Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Suint Fermentation -the best way to clean raw wool if you want to save water

Suint Fermentation

to clean raw fleeces: some of the science behind it, why it works, and how to do it yourself.


Cleaning raw fleeces can be an extremely tiring and grueling process. Depending on the breed and how dirty the individual animal was prior to being sheared, you can often have an extremely daunting mess on your hands.

In addition to it being extremely labor intensive, cleaning raw fleeces from start to finish is also a smelly experience that is not for the faint of heart -- regardless of which method you use to clean it.

That leads us to your cleaning options: There are a lot of different methods that you can use to clean a fleece, and some are better suited to specific fleeces than others. 

If you have a smaller fleece, or one that is rich in lanolin, then it may be best to go ahead and clean it in your sink using a wool wash. My favorite is Beyond Clean, as it works better than
any other wool wash I have tried, and it is very reasonably priced. Even after cleaning a fleece using the Suint Fermentation method, I will still finish up with one soak in a sink with warm water and a squirt of Beyond. This helps finish up the cleaning process and make it look beautiful.

For larger fleeces, or extremely dirty fleeces, I prefer the Suint Fermentation Method of cleaning (also called the FSM, or Fermented Suint Method). When we get our Teeswater fleeces, they come unskirted. They are extremely heavy, and dark brown with dirt (keep in mind that it takes a sheep an entire year to grow their fleeces this long, and sheep don't take true baths besides being rained on). It usually takes 7 or 8 rinses (prior to the actual washing!) to get these fleeces clean enough to use soap on. These fleeces are perfect for this method, and that's what I'm going to talk about today.

As many of you know, I was an Environmental Science major (previously a microbiology major... I love science!) and I really dislike wasting water. In a search for a better way to clean these fleeces without using as much water, I came upon the perfect solution -- The Suint Fermentation method. This method works particularly well for large batches of fleece, which are low in lanolin content. 

The Science Behind Suint Fermentation

*Skip this section if you just want to learn how to actually clean the fleece! 

Throughout their lives, sheep draw potassium chloride into their bodies as they graze. This chemical is commonly referred to as "potash." Sweat on its own is a mix of mostly water, combined with trace amounts of lactic acid, urea, and minerals. Together, a mixture of excess potash combines with their sweat and builds up on their wool. At this point, it becomes a soluble salt, and this compound is collectively referred to as "suint."

Some breeds of sheep have quite a lot of suint built up in their wool (Merino sheep, for example: approximately 1/3 of their wool weight is made up of suint and washes out when the wool is cleaned!). Typically the finer the wool, the more suint will be present in the fleece. In coarser sheep breeds, only about 15% of the weight is made up of this compound.

In addition to the suint in a sheep's fleece, there is also a greasy matter called Lanolin, which combines with lime and other earthy matter to create an insoluble soap.
When a fleece is washed in this way, you are pulling out these natural soaps from the suint, as explained above. But instead of rinsing and immediately drying the fleece, it is given extra time in this all natural soap bath, where the bacteria present on the fleece can go to work to help with the cleaning process. Soaks alone are usually not enough to get rid of chunks of poop and dirt, but the bacteria present in this additional step  are able to eat through this solid matter in a very efficient way that could not be achieved by soaking alone.

The bacteria involved in this process are anaerobic, which means that once the fleece is out of the water and in an oxygen rich environment, they die and therefore the smell goes away.

In Anaerobic cellular respiration electrons are extracted from a fuel molecule and are passed through an electron transport chain, which drives ATP, T, P synthesis (ATP is what makes everything work - it is the source of energy within cells). Some organisms use sulfate as the final electron acceptor at the end of the transport chain, while others use enthesis, N, O, start subscript, 3, end subscript, start superscript, minus, end superscript, right parenthesissulfur,
nitrateeft , or one of a variety of other molecules. Some prokaryotes that live in low-oxygen environments  (such as a tote full of rain water) rely on anaerobic respiration to break down fuels. For example, methanogens are found in soil and in the digestive systems of sheep, and they can use carbon dioxide as a terminal electron acceptor, producing methane as a by-product (with its characteristically bad smell). Likewise, sulfate-reducing bacteria use sulfate as a terminal electron acceptor, producing hydrogen sulfide (the characteristic gas that smells like rotten eggs). 

How to clean your fleece with this method

The first thing that you will want to do is grab a tote (with a matching lid set aside), and set it outside under a spout so it can collect rain water. Any size large enough for your fleece will do - but the standard is about a 20 gallon tote. 

You want to have a nice soft water for this method, which is why rain water is ideal. Some people cheat and use tap or hose water, but I highly recommend doing it the right way and waiting for it to rain. In the absence of rain, you could always use distilled water instead, but rain water really works best.

Corriedale after suint bath
Once you have enough rain water to fill your tote, you are ready to begin. For your very first suint bath, you will want to choose a fleece that is extra rich in suint. For our experiment, we chose a deliciously soft corriedale fleece, which was ultra sticky and rich in suint and lanolin. This is because that wonderful substance works as our all natural soap, so the more of it we have in the initial wash, the better.

Bubbles forming in the bath on day 5
Place your "starter" fleece in the tote full of water, and fully submerge it. Cover it with the lid (it doesn't have to be air tight but you will want to keep bugs out of it if you can). Set it somewhere (outside of the home is recommended) where it won't get too cold. Ideally, you want it to be in a nice warm environment. For our bath, we used our garage the first time, then moved it to the shed by the time we were on our third batch because I didn't want to keep smelling it every time I went out to the garage. We have tested many different temperatures (primarily due to the changing weather), and found that the best results came when it was super hot outside... above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leave it for about a week.  Lay back and let those microbes do all the work for you!

Day 7 has a nice film over the top .
After a week, it's time to take it out. You can remove the lid and you should notice some bubbles and maybe a film on the top of the water. This is what you want to see, as it is a sign of the little microbes doing their job and producing that lovely gas that will smell quite a lot like rotten eggs. Trust me on this, the smell will be horrible. 

You will want to get another tote and ideally a screen to place over it so you can set your fleece on top of the screen to drain into the new tote (afterwards, you will want to pour that extra water back into the original tote). In our experiment, we forgot (not just once, but several times) to go buy a screen, so we just scooped the fleece out by hand. The screen is not essential, but it does make it easier because you'll want to save the water for your next suint bath. You can re-use it over and over, and the "soap" will only get more concentrated each time. It's not realistic that you'll be able to save all of the water and that's ok. It's fine to re-fill it with additional rain water as needed.  One thing to note is that this process doesn't take out all of the lanolin, and your starter fleece will still be sticky when you take it out.*

Something that you don't have to do (but we found helpful) was rinsing the fleece once after taking it out of the wash. To do this, we filled up the new tote with drained fleece from the original tote, then used a hose to rinse it off before we set it out to dry. As soon as you rinse it initially, you should be able to see the difference between your unwashed fleece and your newly washed fleece (very evident in our video). It should lighten up considerably with a rinsing, then lighten up again with your final wash post-dry.

My lovely assistant... LOL
We like to set our wet fleeces out on the deck to dry, but how you dry yours is entirely up to you. Hanging laundry baskets (like what we have in the beginning of our video) also work well, as do screens.  The fleece will smell terribly. Rinsing it will not help with the smell, but can help get some excess dirt out of the fleece initially. Once the fleece is dry, the smell will go away completely, and will not come back -- even when you get it wet again. In the picture above of our rinsed Teeswater, I added some mint leaves from a mint plant out back to help me deal with the smell. It helped considerably.

That's all there is to it. After you are finished with your starter fleece, you will be ready for your next fleece!

You will basically want to do everything that you did last time, but it should only need a couple of days (2-3) instead of a full week for every subsequent fleece that you clean in your tote. Remember that each time you run a fleece through, you are adding to the suint that is already in the bath and making that soap more potent. 

This process will not get rid of VM (vegetable matter), but it does greatly eat away at any clumps of dirt or poop in the fleece. The amount of water that is saves on extra dirty fleeces is very impressive, and it's a great way to wash a lot of fleece at once. 

Some helpful tips 

  1. Use disposable gloves when handling the wet fleece after it has been in the suint bath. The smell sticks to the material and will not go away afterwards. 
  2. Do not bring the fleece into your house while it is still wet initially. It will fill up your entire house and make it smell to high hell and back. Let it dry first so the microbes die off, then wash it one final time. Using Beyond or Unicorn as a soap works really well for your final wash, and should get the fleece really clean. Tips for how to do that are at the end of my blog.
  3. Whenever possible, skirt your fleece before you add it to the bath. It's just always going to give you a better final result than throwing an entire fleece in it. 
  4. Do not try this method if you are sensitive to bad smells. 
  5. Do try this method if you want to save water, clean fleece in an all natural way, and want to clean a lot of fleece at once with minimal effort.

A small sample of locks after they finished drying. 

I hope that this information was helpful. We have posted a video on Youtube of our initial results so you can get a better look at our process. I would love to hear how it works for you! Check out the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCVfRhenksE

Check us out at www.bluebarnfiber.etsy.com or www.bluebarnfiber.com 

We sell our Teeswater locks in bundles and can custom dye any colorway you can dream up!
We also love  Unicorn / Beyond so much that we sell it. It is available in our shop at https://www.etsy.com/listing/462282969/ 

Stay tuned for a custom dyed batch of Corriedale for sale from our very first ever suint bath! 

Thanks for visiting!

*In order to remove the lanolin from your starter fleece (or any subsequent fleece that has a high lanolin content), you'll need to wash it in hot water and ideally a drop or two of soap. Blue Dawn or Beyond / Unicorn Power Scour work wonderfully for this. Fill up a sink full of hot water, add the soap, add the fleece, let it soak (do not agitate it at all), then drain it after a few minutes while the water is still hot. Fill it up again to rinse it, then drain it again. Set it out to dry, and you're done. The hot water sort of melts the lanolin, so letting the water get cool will cause it to re-solidify on the wool. Or, you can choose to keep the lanolin on the fleece and use it as-is. A lot of people love the way it feels and it is added to many beauty products after being harvested from wool. It's an all natural lotion.  For other fleeces that are not heavy in lanolin: You will want to wash them one final time after the initial dry. You can use the same method as above, but you can use either hot or warm water and either one should work fine.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Cruelty Free Wool

Let's talk about vegans, wool, and whether or not it is cruel. 

There is currently a meme going around on social media that makes my blood boil:

This image is being floated around from some vegan groups, and it's spreading like wildfire. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize that it's completely and utterly incorrect.

People who are not in the fiber world, for example, might actually believe that sheep are killed for their wool. There have been PETA ads in the past which showed a fake lamb practically skinned "for its wool" which were equally obnoxious and inaccurate.

I'd like to set the record straight and talk about this a little bit.

First let's recognize that there are three main categories of sheep here in the USA (I'm exuding milk breeds since that's not really common in this part of the world): Wool breeds, meat breeds, and duel-purpose breeds. For the sake of my post, I am only going to be talking about wool breeds and duel purpose breeds who are raised by small farmers.

Now, let's talk about the facts.

Sheep are not killed, or even harmed, for their wool. 


Sheep raised for wool are typically treated very, very well. As any shepherd knows, a stressed or unhappy sheep will not produce good wool. Therefore, these sheep are kept healthy, happy, and often spoiled in order to produce the best quality wool possible. Any ad or meme that says otherwise is flat our lying - either blatantly, or, more likely, out of genuine ignorance. Does getting your hair cut hurt? No. Shearing can be a bit awkward for the sheep. They have something buzzing all over their body and afterwards look naked and pink. It's embarrassing for them, I'm sure. That being said, no one is harmed in the shearing process aside from the occasional accidental nick - nothing worse than I get from shaving my own legs.

Wool breeds of sheep live like kings


High quality Teeswater sheep are an example of a wool breed  (and, in fact, are the breed that my husband Dan and I hope to start raising in a couple of years). I haven't recently checked the going rate, but I've seen some sell for around $1300 each. That is a lot of money for a sheep, and certainly no one would buy a sheep like this just to turn around and slaughter it. These sheep are so expensive because they have a very hot commodity -- their lustrous locks are sheared once a year and then used for things like extreme tail-spinning, art yarns, weaving, and high-end doll hair. In our shop, we sell these locks cleaned, separated, and hand painted for $22/oz. Their price tag is high and it takes a lot of work to go from a raw and greasy wool to the finished product, but their fiber is absolutely gorgeous. This price tag is far greater than any amount of meat could offer, so no one in their right mind would ever use a breed like this for meat. Teeswater sheep grow about an inch per month, so one year's worth of growth gives 12" locks. I have had many customers come to my shop for doll hair after previously buying tibetan yak pelts of hair (where the animal did have to die) or plastic, synthetic hair. Let's just say I'm very glad that they made the switch to a cruelty-free, more earth-friendly doll hair.

Raising sheep will not make anyone rich 


Any shepherd will tell you that raising sheep is not a way to get rich quick, or even get rich ever. It's hard work, and often involves a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. People who raise sheep for a living do it for one reason: because they love their sheep. These animals quite often become pets to their shepherd, and they are mourned just like other family pets when the time comes for them to cross the rainbow bridge.

I have hundreds of friends who raise their own animals, and most of them allow their older sheep to retire to the senior citizens area of their pasture, where they finish their lives in peace (and away from horny rams who just want to get their baby-makers some action). People like me and my husband, who couldn't stand the idea of killing a sheep just because it's a boy, have their extra males wethered and kept as fiber producing pets, just like the females. Typically lambs grow the finest, softest wool. However, it is not uncommon to still have perfectly usable wool from older sheep. I have never heard of a shepherd offing one of their old sheep just because its wool isn't as soft as it used to be... that just doesn't tend to happen.

Mutualism is not exploitation

The most common vegan argument I see is this: animals should not be exploited, therefore any use of an animal that benefits the human should be forbidden.

Here is a thought: anyone who has a pet is, by that definition, exploiting it. I keep two rescue parrots and two dogs, as well as two spoiled cats. I enjoy all of their company, and keep them because I love them and cherish them. I exploit them for their company. But they also gain something from me and my husband -- our love and devotion, safety, security, healthcare (we come with benefits!), food, toys, etc. Yes. I own my animals. But they own me too.

If you believe that you shouldn't raise any animal just for your own enjoyment, then you could almost use the same argument to say that a person shouldn't have children if all they are going to do is enjoy having children. Sheep are sheared once, sometimes twice a year. Saying that they "work for us, the humans" is a bit silly... since their "work" is simply them being alive. Enjoying life, grazing, romping, playing, etc  --- and yes, once or twice a year having an embarrassing session of hair trimming which leaves them naked and ridiculous looking. 

They aren't chained up or breaking rocks all day for us -- they aren't our slaves. They "get paid" to look pretty and stuff their faces with grass. They benefit from their shepherds keeping them safe and alive, and the shepherd benefits from the wool reaped in the shearing process.

Here's another thought: Symbiosis: Mutualistic relationships exist all throughout nature - not just between humans and farm animals. Examples include bees and flowers, clown fish and their anemone, rhinos and zebras and oxpeckers. All of these creatures use one another to mutually benefit.

Yes. Some farmers eat their sheep (particularly in duel purpose and meat breeds). Do I like it? No. But I'd rather see that than see them buy meat from the grocery store and support the absolute horror that is the meat industry here in the USA. Obviously, in my perfect world, no one would eat meat and even animals wouldn't kill each other for food. But that simply isn't reality. The best we can ask for is that people who do choose to eat meat eat meat from animals who were raised with respect, free-ranged, and in a humane way (as a reminder, both my husband and I do not eat meat). 

Remember that the wool industry is not the meat industry, and supporting one does not mean you are necessarily supporting the other.  

Sheep need to be sheared for health reasons 


There are a few rare breeds out there that still shed their wool naturally, but the majority of the sheep that exist today have been bred to require shearing. Whether or not you agree with the fact that sheep have been bred for this purpose, the fact remains that if modern sheep are not sheared, they will suffer greatly. Most people have heard about Shrek the Merino sheep, who escaped shearing for 6 years and ended up having over 60lbs of wool on his body. There was another sheep named Chris who had 89lbs of wool sheared off of him.

Sheep who are not sheared regularly can develop a variety of health problems, including fly strike, maggots on their skin, not being able to get up, and over-heating. Not to mention the extra weight from the wool. To not shear a sheep is animal cruelty, and once the wool is off of their body, to throw it out would be a tremendous waste.  The wool is going to be sheared off of the sheep whether or not a human uses it.

Wool is one of the most eco-friendly things in the world


I majored in Environmental Science in college, and spent many years looking into ways to improve the earth, reduce my carbon footprint, and live as self-sustaining as possible. I had a particular focus on eco-friendly textiles, and I learned quite a bit about the different options out there. Many people do not realize this, but the acrylic yarn that you can buy from most hobby stores is a petroleum byproduct, and is incredibly bad for the earth. While we do sell some synthetic fiber in our shop, it is mostly recycled, and we stock it in moderation. 

Many vegans turn to other fibers that are cellulose based, and that also causes a problem. 

Cotton, for example, is incredibly bad for the environment and takes an absolute ton of pesticides and water to keep alive. If you choose to buy cotton, you need to be very careful to purchase it from organic growers only (the cotton in our store is organic and does meet this requirement). 

Viscose and rayon fibers are another go-to for vegans, and are often marketed as "vegan silk". These fibers are typically made in China, and are created by liquefying plant material by immersing it in chemicals, then spinning it into a fiber using mechanical spinnerets and cutting each fiber to the proper length. The majority of the fibers on the market are made with harmful chemicals, with a couple of rare exceptions (we also try to focus on carrying the good stuff in our store and not the bad stuff).

Tencel, Lyocel, Seacell, and Rose Fiber are all made with a closed loop process which does not utilize harmful chemicals and recycles the chemical bath, thus making them truly eco-friendly fibers which do not harm the earth. The benefit of these fibers is that they are made with renewable resources such as beech trees, and are easily harvested then re-planted. Bast bamboo, banana fiber, and hemp are other examples of fibers that are harvested by hand and made without the use of chemicals (these fibers tend to be a lot coarser than the previously mentioned fiber, and are primarily used in things like necklace cord and rags and tote bags or outer wear... no one wants a hemp bikini).

Out of all of the animal-free alternatives, only a couple options exist which don't harm the earth. 

Wool, on the other hand, makes so much more sense, as it is truly eco-friendly and is wasted once sheared off the sheep. The sheep are happy to donate it when they don't' need it, and it gives people an excuse to keep these animals for uses other than meat.

Other animal-based options are referred to as "fiber" (hence our business name) and include alpaca, which is also very eco-friendly (almost no one in the USA eats alpacas, and they have an even smaller carbon footprint on pastures than sheep do), goats, angora rabbits, and peace silk (where the moth is allowed to emerge unharmed from the cocoon before the cocoon is harvested for silk). I have friends who also raise Tibetan Yaks here in the USA (and yes, they are kept as pets) as well as camels.

Buying wool helps the sheep

I recently had a friend on facebook post that her wool sales had declined this year. So much so, that she had to send several of her sheep to the butcher block just to stay afloat. She was devastated, and I was devastated for her.

As I have said before, no one raises sheep to get rich. Many people who do this for a living just make enough to scrape by and do it because it's better than working in a call center or 9 to 5 job. These people love the lifestyle that comes from keeping sheep.

I have several farmers I regularly buy wool from each year, and they have told me that the money I give them goes directly toward feed and veterinary care for the sheep. Continuing to buy from them allows them to continue keeping their sheep happy and healthy. Many of the extremist vegan groups out there would rather all sheep be set free into the wild than have humans raise them for wool. The result of that would be dead sheep, or sheep suffering greatly and unable to move. Boycotting small farmers hurts the farmers, but also greatly hurts the sheep as well.

On the other hand, paying for wool on a regular basis can mean the difference between life and death for many duel breed sheep. If their fleeces don't sell, they become meat. If their fleeces sell, they are able to continue producing wool each year. Most of the time when I see friends have to butcher their sheep, they do it out of necessity when wool sales are low and they have no other options.

Not all wool is cruelty free, but most really is.


The world is not black and white, and there are, of course, some exceptions to any rule.

Not everyone in the wool industry is compassionate and cruelty free. I have seen the PETA video of an undercover Australian wool operation, and it was horrific. I also recognize that it is not the norm, and there are evil people in every industry. For example, there are a lot of people who abuse their dogs, but that doesn't mean that I don't think anyone should own a dog. I think the true difference here is large corporation vs. individual. Just like with factory farms, once a corporation gets too big, they look at their animals as merchandise rather than living, sentient beings, and that's where the trouble starts.

They key is to be responsible and know who you are buying from. Here at Blue Barn Fiber, we are very careful about which farmers we purchase wool from, and we do not support any farmers or companies that perform mulesing on sheep. We prefer to support small shepherds here in the US and in the Europe who put the welfare and happiness of their animals first. Believe me when I say that there are a lot of amazing shepherds and farmers out there who fit into this category. 

When you purchase wool from us, you can rest assured that you are buying from a truly cruelty-free source. I know that there are some people out there who sell wool and really don't care where it comes from, but we do. I love animals more than anything, and I would never condone an industry (or make my entire life and business around a world) that profits from harming animals. 

For vegans out there, ask yourself why you are vegan. If it is truly to benefit the animals and to be eco-friendly, they you may want to re-consider using wool. It is so much better for the environment, and is honestly better for the sheep in general. Support small businesses like ours, and you can wear wool without any guilt or second guessing. The sheep  (and their shepherd family) will thank you for it. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How to use silk hankies

I see this question a lot on Facebook and from our customers. What do you do with silk hankies? They look pretty, but what are they for?

Well, the answer is... a lot. There are so many uses for these interesting little squares of silk, and I'm going to talk about a couple of them for you.

First of all, let's quickly talk about what silk hankies are. These are commonly referred to as mawatas, which is a Japanese name for "to spread around". They come in little piles that consist of hundreds of individual squares that have been stacked on top of each other, and each square is one cocoon from a silk worm that has been soaked, degummed, and spread around a square frame to shape it.

When you receive undyed silk hankies in the mail, you will be able to peel them off one layer (or one cocoon) at a time. You can also dye them or buy them pre-dyed from us. This next photo shows a dyed silk hankie in our Sleeping Beauty colorway that has been knitted up without spinning it.

By its very nature, silk is extremely strong and difficult to break. For this reason, it does not need to be spun in order to be knitted or crocheted. It can be drafted out and used straight from the cocoon.

I made a video which illustrates this, and also shows how exactly to go about drafting a silk hankie and knitting with it. Link to Youtube Video . 

There are a lot of other uses for silk hankies and your imagination is really the limit. Many people use them in nuno felting in place of a woven silk base, and other people use them for paper making and other similar projects. You can also spin them as you would regular wool or silk in sliver form, though it is not necessary. 

I really love dyeing these neat little squares of fiber, but it is a tricky process. If you are interested in a specific colorway that you don't see in our store, just shoot me a message and I can custom dye something just for you.

As always, check us out at www.bluebarnfiber.com or www.bluebarnfiber.etsy.com .

Sunday, January 4, 2015

All About Alpaca

All About Alpaca

Bella from Granny's Alpacas
Alpaca was the first fiber that I ever got my hands on as a spinner. I remember being amazed at how one breed could have such a wide variety of fiber, and how most of it was not scratchy the way I have come to know most commercially bought woolen garments to be.

Eco-Friendly Fluffy Friends!

I love Alpacas for many reasons. Having majored in Environmental Science in college, being eco-friendly is very important to me, and alpacas have that down pat. Their little feet are padded which means that they don't tear up the earth when they graze. Their droppings act as a very good natural fertilizer with a low pH and very little odor, and they keep their droppings in specific areas of the pasture, making clean up easy. They don't eat a lot due to their physiology, and they also don't drink an excessive amount of water due to their camelid ancestry. And of course, they grow wonderfully warm fiber that is a renewable resource.  They don't have to be harmed in order to harvest their fiber (by shearing it off), and on top of it all, they are very social and friendly animals. Even competitive breeders can treat their alpacas like pets and spoil them. 

Cleaning Their Fleece:

Alpacas don't have lanolin (the greasy stuff) that sheep have. Instead, their fleeces are very easy to clean and require no fancy soaps to make them pristine. A few good soaks in water is usually all that is needed to get the dust and dirt out of an alpaca fleece. Because alpaca fiber is so fine, it can often have a lot of super small VM (vegetable matter -- like hay) stuck in it, which can make the picking part a little bit labor intensive. 

A fleece tumbler
Fleece Tumbler
Thankfully, because of the lack of lanolin in the fibers, you can actually tumble the fleece and get most of the VM out quite easily (it won't be stuck to the grease since there isn't any). They make special fleece tumblers for that, or you can make your own out of an old dryer or cement mixer.  A tumbler basically involves having a cage/barrel to hold the fleece with holes in it so the VM can fall out, then putting ends on it and finding a way to turn it. You can add little spikes in them to pick the fiber apart as it tumbles and a blower to blow dirt and other debris out.  

A tumbler is an absolute must-have if you have a herd of alpacas and don't want to spend hours and hours picking through their fiber! When we first started Blue Barn Fiber, I picked through 200 pounds of alpaca  blankets by hand and removed the VM the hard way. I learned very quickly that sometimes expensive investments are worth the money -- but when you don't have a lot of money to spend, you can definitely get things done the old fashioned way. 

Fiber Grades

Rivendell Meadows Alpacas & Angoras

It is important to note that not all alpaca fiber is created equally! Alpaca fiber is semi hollow, which means that it is an amazing insulator. It is significantly warmer than wool, and it is also very light weight due to the structure of the fibers. Unlike wool and cotton, alpaca has natural hydrophobic properties, meaning that it wicks the water out instead of absorbing it. Alpaca also does not have the microscopic barbs that wool has, which often causes that prickly sensation. For that reason, alpaca fiber that is 21 microns (for example) will likely feel much softer and smoother than wool that is also 21 microns.  

Alpaca comes in 6 different grades, grade 1 being the most luxurious and softest, grade 6 being on the coarser side.
  • Grade 1  Ultra Fine, or Royal Baby alpaca. It is less than 20 microns, and feels like butter in your hands! Equivalent to cashmere.
  • Grade 2  Superfine / Baby: falls within 21 and 22.9 microns. Still absolutely heavenly soft and can be worn on your naked skin.
  • Grade 3  Fine: 23-25.9 microns. Soft, versatile, suitable for a wide variety of projects and garments.
  • Grade 4  Medium: 26-28.9 microns. Good for blankets, socks, non-sensitive areas of the skin.
  • Grade 5  Intermediate: 29-32 microns. Less soft, more for outerwear, quilts, that sort of thing.
  • Grade 6  Adult Grade: 32-35+ microns.Strong, not soft. Best for rugs and things that need a lot of durability. 

Suri Vs. Huacaya

 There are two types of Alpacas, and both have very unique characteristics.

An oversimplification would be to state that one breed is long haired and the other short
haired. But it's not quite as simple as that.

Suri Alpacas are the least common of the two breeds, and have long, lustrous hair that
falls flat and moves freely. They have distinct separate sections of locks (which are referred
Double D Alpaca Ranch - Illuminatus, Suri Alpaca
to as penciling), and they can be either straight, wavy, or curly. As a general rule of thumb, the more lustrous the fleece, the better quality it will likely be. Due to the silky nature of their fleece, Suri can feel very slippery and almost greasy, even though it does not contain lanolin. It can be very time consuming to prepare and spin properly, as each set of locks must be flicked open to produce an even yarn. It typically falls between 17 and 28 microns. 

Pure Bred Suri Alpacas should not ever have any crimp in the
staple, meaning that you would want to use it for a garment
that would drape well, but not for something that would require
memory (at least not without blending it).

Spun correctly, Suri alpaca is absolutely amazing. It has the softness of cashmere with the luster of silk. It is an extraordinary fiber from beautiful animals, but it is not a fiber meant for beginners.

Alpacas of the North Country
Huacaya Alpacas are more common but just as extraordinary as Suris.  Before being sheared, they tend to have a teddy-bear appearance that makes them quite huggable ! A good Hyacaya fleece should be uniform, very dense, and grow perpendicular to the skin, creating that characteristic fluffy appearance that Suris lack. 

Their hair grows in little bundles that we refer to as "staples" which further contribute to their dense appearance. These staples tend to have a good amount of crimp -- some more than others. This gives Huacaya Alpaca fiber more memory than Suri, though most alpaca will still drape to some extent.
Huacaya Crimp, courtesy of Great Northern Ranch
There are 22 different shades of natural alpaca fiber, and the vast differences between breeds and grades of fleece means  that Alpaca could potentially be used for just about any project you can think of. It is one of my very favorite types of fiber to work with due to its universal nature, and the fact that these animals are so cute  is just a bonus.



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How to Oven Dye Fiber

Today I put together a video tutorial showing how I use the oven method to dye my wool, yarn, and roving. I used Milk Fiber in the video and created our Deep Sea Rolags out of the fiber. 
Hopefully this video will show people just how easy it is to paint your own wool or yarn and pop it in the oven. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How to Choose A Fleece

A lot of new spinners are excited to dive into the world of spinning, but it can be a bit overwhelming to start from raw fleece when you don't know what to look for.

When I first began spinning, I started with raw alpaca and then expanded my fiber stash to include various types of commercial rovings, including merino, shetland, blue face leicester, bamboo, milk fiber, silks, camel, tibetan yak, and more. It didn't take long to realize that all of these different breeds have a unique feel to them, and I can now tell what type of fleece a braid of roving is by simply touching and smelling* it.

 After a while, I began to realize that by only spinning and handling commercial fiber, I was missing out on a world of possibilities creatively. Shetland, for example, can be extremely coarse or extremely fine - even as fine as merino. But this varies from sheep to sheep and you need to be able to look at a fleece while it's raw to determine certain characteristics of that particular fleece.

And Shetland is not the only type of fiber that is like this - nearly all breeds of sheep will have some variations which cause certain fleeces to be more valuable or more suited to each person's particular needs.

So as a beginning to the raw wool scene, it can be very overwhelming. It's hard to know where to start and what to look for to determine if a raw fleece is good or not.
That's where I come in. This blog post will hopefully help out a little bit. Unfortunately a lot of what you will learn can only be acheived by trial and error --- believe me, I have bought my fair share of VM-riddled fleeces. But if you can get past the intial hurtles and learn how to choose a good fleece, you will likely find it to be a thousand times more rewarding than buying a faceless commercial brand.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that picking through a raw fleece and washing it is for everyone. It is often very hard work and can be grueling, stinky, and time consuming. But I think that it's incredibly rewarding to watch a fleece transform from its dirty, primitive state, to whatever it will end up becoming. And I'm happy to put in the hard work for you! We purchase raw fleeces from various farmers across the country, then we post photos of the fleece when it's raw and after it is cleaned so our customers know what they are getting. This post should not only be valuable to those people looking to buy a raw fleece and process it by hand, but also to our customers who trust us to do the choosing and cleaning for you.

So let's begin:

The obvious place to start is to determine what you are looking for in a fleece: Ask yourself these questions:
  • What is it going to be turned into? 
  • Do you want to use it for felting, spinning, or both?
  • Are you going to be making something that will be next to your skin, or are you going for an outerwear garment? This will tell you how soft you need your fleece to be and help determine what breed of sheep to look into. Some people are more sensitive than others to wool, but there are types of wool out there that won't bother even the most sensitive skin. Not all wools are scratchy!
Once you have answered those questions, you will want to look more closely at the first question, "What is it going to be turned into?". Socks, for example, need to have elasticity to keep them from falling down your legs. Shawls and scarves can drape well and hang freely.

The first thing to look at is the general appearance of the fleece. Check to see if there is a lot of visible vegetable matter, such as hay, burs, dirt, etc. If there is a lot of it, consider whether or not you are willing to take the time to clean it out. Most uncovered sheep are going to have some VM in them, but an excessive amount can be difficult to take on.

 At this point you will want to find out if the fleece has been skirted or not. Skirting involves throwing out the more contaminated or unusable parts of the fleece, such as areas with a lot of VM and second cuts. It's ok if this has not been done, but if you are paying for the fleece by the pound that can add to the cost of the fleece for fiber that won't be useable. Use cation when buying an unskirted fleece to make sure it doesn't hurt your budget.

Corriedale with great crimp!
Next, look at the crimp of the fleece. Depending on the breed, some fleeces will be expected to have a lot of crimp while others won't have any at all. This comes back to what you plan to use your wool for. The amount of crimp a fleece has will determine the memory of it and how springy it will be. If you have a fleece such as karakul, qiviut (musk ox), angora, icelandic or even suri alpaca, you can expect there to be no crimp in the individual fibers. These types of fiber will be best for garments that you want to hang freely and that will drape nicely. It's important to note that this doesn't have to limit you -- you can still buy these fibers and blend them with other crimpy breeds if you want to use them in projects that require memory. For example, a lot of people like to blend shetland (lots of crimp) with angora rabbit fiber to make wonderfully soft, fuzzy socks that will keep their shape.

Corriedale, shetland, merino, and many other breeds tend to have a great deal of crimp to them, and are often used for socks and other form-fitting projects.
Corriedale before washing
Corriedale after washing

If possible, it is always best to check the fiber from different parts of the sheep. If you are able to see the fleece in person, you can ask to spread it out and then check different areas to see if there are drastic differences in the fleece from one part of the animal's body to the other. Good areas to check are the shoulder, haunch, and mid-side. Why is this important? Because you don't want to get stuck with a fleece that has fantastic long, soft fibers on the back while the rest of it is short and matted.  Uniformity is a good thing and is prized in fleece shows.

Which brings us to the next thing to look for: Cotting or matting. I recently had the unfortunate experience of purchasing a beautiful mohair fleece (sight unseen) from a local farmer. It had 14 inch long locks and was just lovely, but once I started to pick through it I realized that the majority of it had been felted throughout. At most, I was able to cut off about 6 inches of locks and save them, but the rest of the fleece was beyond repair, having been matted completely from the cut ends of the animal up. Cotting happens a lot with older animals or with animals that have been exposed to extreme elements. Just as you can felt a fleece when it's off the animal, this can also happen while it's on the animal. Sometimes this can be salvaged and combed out gently, but more often the fleece will simply break, lessening the quality of the wool. These fleeces also can become brittle and dry and are best avoided if you want to spin them**.

It is also important to check the tensile strength of the locks. You can do this easily by taking each end of a lock of fleece and bringing it close to your ear. Tug on it sharply at both ends three times and listen to the sound it makes. If it sounds like fiber tearing, it is likely not a good fleece and will result in some problems during processing and spinning. It should sound clear, high pitched, and springy when you pull on the ends, with no evidence of breakage. I like to test various parts of a fleece for this, typically at the same time that I inspect the crimp. The back is a great place to test this because it is the area most prone to damage by weathering.

Weathered tips are a slightly different story. They are weaker parts of the fleece which can be a lighter color than the rest of the fleece and/or can be slightly matted together. A lot of people refer to them as "lamb tips" or "tippiness" and they are easy to cut off. There are often very nice fleeces that might have these tips, which does not necessarily mean that the rest of the fleece is not strong. They can easily be cut off while preserving the good part.

Sometimes a fleece will have a high tensile strength overall, but have a specific spot that is prone to breakage. Breaks are not a genetic problem, but rather environmental. They are most often caused by stress such as being moved, severe weathering (hot or cold), or chased by animals. I bought a fleece several month ago that fell into this category. It had 14 inch long curls (it was a teeswater fleece) with a break about halfway through each of the locks. I decided to keep the fleece because both halves had great tensile strength and curl definition. As long as the rest of the staple holds up to your tests, this does not have to be a deal breaker (assuming that you get enough fiber to make it useable -- 2 inches or more is ideal).  It will all depend on your needs and how long you need your fiber to be.

Check to see if there is any significant staining of the fleece. Lanolin or yolk will often have a light yellow look to it, but that can easily be washed out and helps protect the fleece (and makes your hands feel amazing!).

A fleece with Canary Stain
Canary stain, on the other hand, will not come out and comes with a lot of other potential problems. Canary stain is bright yellow and is caused by microscopic parasitic organisms which live on the sheep. These organisms feed off of the wool's wax and protein. After a while, the wool can become very brittle, break, and ultimately disintegrate altogether! Washing the fleece will kill the organism, but the salvaged wool can have a gummy feel and will likely not take dyes well. These fleeces are best avoided.

Weather staining, or fleece rot is caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. These bacteria thrive in damp environments and are almost always found in soap scum and showers. You can identify a fleece that has been infected by looking at the color - it tends to be green, blue, orange, or pink. These fleeces should be avoided for the same reasons as the canary stain.

The last thing to consider is the overall feel of the fleece. Micron count is most often used in the United States as a measure of how thick the individual fibers of a fleece are. Each fleece will likely have multiple different microns within it, but the overall micron count should be the average of them all.  The higher the micron count number, the coarser the wool will be. A small difference in number can be a big difference in how a fleece feels. For example, we used to only offer 21.5 micron merino roving to our customers. We now offer 19 micron merino instead because the softness is noticeably different. You obviously won't be able to determine the micron count with your bare eyes when looking at a fleece, but it's good to ask if the grower knows what it is. If not, use your best judgment to decide if the fleece will be soft (or coarse) enough for your needs. The finer the wool, the less likely it is to cause irritation next to your skin. The coarser the wool, the more likely it is to hold up to wear and tear (such as rugs). Different types of animals will feed different depending on their microscopic make-up. For example, kid mohair, alpaca, and wool will all feel different even if they have the same micron count. That is because the tiny scales that are found on each of these types of fibers will be arranged differently, resulting in a "silky" feel that is different for each breed.

I know that there are other things to consider, but hopefully this helped you a little bit.

As always, you can find us on Etsy at www.bluebarnfiber.etsy.com and feel free to message me if you'd like to try a sample of any of the breeds mentioned.


*You read that right! Rose fiber, for example, looks almost identical to viscose bamboo, milk fiber, and silk at first glance, but it has a distinct smell. Silk also has a very strong protein smell which I lovingly refer to as "bug spit smell" which does go away after a while. 

** But waste not, want not! in cases of sheep breeds with long, curly locks, they can sometimes become felted while on the animal while maintaining the beauty of the curls. Instead of cutting the loose ends off of the matted section, you can sometimes keep it intact and make beautiful felted scarves out of it. Check out Namaste Farms on facebook for some amazing examples of this.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Spinning Technique: Cabled Yarn

For me, spinning is a meditative process. The creek of the wheel turning, the feel of fiber slipping through my fingers; the rest of the world has a way of disappearing and I'm left with this amazing feeling of creating something special and unique. Spinning fiber into yarn can be a very organic process, and I often have the most fun when I just go for it and let the yarn happen without over-thinking it. One of my favorite ways to spin yarn is to have several types of fiber in a large variety of colors in baskets beside me, and I can then grab handfuls of fiber randomly. It's no secret that I love chunky, funky yarn because it's something that you really can't buy commercially.

Still, there are times when spinning techniques are important to understand. I've always believed that it's OK to break certain creative rules, but you need to know the rules before you should break them. So that's where this blog comes in: I'd like to talk about a few of the more interesting spinning techniques, and why I think they are awesome! For this post, I'm going to focus on cable spinning, AKA "Cabled Yarn".
A quick review: The simple S vs Z twist. These terms are common amongst spinners and represent the direction of the twist that you're putting into your yarn. Spinning to the left is known as the "S Twist" and spinning to the right (clockwise) is known as the "Z Twist". The easiest way to tell which is which is to just look at the letters and the direction they are going. The curve of the S points to the left, and the top of the Z is pointing to the right. I prefer to spin my yarn clockwise (Z twist). When I want to ply 2 z-twist yarns together, I do so by spinning to the left in an S twist. Whenever you're plying yarns, the general rule is that you ply in the opposite direction that you spun the yarn in. 
Cabled yarn is absolutely gorgeous, and it's very similar in appearance to a traditional round braid used in bracelet making and macrame. Although it looks intimidating, it's actually a fairly simple technique with endless possibilities.

Quick Overview/summary: Cabled yarn is created when you ply two 2-ply yarns together. Additionally, cables can be doubled as many times as you want to create some incredible looking yarns! 

How to:

  1. Begin with 2 single spun yarns of the same thickness. 
  2. Ply the two singles together in the opposite direction (so if you spun your singles to the right {z-twist}, ply them together to the left {s-twist}).
  3. You now have a 2-ply yarn.
  4. Repeat steps 1 and 2 so that you have two 2-ply yarns to work with.
  5. Important: In order to cable the yarns so it has the desired look, you need to have twice as much twist in your plied yarn as you'd normally want. In other words, you want it to be over-plied. The easiest way to do it (thank you to Judith MacKenzie for this) so that you have even results is to run your 2-plied yarn back through once more, continuing to ply in the same direction as before. This may seem like it's not an important step, but it is!
  6. After your two 2-ply yarns have been over-plied, it's time to make your gorgeous cabled yarn. For this step, I set my brake band tension so it feeds into the orifice as quickly as possible. It's recommended that you use the biggest whorl that you have for the same reason.
  7. Take the two 2-plied yarns and ply them together with each other, spinning to the right (or in the original direction you spun your singles. There should be next to no effort needed for this - because of the over-plying from step #5, the two yarns will snap together easily. The result should be a balanced, beautiful yarn.
One of the most enjoyable parts to any spinning technique is experimenting and seeing what works for you. For me, my go-to spinning style is to spin a fat single with a thin single, creating my typical spiral yarns. Something interesting about these spiral yarns is that, in addition to being great by themselves, they also make an amazing palette for cable spinning. The cable adds more than an interesting pattern to yarn -- it also makes for stronger, more durable end product. Even soft fibers like merino and alpaca can be used for tough projects (such as socks) in this way since cabling adds so much strength.

Happy Spinning!