Boston Fine Fibres

Down the quiet roads of country NSW, a quiet revolution is occuring. Alpaca breeder Tanya Boston had fallen in love with her alpacas, but didn’t know what to do with their fleece. She asked around at shows: what did others do? “It’s in the shed” was the regular reply. So Tanya decided to do something about it.

After 18 months of research, Tanya and her husband Jim decided to purchase a Mini Mill from Belfast Mini-Mills in Canada.  Following some intensive training and another 12 months of practice, Tanya opened her own mini mill. She mostly services southern NSW and ACT, but has also delivered to Queensland, Northern NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania. Boston Fine Fibres processes batts and roving and yarn from 2-8 ply for breeders to sell under their own name. Jim knits beanies from the yarn to sell at farmers’ markets, while Tanya’s rug yarn and lopi are very popular.

Being a mini mill, it’s possible for Tanya to process small orders – orders as small as a single saddle. It’s a time consuming process though. There are 12 pieces of machinery the fibre needs to pass through during processing, a journey that takes around 4 days to complete each fleece. There’s also the four hour downtime whenever Tanya cleans the equipment to change fibre colours. Tanya’s background in quality control and quality assurance is evident in the care she takes to trace each order throughout the process.

The mill runs entirely on roof-harvested rainwater and solar electricity. Because alpaca wool doesn’t contain lanolin, like sheep’s wool,  Tanya is able to use a gentle detergent and all the mill’s grey water can be recycled to their orchard and paddock. Sustainability has been considered in the mill’s packaging, too: Tanya uses tissue paper and brown bags in preference to plastics.

A big part of Tanya’s work is education. She works with her clients and shearers to help them understand what she needs to get the best out of the fibre. A fleece can lose up to 20-30% of its weight during processing, depending on variables such as how it was skirted. She maintains an open invite to clients and community groups to come visit the mill and learn about the process. She will also provide advice on what products clients could consider making from their fibre.

Luckily for Tanya, as a mini mill operator running Belfast Mill equipment, she can access her own education network. There are 79 mills around the world using Belfast Mill equipment, each have a different approach but they all welcome each other and share information.

Tanya feels the nearby national capital of Canberra provides a good market for the region’s fibre products. After all, the climate means that people are wearing woollens for nine months of the year. The population of public service workers means a lot of black which are beautifully complemented by the range of natural alpaca accessories. Tanya sells her yarn online and though a limited number of specialty yarn retailers.   

In the future, Tanya would like to process more of her own specialty yarn. She’d blend different natural alpaca colours to create heathered and verigated yarns. She would also blend other natural fibres like llama, camel, cashmere, suri and bamboo. Blending dyed silks gives her particular pleasure “you’re really making something special”.

The Facts

Product – Semi-worsted yarns, blended yarns, rovings and batts

Maximum Capacity – 500kg/year

Min Order – 1kg

Max Order – 20kg

Staple Lengths – 50-150mm

Lead time Required for Orders – 6 months

Current Fibre Types Processed – willing to take any fibre, including suri

Prototyping Fibre Types Requests – all natural fibres welcome

Yarn Price – From $132 per incoming kilo  alpaca

Restrictions – Must be well skirted and free of vegetable matter

Water Use – all water collected and reused onsite

Waste Water Impacts – all water collected and reused onsite. Improvements made to soil lead to less runoff and greater retention.

Energy Supply: 100% Solar energy

Contact

Tanya and Jim

Phone: +61 (0) 417 497 940

Location: Queanbeyan, NSW

http://www.bostonfinefibres.com.au

This site visit was generously supported by Fibreshed California and photographed by Andrew Lance. Authored by Rachel Bucknall.


Mirrormere Alpacas

It started with sheep. Paula had been experimenting on her permaculture bush block in the ACT. The sheep were part of her strategy towards self sufficiency. Paula’s flock was supplying her with food, but their safety weighed on her mind. She bought an alpaca to guard them…and then bought more, with a few llamas as well. She fell in love with these curious creatures and their range of natural colours.

Paula and her alpaca

Photo by Andrew Lance

Paula values community and relationships. She smiles shyly remembering the friendly welcome the alpaca community gave her. She appreciated and benefited from their help and advice as she learnt the ropes. One relationship she’s developed is with experienced farmer Val, at Qozqo Alpacas. Together, they’re able to contract an alpaca shearer to the district each season. With each shearing, the pile of raw fleece in Paula’s shed grew larger. Paula’s hand spinning couldn’t keep up. Something had to be done. The opening of Boston Fine Fibres mill provided the perfect opportunity. Paula sent some fleece over for processing.

Mirrormere Natural Dyes

Photo by Andrew Lance

For colour, Paula looked close to home first. She made her first dye baths with the wattle and native indigo already growing on her bush block. She expanded into experimenting with eucalyptus leaves, bark and mushrooms. She repeats the hues she likes best. Paula’s quiet modesty belies the stunning results of her work. Warm greys, vibrant terracotta, palest olive green and exquisite taupes.

At each step, Paula has expanded her skill set. She weaves scarves, and would love to make rugs next. Her current experiment is a merino alpaca blend, working with Millpost merino. Watch this space; if successful, the trial might expand to a new, all local product range. Mirrormere is her passion project, squeezed into weekends and spare time when she’s not at her job in the city. Mirrormere is more than a business for Paula. It’s also about loving her animals and finding a way to use the fibre they produce.

Paula has built up an enthusiastic following for her local, traceable products. Mirrormere roving and yarns – both natural colours and hand dyed – are available to buy online.

Paula Mirrormere

Photo by Andrew Lance

The Farm

Stock – 14, with plans to expand

Farming principles: local, sustainable and low impact, while aiming for a high quality fibre product.

Contact

Paula and Graham

Phone: +61 (0) 467 347 279

Location: ACT

https://www.facebook.com/mirrormerealpacas/

 

This site visit was generously supported by Fibreshed California and photographed by Andrew Lance.


Qozqo Alpacas

We were noticed within a few seconds of exiting our car. Buddy the labrador bounced delightedly. He wagged his tail from a polite distance to welcome us to Qozqo alpacas. Val and John followed shortly with a more sedate, but no less welcoming manner.

We sat down to home-baked morning tea as Val told us the story of how they became alpaca farmers. They first kept Angora goats on the property. With foxes a problem in the region, Val purchased some alpacas to guard the herd. It wasn’t long before the easy, inquisitive temperament, stunning colours and soft fleece of the newcomers won them over. Val and John selected their herd based on colour genetics from around Australia. They purchased huacaya and suri alpacas for their colour range and fibre quality. They now supply breeding stock, guard animals and pets locally and overseas as well as raw fleece, processed yarn and hand knitted garments.

Newly shorn alpacas

Photo by Andrew Lance

The show circuit has been an important source of support and encouragement for Val and John with many broad ribbons, including the best grey huacaya in the National a couple of years ago. Befriending a show organiser lead to an introduction to a shearer from New Zealand. Now that shearer stays with them each year when he shears their alpacas, and those of the local district. Val and John pay it forward by helping local alpaca farmers with advice.

Val always had an eye out for ways to utilise and value-add to the quality fibre her herd produces. She contracts the local mini mill, Boston Fine Fibres, to spin a range of light weight yarns for sale. She’s gone one step further and drawn together a team of knitters to produce hand made garments for sale. The result is the most exquisite and soft range of products we’ve seen from a farm. Baby clothes and shawls form the largest part of the collection. Given their hand made nature, the garments are priced generously. Val and her knitters challenge themselves with new and interesting patterns. The range of styles, particularly lacework, is testament to their skill. Qozqo’s products are available through local retailers and through their online store. It is worth making a direct enquiry because not all products are listed online.

A range of handknitted shawls from Qozqo alpacas

Photo by Qozqo alpacas

Finishing our cups of tea, we walked over to the pen to greet the alpacas. Newly shorn, their lithe bodies were on show without their usual dense coats. Val and John’s breeding program has resulted in the full range of natural alpaca colours. They have a large herd for Australia, numbering around 300 animals. Val checks the herd twice a day during birthing season to ensure all is well and check out any new arrivals. This is particularly exciting when breeding for grey, because she never knows what will pop out!

Val told us she believed a cria had been born a couple of hours ago. We headed into the paddock in the hopes of catching a glimpse. Walking across the paddock, we got our first clear look at the view from Qozqo over the valley. The farm is in an incredibly beautiful setting.

Photo by Andrew Lance

We watched the alpacas form a line as they traversed the paddock. They approached the new mother, each animal stepping up to nuzzle the newborn cria. As we made our goodbyes, the newborn was already gambolling around the paddock under the gum trees.

The Farm

Area – 200 hectares (494 acres)

Stock – 300 huacaya and suri alpaca

Vet designed biosecurity program

Contact

Val and John

Phone: +61 (0) 412 887 857

Location: Williamsdale, ACT

http://www.eliteaustralianalpaca.com/

This site visit was generously supported by Fibreshed California and photographed by Andrew Lance.


Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill

It is not your typical location for a wool mill. Located close to the state’s tourist highway with local fibre becoming of increasing interest to visitors, Nick and Isabel see opportunity in being part of the tourist trail.  Indeed, the renowned food credentials of the area prove that the locals are good at bespoke, gourmet products.

The yarn produced at the mill is exactly that. Using only natural colours from selected local farms, Nick and Isabel showcase the best Australian fibre products. They produce a range of yarns in wool and alpaca blends and are famous for their  on-trend chunky yarns. Some of their product is hyperlocal, sourced from their own alpaca, farmed on site and available for photo shoots with adoring customers.

We were invited to participate in the making of the mill’s latest yarn collaboration, with local wool farm Tarndwarncoort: ‘The Henry’. This chunky 14ply yarn combines the silkiness of white alpaca with the strength and loftiness of Polwarth wool. We helped out where we could, probably making Nick and Isabel’s job harder! We followed the making of the yarn from cleaning the wool and alpaca, blending, spinning the individual threads and plying into the finished yarn.   Here’s a look at what we got up to:

The Mill

You get the sense that the recently opened mill has begun to find its rhythm. Isabel and Nick have worked hard at fine tuning all of the machinery to produce a premium, unique product.  Nick puts this down to a willingness to play and experiment. They are willing to try any fibre combinations that come to hand.  This commitment to the machinery is matched by business acumen and a clarity of goals. Isabel’s drawn from her business background and pure grit to see their vision come to light.  

The mill is committed to efficiency of resources.  Nick and Isabel are “not Greenies” but the lack of access to mains water, sewerage or regular rubbish collection means that every decision weighed against its impact on the land. The farm makes use of low waste, low resource use and positive impact solutions. No dyes or chemicals are used in the mill so waste water can entirely be reused on site.  All of the water used on farm and in the mill is collected rainwater. Any fibre waste is resourcefully reused as a felted product or in the garden.   Incredibly, their 3kW solar system comfortably covers the farm and mill’s energy needs – this is less energy than the average 2 person family uses!

The Farm

Nick and Isabel have improved the farmland since its previous use as a horse farm and dairy. The soil was compacted and prone to flood when Nick and Isabel moved in. Their implementation of lower stocking rates, paddock rotation of the alpacas, rest for the soil and planting of native vegetation plots has meant that the pasture is now spongy and soft. The alpaca, both suri and huacaya, were happy to come up to us and show off their lovely locks. Great Ocean Road Mill alpaca are bred for dense (2kg) fleece in a range of colours. Keeping them company are two visiting merino sheep, one black. Historically unwanted, coloured sheep are invaluable to mills working with coloured fibre.

The Yarn

The mill’s standard product is a semi-worsted yarn. They also stock rovings, batts and felt products. Excitingly, they have just finished a trial worsted yarn, using carded and combed fibre from Cashmere Connections.

Great Ocean Road Mill produce their own product and take yarn commissions.   You can buy their products  online and at select retailers. Catch Isabel and Nick at most of the big fibre markets.  The mill is open to visitors and with a little notice and you can organise a tour.

The Facts

Product – Semi-worsted yarns, rovings, batts and felt

Maximum Capacity – 3,000kg/year

Min Order – 1kg (note that there will be a minimum loss of 65g for each run plus more depending on cleanliness)

Max Order – 120kg (larger orders will be considered on request)

Ideal Order Size – 5-20kg

Staple Lengths – 7-15cm

Lead time Required for Orders – Winter – 4 weeks; Summer – 2 weeks.

Processing Time – 10 hours of machine time

Current Fibre Types Processed – wool, alpaca and mohair.

Prototyping Fibre Types Requests – all natural fibres welcome

Yarn Price – $24-25/kg alpaca and blends

Restrictions – No dyes, natural fibres only

Water Use – all water collected and reused onsite

Waste Water Impacts – all water collected and reused onsite. Improvements made to soil lead to less runoff and greater retention.

Energy Supply: >95% onsite solar, plus gas. 

The Farm

Area – 8 hectares (20 acres)

Stock – 19 alpaca, 2 merino + 3 agistment alpaca

Seasonal rotation

Own hay as feed

Minimal drenches 

Use no chemicals or soil additives

Contact

Nick and Isabel

Phone: +61 (0) 458 717 260
Address: 1580 Cobden-Warrnambool Road
Ecklin South, Victoria, 3265

http://gorwm.com.au/


Cashmere Connections

I stood outside Cashmere connections, pondering their sign. It promised to process cashmere, angora, alpaca and cashgora. What is cashgora?! Is that an animal I haven’t heard of yet?

I called Trisha to let her know I had arrived; she came out from the workshop to let me in. She’s friendly and casual, but is a wealth of information and a patient explainer! We walked to the storage area, so I could see where the process begins.

The business

A cashmere farmer, Trisha and her husband developed Cashmere connections as a way to add value to their fibre product. They buy fibre direct from farmers and have it scoured at Velieris. Then they card and comb the fibres for worsted, semi-worsted and woollen spinning.

Cashmere connections processes smaller quantities of quality product. They concentrate on local and international niche markets of doona makers and spinners. Their tailored service is key to their ability to process so many different fibres well.

Entering the combing machine

Fibre being drawn into the combing machine

The process

Each kind of fibre is different: suri is dense and slippery; needing carding in small quantities or the machinery jams. Wool and cashmere don’t have the dust issues that alpaca has. Goat and alpaca fibres intended for spinning need dehairing to remove coarse hairs. That cashgora I was wondering about? It’s a cross between cashmere and angora goats.

The machinery at Cashmere connections is deliberately old. New machinery assumes a standardised product and can break fine animal fibres. Older machinery can be adjusted for each fibre type. Trisha even adjusts machinery for each individual batch according to its characteristics.

Before carding, anti-static is added to the fibres. A fine mist of water fills the room that holds the carding machines. The water relaxes the fibres and reduces dust. Fibres come out of carding as a sliver. This is fed into gilling machines three times, or more if suri fibre is being processed. The slowest part of the process is combing, before one last run through the gilling machine.

Exiting the combing machine

Exiting the combing machine. So light and lofty!

The potential

Under a cover in a corner of the workshop, Trisha unveiled a different piece of equipment. It is a repco spinner from the 1960s. Trisha’s been experimenting with is, in the hope she can offer worsted spinning as a service. Its different to other spinners I’ve seen, spinning 2 plys at a time. Trish’s got some lovely sample cones and knitted swatches. The process isn’t to a commercial standard yet. Fingers crossed it will be soon!

Cashmere connections has a small shop on site, but you can also find their products online. They sell beautiful throws and exquisite single fibre and blended tops. You might manage to meet Trisha in person; on occasion she holds a stall at the natural fibres market.

Yarn samples

Yarn samples


Velieris

Tucked away in an industrial pocket of Braybrook, Velieris manufacture beautiful carpets and rugs. I visited because they offer scouring as a service to other textile businesses.

Fibre first

Rocco, the production manager showed me around on the day. We started in the scouring room, which was piled high with bales of fibre. Velieris buys wool and alpaca fibre from co-ops who gather local fibre in a central location. The fibre is sorted for quality, length and colour at the co-op, then delivered to Melbourne. Velieris also buys fibre from Peru and NZ to make up the quantities they need.

Scoured fibre

Scoured fibre

The company scours for doona and pillow manufacturers, local processers and UK spinning mills. Velieris accept orders between 1000-50kg, which makes their service accessible to smaller players.

Clean it up

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Velieris use an eco soap in their scouring bowls. The first four bowls have soap; their water is steam heated. Effluent from scouring goes through their water treatment plant to remove the soap. Some chemicals are used at this stage. They also need to cool the water down before it is released. Their sludge, all the dirt removed in scouring, goes into landfill.

Water treatment

Water treatment

At this stage, if the fibre has been processed for an external company, Rocco bales the scoured fibres up and sends them off. All the carpet fibre moves to the next stage of mixing, carding and combing.

Mix it up

Velieris specialise in luxury naturally coloured products. They use a weighing machine to mix colour ‘recipes’. Eliminating the dying process reduces water usage and retains the softness of the wool and alpaca fibres Velieris use.

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

There’s no need for dehairing, because this fibre is destined for carpet. The fibres are sucked into a huge carding machine, then transfered to combers. Melbourne’s manufacturing history feels very close when you’re standing next to these old, but still powerful machines.

Combing machines

Combing machines

The combed fibres are gilled twice to even them out before spinning. I loved watching the fibre snake up into the gilling machine!

The resulting slivers are then spun and plyed into carpet yarn. The yarn is tufted before heading to the loom to be woven into carpet. Velieris do moth proof their carpets, but they are happy to skip this step at the customer’s request.

Weaving it together

Carpet maker

Carpet loom

The carpet loom is a thing of wonder. I couldn’t capture it all in a photo, so I’ll try to describe it. You have the loom up one end of the factory of course, but what you see is more like a yarn blood system. Leading into the loom are about 10 metal frames. Each frame holds about 10 cones of yarn. Each cone of yarn is strung through the frame, to the loom to make the warp. The whole system takes up about 15 square metres. It’s impressive.

Once woven, the carpet gets checked over by hand for any blemishes like loose threads. It’s trimmed to create a neat consistent top, then sent off for backing. Velieris makes the carpet entirely at their Braybrook workshop, except for the latex backing. This is done by an external specialist in Melbourne because it’s cheaper.

Checking for blemishes

Checking for blemishes

Side line

There was one row of spinning machines that weren’t running when I visited. These machines were bought in error – they are fine yarn spinners. Rocco’s been experimenting with them to get a good product to attract a buyer with. He can get a 270 tex yarn. He’s met a group interested in returning fine yarn spinning to Melbourne, but they don’t yet have the skills to use the machinery. Will we see fine yarns in this Fibreshed again one day?

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris


Carding, Combing and Spinning

It’s been hard to twist my head around how scoured fibres are transformed into yarn (pun intended). I knew little at the start of this Fibreshed project. Everyone seemed to have slightly different definitions of the same terms, which confused me further. In retrospect, I think each person I met taught me different parts of the process. I couldn’t see the big picture. It’s not until I came to write this post that it started to come together. Please forgive me if I’m wrong on some points and point me in the right direction please!

What’s in a name?

It’s a bit backwards, but I found spinning easier to understand when I sorted out which yarn type was which:

Woollen – this isn’t just fibre from a sheep, but also a style of yarn spinning. Woollen yarns are warm, airy and soft. They often have a fuzzy appearance. While they’re not hard wearing, they’re perfect for scarves, hats, sweaters and felted knits. Their short fibres align in different directions, making air pockets that insulate.

Worsted – a smooth yarn that is hard wearing and drapes well. The tightly twisted fibres of worsted yarns often have a sheen. They’re used for suits, socks and sportswear. Their long fibres all face the same direction, making them very strong.

Wool skeins

Worsted wool skeins in the Tarndwarncoort wool shop

Simple, right? Until you realise that there’s a subset of yarns, known as semi-worsted. This is the yarn that slunk silently in my spinning conversations, waiting for me to discover its meaning! This is yarn that has been prepared with in a woollen style, but spun with a worsted method. It combines qualities of both yarn types. There’s also a semi-woollen which is worsted processed but woollen spun. This seems to be less common.

n.b. when getting this article proof read by actual spinners, I discovered that the definitions of semi-worsted and semi-woollen are different depending on which spinner you ask. I’ve gone with the definition used by a grower and processor in my local Fibreshed.

Alpaca yarn

Semi-worsted yarns from Wool 2 Yarn

Step by step

So now we’ve sorted out where we’re heading, let’s go back to the beginning. After scouring, fibre may be carded, combed and spun. Which of these steps are taken depends on whether you want to felt, knit or weave with the fibre.

Plant fibres like cotton and hemp have a similar but slightly different process to what I outline below. There is equipment to do this with the Melbourne Fibreshed, but I haven’t been able to see these in action yet. I’ll update this post when I know more.

flow diagram of the carding, combing and spinning process

The carding, combing and spinning process

Some processers add water and/or anti-static before starting. The water relaxes the fibre and reduces dust. The anti-static goes a step further to reduce the build up of static during the process, which can break the fibres.

Dehairing – Alpaca, goat mohair and cashmere all have long scratchy fibres mixed in with the softer fibres we prefer to use for clothing. They can be removed by hand, but most people use dehairing machines instead. Unfortunately this ends up as a waste product in the process, because the result is usually mixed with grass seeds. If you can think of a use for it, there’s a lot of fibre processors who’d like to hear your ideas.

The dehairing machine

A dehairing machine: the bin at the front holds the smooth fibre that comes out at the end of the process

Mixing – if the yarn is made from a blend of different fibres, it’s often mixed at this stage. Mills work to ‘recipes’ where fibres are measured by weight, then spread out on top of each other in layers. Chunks of this mix are separated out for processing, helping to keep the ratio mix consistent. With hand processing, staples of fibre are spread out in even layers on a hand or drum carder.

Carding – fibres are often a bit clumped after scouring, so this step opens the fibres up. Carding also removes a little bit of vegetable matter. This is where the process begins to split according to what you’re aiming for. There are woollen carders and worsted carders. The slivers that come off the woollen cards are ready for spinning. Worsted cards begin to align the fibres a little bit before moving on to gilling. 

Carding machines look super cool, with their rotating drums with wires at different lengths. This part of the process seems to be proprietary, so I can’t show you any photos of a carding machine in action. Luckily, hard carders are less shy of paparazzi.

Gilling – carding shakes things up a bit, so the fibre is usually gilled several times. Gilling machines ensure the worsted sliver is a uniform weight throughout. They also further align the fibres.

Gilling machines are the swans of the process – they take the slivers up gracefully. All the work happens where you can’t see it inside the machine, so it looks like magic.

Combing – this is the slowest part. Combing straightens out the fibres, and removes the shortest ones (the waste from this process is fed back into the woollen process, which uses short fibres). After combing, all the fibres are well aligned with each other, and more vegetable matter has been removed. It’s gilled one last time, then passed to felters or spinners as a finished top.

Exiting the combing machine

Fibres exiting the combing machine

Spinning – The woollen sliver or worsted top is condensed into thin roving. This is drawn out and twisted to create a single ply of yarn. To hand spin woollen yarn, the roving is rolled into rolags. It’s then drawn out and spun using a longdraw drafting technique. To hand spin worsted yarn, the roving is drawn out and spun using a short drafting movement. A man’s jumper requires about 1kg of roving. I’ve been told that this would take most hand spinners about 6 days to spin.

A single ply yarn can be used as is, but it is often plyed to increase its strength and stop it twisting in on itself. Spinning creates tension in the fibres, so the yarn is steamed or rested to release that energy.

The state of the industry

The majority of large mills in the Melbourne fibreshed don’t produce local yarn anymore. There are several mini mills that produce semi-worsted yarns for hand knitting and crochet.

Weaving requires a thinner yarn. Waverley Woollen Mills in Launceston produces woven products from carded fleece, spinning fine yarn in the process. The only processors spinning fine yarn in Australia that I know of are Paddock to Ply in Queensland and Certton in Sydney. 

Where does spinning happen in Melbourne?

Cashmere connections, Western district

Fibre Naturally, Dandenong ranges

Velieris, Melbourne

Wool 2 Yarn, Mornington Peninsula

Great Ocean Road Mill, Warnambool

 

Boston Fine Fibres, Queanbeyan

Echo Beach, Mount Barker

Bendigo Woollen Mills, Bendigo

Australian Country Spinners, Wangaratta

Creswick Woollen Mills

First Edition Fibre and Yarns, Euroa

Goldfeilds Mohair Farm, Bookham


Washing and Scouring

At its most basic, scouring is a way of cleaning textile fibres. Wool that’s been shorn from a sheep is known as greasy, or raw wool. Just under 50% of raw wool isn’t actually wool at all: it’s grease, dirt, sweat (suint), burrs and seeds. Many other animal fibres also get washed: alpaca, goat hair and silk all get some level of cleaning. Angora rabbit is apparently an exception. Plant fibres have different processes, although decortated hemp does have a degumming stage.

So many ways to clean fibre!

Raw fibre often contains burrs that can scratch, and may contain disease that can transfer to humans, so it should be treated with caution. Cleaning removes the danger of disease and some burrs. There are many different traditions and ways to wash and scour a fibre. In this context, washing aims to remove large particles and sweat. Scouring uses heat to remove the oils from the fibre. Some people choose not to scour their fibre, because the oils can help the spinning process. Greasy wool is also more water resistant. Wool grease can develop a distinctive smell and gum up modern spinning equipment that is made for clean wool.

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Some farmers wash their own fibre, using detergent. Ruth McGregor gives a good description of the process. Their products have what some people believe is a more natural ‘feel’. It’s particularly easy to do this with fibres like alpaca, which don’t have much grease. They do remain rather dusty though! Different sheep breeds have different levels of grease. For example, a Gotland sheep fibre will feel cleaner without scouring than a Merino sheep fibre.

Another way to clean wool fibres is to ferment them. This process uses the oils and sweat already present in the wool to ferment a soap. Zoe had me giggling and in awe over her experiment with this process.

How big business does it

Most commercial fibre you buy is scoured. There are two commercial scouring methods: an aqueous (water) process, and an organic solvent process. Scouring in Australia commonly uses the aqueous process. This process uses large amounts of water, heat and some detergent. The raw fibre gets dropped into 4 – 8 bowls (wash tanks) of hot/warm water and moved around to clean it. After each dunking, excess water is squeezed from the fibre before it drops into the next bowl. Each bowl contains cleaner water than the one that preceded it.

Wool-scouring

The commercial wool scouring process

1 ton of wool will usually contain:

  • 150kg of wool grease
  • 40kg of suint
  • 150kg of dirt (in Australia it averages around 180kg)
  • 20 kg of vegetable matter (although this is likely higher in Australia because we have lots of burrs in our grass)
  • 640kg of wool fibre.

Any grease in the washing water is spun off and sold to be made into lanolin. Solids can be separated from the wash and sent to landfill or composted for agricultural use. The washing water can be recycled up to a point, but scouring plants can still go through up to half a million litres of water a day. Scouring plants in Australia must treat water on their site until it’s safe to add to the sewerage system, or apply to the land. In Melbourne, all the scouring plants are city-based. This means they treat their water on site, then our excellent sewerage system takes over.

Water treatment

Water treatment

After scouring, fibre might be carbonised with sulphuric acid or bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Carbonising removes high levels of vegetable matter and softens the fibre. Bleaching brightens the colour of the wool. Not every plant undertakes these steps; I saw how they are done at Victorian Wool Processors.

acid bath and crushing machine

An acid bath (left), and crushing machine used during the carbonisation process

The final step is to dry the fibre, using drum rollers.

Drying tube

Drying tube

Environmental impact

Scouring has a big environmental impact. It uses large amounts of water (whether it is performed at home or commercially). Depending on the type of wool and equipment used, typically 8-20 litres of effluent liquids are created per 1kg of greasy wool. In some ways a commercial system is preferable, because it can recycle its water several times before disposal.

Waste water is high in potassium and nutrients, particularly nitrogen (although not always in a form accessible to plants). A consideration for Melbourne is that scouring works best with soft water. Our drinking water is soft, but our bore water (which local scouring plants may access as well) is hard. It’s possible to soften water, but those additives pose disposal challenges.

Electricity use is high if heat or extraction processes are applied. There are also many biological and chemical contaminants to deal with. The biological contaminants (like grease and weed seeds) often arrive with fibre from the farm. They need to be dealt with at the scouring disposal stage. The chemical contaminants also arrive direct from the farm (like inorganic fertilisers or biodegradable pesticides), or are added during cleaning (like detergents and bleaches). Sodium sulphate, a byproduct of carbonising, needs proper treatment before application to the land.

Dirt collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The (old) Australian scouring effluent standards say that these contaminants can have a big environmental impact, but this can be mitigated with good management. The Global Organic Textile Standard prohibits use of endocrine disrupters (which can be found in detergents) and phosphates. It restricts bleaches to oxygen bleaches only. There’s a lot more detail in these standards that I can’t comprehend. I’d love to have someone’s more educated view on these documents and what they mean for this process.

What does this mean for consumers?

Washing and scouring fibres is a part of clothing manufacture. Few of our animal fibre clothes will skip this process. While fibres like alpaca and goat don’t need intensive scouring, in Australia they’re often processed like wool so the difference in impact is negligible. Even processing fibre at home will still use a significant amount of water, which needs to be disposed of appropriately.

A proactive approach could be to remember that scouring is a process we shouldn’t approach lightly. Let’s use it when we need something new, but try to reduce how often that happens.

Where does scouring happen in Melbourne?

EP Robinson, Geelong

Velieris, Braybrook, Melbourne

Victoria Wool Processers, Laverton North, Melbourne

edited on 11/1/16 to add details about disease risk in raw wool


Wool2Yarn

I’d been given a contact name and an address to visit but had no idea what to expect. It turns out I’d been directed to Wool2Yarn’s factory shop and fibre mill. They’re located close to the Nepean Highway.

Let’s go shopping

The factory shop is welcoming and inspirational. The space is like a trendy store: full of beautiful products, without feeling cramped. They sell yarn (pure alpaca or blends), Gotland sheep roving, and a range of beautiful hand knits made locally. I would love the little grey capelet in the photo below for myself! The range of yarns includes Salvation, which incorporates fibre reclaimed from the milling process. Knit kits provide all you need to make a garment in one convenient package.

The factory store at Knit Alpaca

The factory store at Knit Alpaca

Get to work

Best of all was visiting the workspace at the back where all the fibre mill equipment is! Belinda runs this workshop with her husband Alasdair. They were alpaca farmers and they’ve poured this wealth of knowledge into the  mill. I was intrigued that Belinda can tell if an animal has been sick. A sick animal’s fibre will break during spinning.

I got to see the dehairing machine remove scratchy guard hairs from the fleece. Belinda keeps trying to find another use for these waste guard hairs. There’s so much vegetable matter in the fleece, they’re only good for reseeding grass! Next up was the carding machine. It has a fascinating range of different brushes to align the fibres.

Machine spinning yarn

Single strand yarn winding on the spindle

At this stage Belinda separates out tops for the felters and hand spinners. The rest are drawn out into rovings for the spinning machine. She will spin strands back onto themselves in different combinations to make multiply yarns. Last step is the steaming machine. This relaxes the fibres after all the ‘excitement’ of spinning. I couldn’t work out how to photograph this curious contraption. It consists of a thin tube on one end, which the yarn gets sucked into. The yarn is then connected to another tube a few meters away to complete the process.

Alpaca yarn

My first alpaca yarn stash!

The yarn is wound onto a cone for machine knitters. Hand knitters can choose from twisted skeins or rolled balls. I took home some of their single balls. They’re small, but proving to be good inspiration!


Cashmere Connections

I stood outside Cashmere Connections, pondering their sign. It promised to process cashmere, angora, alpaca and cashgora. What is cashgora?! Is that an animal I haven’t heard of yet?

I called Trisha to let her know I had arrived; she came out from the workshop to let me in. She’s friendly and casual, but is a wealth of information and a patient explainer! We walked to the storage area, so I could see where the process begins.

The business

A cashmere farmer, Trisha and her husband developed Cashmere connections as a way to add value to their fibre product. They buy fibre direct from farmers and have it scoured at Velieris. Then they card and comb the fibres for worsted, semi-worsted and woollen spinning.

Cashmere connections processes smaller quantities of quality product. They concentrate on local and international niche markets of doona makers and spinners. Their tailored service is key to their ability to process so many different fibres well.

Entering the combing machine

Fibre being drawn into the combing machine

The process

Each kind of fibre is different: suri is dense and slippery; needing carding in small quantities or the machinery jams. Wool and cashmere don’t have the dust issues that alpaca has. Goat and alpaca fibres intended for spinning need dehairing to remove coarse hairs. That cashgora I was wondering about? It’s a cross between cashmere and angora goats.

The machinery at Cashmere connections is deliberately old. New machinery assumes a standardised product and can break fine animal fibres. Older machinery can be adjusted for each fibre type. Trisha even adjusts machinery for each individual batch according to its characteristics.

Before carding, anti-static is added to the fibres. A fine mist of water fills the room that holds the carding machines. The water relaxes the fibres and reduces dust. Fibres come out of carding as a sliver. This is fed into gilling machines three times, or more if suri fibre is being processed. The slowest part of the process is combing, before one last run through the gilling machine.

Exiting the combing machine

Exiting the combing machine. So light and lofty!

The potential

Under a cover in a corner of the workshop, Trisha unveiled a different piece of equipment. It is a repco spinner from the 1960s. Trisha’s been experimenting with is, in the hope she can offer worsted spinning as a service. Its different to other spinners I’ve seen, spinning 2 plys at a time. Trish’s got some lovely sample cones and knitted swatches. The process isn’t to a commercial standard yet. Fingers crossed it will be soon!

Cashmere connections has a small shop on site, but you can also find their products online. They sell beautiful throws and exquisite single fibre and blended tops. You might manage to meet Trisha in person; on occasion she holds a stall at the natural fibres market.

Yarn samples

Yarn samples