CHEAP!  I can prop it up on anything handy,  which as you can see, happens to be my picnic table and a patio chair.

Next, I spread a fleece out on the table and I carefully go through it .  I look for areas with excessive VM which stands for vegetable matter , also known as hay, burrs, sticks, etc.  I will discard any portions of the fleece which has a lot of this in it, as no spinner wants to deal with it and if you send it to a processor with excessive VM, you get back yarn or roving with VM in it.  Small amounts will come out in during processing, but not all of it.  Some processors will send your fleeces back to you if they are too dirty.  You may remember we vacuum our alpacas prior to shearing, but this does not remove all the debris.  It mainly removes dust and grit that dull the shear blades.  Since alpacas LOVE to roll, they pick up some pretty interesting things in their fleece.  I also remove any fiber which is not the same quality as the rest of the blanket.  Many times, especially around the edges of the fleece there are coarser areas, and this is what goes all over the ground at my feet.  The coarser fibers in the fleece are what will cause the finished yarn to be itchy or have the prickle effect.  No one wants an itchy scarf or sweater!

While I am skirting, I make notes on each fleece such as staple length, which is the average length of the fibers in each fleece.  3 to 6 inches is probably the most desirable for spinning.  If the staple length is shorter, more twist will be needed to hold the fibers together and if it is longer, it is harder to card to prepare for spinning.   I also note whether the fiber has crimp, which is the waviness you see in the photo to above.  Crimp is what gives a finished yarn elasticity and loft.  A crimpy fleece should make a yarn which stretches and then springs back when you pull and let it go.  A fleece without crimp makes a yarn that is drapey, like silk, and is wonderful for lacey scarves and shawls.  So, spinners like to know these things before they buy a fleece.

I take photos of each fleece and make a note as to the weight of the skirted fleece.  I also decide at this time which fleeces I will offer for sale as raw fleeces and which ones I will send off for processing into roving or yarn.

I sell most of my fleeces via the internet on various web sites, so all this information is helpful to prospective buyers.  I hope someday soon to have my own web site set up exclusively for the sale of fiber and yarns and finished products, but not yet.

Summer continues to roll on.  We had a very hot week or two and are now having several days of perfect weather:  sunny and mid-70's during the day and 50's at night.  Gotta love it!

Sam is working on the picnic pavilion up at the pond now that he has milled all the lumber he will need for it, so maybe next week I will have photos of that in progress.

In addition to skirting fleeces out under the big maple trees in the yard, I have done some more canning: 2 batches of wild raspberry jam and 1 batch of pickled beets, with more to come.  The garden is thriving and I am doing my best to keep ahead of the weeds, but sometimes it seems a losing battle!  We have lots of green tomatoes and our lettuce is about finished.  We have enjoyed dishes with fresh basil, though, which we love.  Wild blackberries are coming ripe and we had our first corn of the season last week (we no longer grow corn since the raccoons ate more of it than we did). Looking forward to Fourth of July festivities this weekend!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hot, humid. Well, it's June in Ohio!

Even Rowdy, who is a firm believer in "Bigger is Better" when it comes to sticks, finds these a bit too large to bring to me.

Yes, hot, humid.  We've been blessed with a couple of mild summers recently and I think maybe we forgot what summer is really like.  I've even turned on the air conditioning in the house a few times.  The alpacas sit in the barn in front of their fans, getting up only to  eliminate, turning the barn into a giant toilet.  Can you tell how happy I am about this?  Twice a day I rake and scoop and about every other day I spread a wheel barrow load of sawdust on the mess to help with the moisture and the smell.  This time of year, especially with as much rain as we have had, not much helps.

We did finally have our last cria of the spring!  Peg, who we've had since she was 6 months old and is now 11, had a little girl last Friday (also my son Zac's birthday) at 367 days gestation.  She's a cutie.  Her sire is our male, Eclipse and keeping with the solar phenomena theme, she will be called Aurora.  Our first cria of the year, whose birth you witnessed virtually on this blog, is also by Eclipse and he is named Corona.  For those of you who think this is only the name of a mediocre beer, here is the definition:  "The upper, rarefied solar atmosphere which becomes visible around the darkened sun during a total solar eclipse."    We also finished shearing!!

As mentioned, we have had a lot of rain.  Rain gauge measurements have often been over half an inch and up to .9" in one 12 hour period.  Our little creek behind the house is usually about a foot wide, easily jumped across.  For those who wonder why we have bridges, here's the answer:
The good thing is that the creek recedes quickly as soon as the rain lets up and all this water makes its way to the Ohio River.

Sam has been working on plans for our picnic pavilion up at the pond.  It will be 24' X 24' and will be constructed entirely of lumber cut and milled right here on the farm.  He will have to buy metal for the roof.    His first step is to cut a couple of large poplar trees.  The one Rowdy is standing on at the top of this post Sam cut 3  14' logs and 1  8' log out of.   From those 3 logs, he got approximately 60 14' 2 X 4s    and 4  8' 2 X 4s.  He will be cutting up another tree as well.  

Sam's Sawmill is a portable band mill, so it is a huge band saw that he pushes along a track.  His dad has a nice electric powered one you don't have to push, but this was a little more budget friendly and does the job.  

This project will basically be a pole construction, using locust posts (also to be cut here on the farm), which all our alpaca buildings are made with.  He will be making his own trusses for the roof, which will new for him.  Hopefully this will be done before Labor Day!

There has not been a lot of knitting or spinning time for me lately.  I have started skirting all those fleeces which are piled waist deep in my summer kitchen.  It makes it hard to get in there to get out canning jars, which I had to do just the other day to make a batch of wild raspberry jam.  Summer is just full of this kind of work which is much appreciated every time a jar of jam is opened the rest of the year.

Today I am off to visit my mom in Dayton and then she and I will be heading to Grand Rapids Michigan for the weekend to celebrate my aunt's retirement from teaching.  She is finally getting out of kindergarten after 30+ years!  It will be great to spend time with family, though I do feel bad about leaving Sam with that wonderful stinky barn.  Just a little.....

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Almost done with shearing!

Sometimes I just have to stop and marvel at the beauty in nature.  This morning it was a spider web in a pine tree that was beaded with tiny drops of water.  Kind of reminded me of my now finished beaded shawl  .

Monday it was a gorgeous moth on a chair in the yard.

We still have a few alpacas to shear, 3 adults and 3 crias, although one of those 3 crias has yet to make its appearance.  My older girl, Peg, is at 366 days gestation today.  I'm getting anxious!  

Unfortunately, I have not been able to get the shearing photos I'd like to have since I am always busy during shearing, but I do have some and can explain what we do.

Sheep shearers are fascinating to watch.  They grab a sheep and bsically sit it up on it's butt with it's back up against their body and proceed to clip away, either with electric or hand shears.  The sheep for the most part submits to this without too much fuss.  They ARE sheep after all.

Alpacas on the other hand will definitely not sit still for that kind of treatment.  In general, they do not like to be confined, grabbed, handled or even petted.  Therefore, shearing, which requires all of the above is not their idea of fun.  Alpacas have long legs and can pack a nice kick.  Each foot is tipped with 2 raptor-like toenails, capable of shredding a T-shirt and scratching skin (ask Sam, he knows).  So in the US we have devised ways to restrain alpacas for shearing which is safe for both the alpaca, the shearer and anyone else who might be in the barn.  We even attempt to contain the spit which inevitably flies when an alpaca gets mad enough.  "Mad enough to spit" takes on a whole new meaning!

In order to make our fleeces as nice as possible and to cut down on the wear on our shear combs and cutters, we try to get as much dust and debris off each animal prior to shearing.  Yes, my Kirby vacuum cleaner lives in the barn during shearing season, so don't expect to come over and find my carpets clean!  Each alpaca is brought into a catch pen and vacuumed as thoroughly as possible.  Do they like this?  No, not really and some protest vehemently.  This is where kicking is likely to happen.  

Once cleaned up, the alpaca is lead to our homemade shearing table, which tilts to vertical.  There are 2 straps on the table which are fastened around the alpaca's belly, and then we tilt the table so it is horizontal and the alpaca is laying on its side.  Now we need to restrain those legs, and we have a set of ropes for the front legs and one for the back legs which are attached to a ratchet device, allowing us to stretch the alpaca out on the table.  This does not hurt them, it merely annoys them!

Once on the table, Sam goes to work with the shears while I hold the head to control the animal.  Hopefully we have friends present to help with gathering up the fleece as it comes off the animal.  We can get up to 10 pounds off each animal, with 6 being average.  Here are 2 views of the same alpaca on the table being shorn.  The fiber (as the fleece is called) is separated into 2 bags , prime (or the best part) and seconds.  Anything unusable goes on the floor and is raked out the door for the birds to use.

While the alpacas are mostly immobilized on the table, we try to take care of other unpleasant chores, such as toenail trimming.

This is also a good time to vaccinate and check teeth.  We need to trim teeth from time to time on some animals and males have sharp fighting teeth that need to be cut off or they are known to use them to emasculate their rivals/pasturmates!

Most alpacas take this process with little complaint, but some scream through the whole thing as if they were being flayed alive.  Some urinate all over the table, others spit.  Occasionally we get a truly prolific spitter which requires that one of Sam's old socks be put to useWe had one such girl this year who literally filled a tube sock with foul green spit.  This stuff could be used in chemical warfare. It is stinky and nasty.  Basically, the alpaca regurgitates partially digested grass and can project this concoction an amazing 6 feet.  The photo to the right is Elli, and while she did not require a sock, you can see her green lips and the green stuff that has dribbled out of her mouth as we were working on her.  

From the time we bring an alpaca into the catch pen until we turn her loose back in the pasture, having experienced a full spa treatment, it is about 20 minutes.  Sam and I are so thankful to have friends who don't mind getting dirty and come over to help us with this chore.  We usually have a lot of fun and food and drink follows the job.  

As mentioned earlier in this post, I finished my mystery shawl this week!  Yeah!  The edging took me almost a month, but it required knitting on 2800 tiny beads! I am very pleased with the result.  I think it came out beautiful.  Next project?  I have a summer top I am working on in a hemp blend and some socks and  and and........

Thursday, June 3, 2010


June is here and that means summertime.  Hot humid days fading into cool nights.  Lots of work to do on the farm.  We love to see healthy, active crias romping in the pasture!

We are still not done shearing.  Almost there, but things have been so busy that there are not enough hours in the day.

I took 2 female alpacas to northern Ohio last Thursday for breeding and on the way home my brake line broke on my truck, so it was out of commission and 70 miles away for a week.  Got it back last night and now I still have one alpaca to deliver to PA for breeding.  No one was injured in the incident and I was close by some good friends who helped me out big time.  It reinforces how important good people are in our lives.  Thanks, Bill & David.
Friday evening, Elli delivered her cria, a super cute little male.  Here he is: 

I attended the Great Lakes Fiber Show in Wooster Ohio on Saturday with a friend and dropped off about 65 pounds of fiber to Morningstar Fiber Mill    to be made into rug yarn and knitting yarn.  I hope to be able to start weaving alpaca rugs by the end of August.  The knitting yarn will be dyed and sold and I will probably use some myself.  In addition to dropping off fiber I chatted with friends and did a little shopping.

Sunday we needed to bale and put in the hay that Sam had mowed Friday and Saturday.  We got about 50 bales off a small field and about 100 off our new field.  We could have had another 100 or so, but didn't need that much, so we called a neighbor and told them if they came and baled it, it was theirs.  They do round bales for their cattle.  Our first cutting hay is for our horse, Apache, and 150 bales should easily get him through the winter.  We feed second cutting to the alpacas. We will do that hay in August.  The photo above is Sam raking the hay prior to baling.

Here is the small field along the road with the bales ready to be picked up and put into the loft.  We had to borrow the neighbor's truck to pick up the bales since ours was in the shop.  We have great neighbors!

My mother also arrived for a visit on Sunday in the midst of all the work.  We had been dog-sitting for her and she was coming to take her dog home and spend a couple days with us.

On Monday evening, Sidney, one of my boarder's alpacas, delivered her first cria at about 5 pm. She had a healthy black female cria.  This was the second birth my mom was here to witness.  It's aways exciting.  This cria was the first cria from our black herdsire (stud), Oscuro, so it was doubly nice that it was a female and black.

Tuesday evening, I had my first lesson in running a chainsaw.  I have never really wanted to use one before, but we will need a lot of wood cut up for our syrup evaporator come February, so it will be good for me to help out.  Plus, we wanted to clear out some more pine trees from one of our pastures, so Sam can cut them down and now I can cut them up.  Notice in the photo I am wearing protective chaps (that sentence was for my mother's benefit!).

This morning, another of my boarder's alpacas, Ahnnie, delivered a little male cria while I was doing my chores before work.  This was the 5th of 6 crias due this spring, so only one left to go.  My girl Peg is holding out on me at 359 days of gestation today.  I think our farm record for long gestation is 373 days, so hopefully she won't be going for the record!  I am ready to have them all delivered.  Here is Ahnnie and her new baby.

Sam is cutting down trees to run through the sawmill for lumber for the picnic shelter he is building up by the pond.  He is going to make it 24 X 24 and will be building the roof trusses himself.  He was hauling out a 14' poplar log as I was leaving for the office this morning.  

I am almost done with my mystery shawl.  The edging is taking  long time, but time to knit has been in short supply lately.  I have a goal, though, of having it done by my next spinning guild meeting which is a week from today.  I should make it.  We'll see!