Victorian Wool Processors

I didn’t expect to be visiting a wool scourer. There’s a view in crafting circles of Australia that wool scouring has left Australia. It turns out that scouring does still exist. Victoria Wool Processors was as interested in having me visit, as I was in visiting them.

Getting started

David, the managing director of Victoria Wool Processors (VWP) showed me around the factory. He was open about the environmental challenges of scouring, and passionate about the potential of wool as a natural material.

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

VWP purchases wool directly from Australian farmers, to meet orders from overseas mills. The raw wool arrives compressed in bales and is broken up before scouring.

Scouring

VWP use one million litres of potable water a day as well as 100,000 litres of bore water. That’s down from 1.3 million litres of potable water during Melbourne’s last drought. David is working to use less potable water. The alternative is bore water, which needs desalination.

​The raw wool drops into the first scouring bowl, a dark mix of greasy wool, detergent and dirty water. David surprised me by explaining that at this stage, dirty water is better for cleaning the wool! The wool is agitated and moved around by metal forks. It then passes through rollers to press out the water, grease and dirt. The wool drops into a new scouring bowl to start the process again. In total, there are seven scouring bowls in VWP’s system.

David explained that fresh water enters the system at the last, cleanest bowl. It travels down the system by gravity; each bowl’s height is lower than the previous bowl. Eventually it reaches the first, dirtiest scouring bowl. Here the water is drawn off to separate out the dirt and grease. That water is then recycled back into the dirtiest scouring bowl.

Wool grease

Wool grease

The separated wool grease is packed up for export to make into lanolin. Lanolin is used for personal care products,  lubricants and even vitamin D suppliments for livestock. It’s a useful ingredient, and contributes to 50% of VWP’s income.

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The remaining solid waste is collected in huge piles at the back of VWP’s property and composted. After 6 months the grass seeds in the mix have died off and its likely to be a useful farm fertiliser.

Scouring gives a 52% yield, which means that around 48% of raw wool is actually grease, sweat and muck. Wow. The scouring process removes most, but not all vegetable matter. Depending on the end use, vegetable matter is spun off during top making, or VWP removes it by carbonising the fibre.​ 95% of VWP wool is scoured for bedding products, the remaining 5% is carbonised for fashion fibres.

Carbonising

During carbonising, the fibre drops into a sulphuric acid and water bath, then neutralised in an alkaline bath. This process repeats two more times; the acid dries the seed. The next stage heats the fibre up to 110 degrees celcius, which dries the seed further. Finally, the fibre drops into a line of crushers, which reduce the seed to a dust that is removed.

acid bath and crushing machine

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

The acid bath is recycled for two weeks. Only the water in the bath needs topping up because it evaporates over this time. The acid and alkaline baths are combined to neutralise them before disposal. The seed dust from the crushers is pure carbon, so that is added to the solid waste to aid composting. The workers in this section wore face masks because the air is dusty.

I asked David why the extra effort of carbonising is worth it. He explained that it softens the fibres, which is useful with fashion products. The process is also very good at removing vegetable matter. This is a particular issue for Australia, because of the sticky burrs we have in the paddocks.

Last steps

Whether it is just scoured, or carbonised as well, the wool is bleached with hydrogen peroxide.

Drying tube

Drying tube

The drying machine contains huge perforated barrels. The wool drops on the outside of the first barrel and air sucks from within. This spreads the wool flat across the surface of the barrel and dries it. As the barrel rotates, the wool passes to the next barrel, moving the fibres around so it dries evenly.

Dried wool

Dried wool

The dry wool is then sucked up into a pipe that runs along the ceiling of the factory. This gets it to over to the baling machine in another part of the factory. It’s quite Willy Wonka-esque!

Walking over to this section of the factory felt like Christmas. The dried wool dropped from the ceiling pipe into one of several huge piles on the ground. It was gorgeous. The wool is quality checked one last time before being passed to the baling machine.

The bales are so heavy, David has strict safety rules for how they should be handled.

Baled wool

Baled wool

The business of scouring

Victoria Wool Processors scour 3% of Australia’s total wool clip. The company employs 17 people. Its activities generate the same level of waste as 80,000 people (per year?). Labour and waste disposal are David’s two major costs of business.

Currently most VWP product sells directly to mills in South East Asia and China. Their production calendar is organised around the Northern hemisphere buying cycle. David would like to expand sales to Europe, a market that demands solid eco credentials.​ It’s a good time to do this. At current exchange rates, the cost of scouring in Australia is competitive with China.

AWP's Central control and monitoring system

VWP’s Central control and monitoring system

​It was fascinating to see VWP’s machinery in action. I felt welcomed by the staff, who were curious about my visit. They clearly had a comfortable relationship with their boss. I can see that David is motivated by environmental as well as commercial concerns. It’s interesting to see the solutions he’s come up with so far.


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


Fibershed fibre: Don’t spit on alpaca

I’ll admit, before starting this project, I thought alpacas were just trendy pets. I’d only ever seen alpaca pairs in small farm fields as I drove past. Perhaps they were a fad, like emu farms. I did know they are useful guards. My uncle lends his alpacas out as protection for lambs. Alpacas help guard goats and chickens as well.

Huacaya alpacas

Huacaya alpacas celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Alpaca industry in Australia, at City Square in Melbourne.

Now that I’ve been to some alpaca farms, I’m much more impressed. Alpacas were first bred by the Andean people in South America up to 6000 years ago. They are part of a family of camelids including llamas.

There are two kinds of alpaca. Huacayas are the cuddly looking kind that we’ve seen most often. The suri looks a little like an afghan hound with its long locks. The Incas prized suri and reserved it for royal clothing only.

Alpacas take a long time to make babies. The average gestation time is 11.5 months! A baby alpaca is called a ‘cria’ and they look as cute as they sound. This is part of the reason alpacas are so expensive: it takes time to get more alpacas!

Suri alpaca

Suri alpaca celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Alpaca industry in Australia, at City Square in Melbourne.

Alpacas have a lower impact on our environment because they have soft foot pads. They tend to eat a little of everything, allowing plants to regrow between nibbles. They’re free of health problems like foot rot, fly strike and Johnes’ disease. They need one or two annual vaccinations. They do sometimes suffer from vitamin D deficiency. The only place they can absorb the sun is their nose.

Fleece

Alpacas come in 16 natural colours. They can be black, bay black, white, four kinds of grey, three kinds of brown, three kinds of fawn or combinations of those colours. I know that’s not 16 colours, I’m not sure what the others are 😉 Alpacas need to be shorn once a year, this is usually done before summer.

Alpaca fleece selection

The super-technical diagram I drew to help me understand where the choice fleece is for each kind of alpaca

They are usually shorn lying on a table, and it takes between five to 10 minutes for each alpaca. Depending on the quality of the fleece, you can get between 1.5 and 4kg of fleece per animal.

Alpaca fleece is low in lanolin – the oily substance that coats some animal fibres. This means the fleece is hypoallergenic. There’s the added benefit that low lanolin levels need gentler cleaning during processing. I’ve heard that alpaca shearers lubricate their cutters more often because there’s less lanolin!

Alpaca fibre is the same or a little less durable than wool (depending on who you talk to). Each fibre is hollow, which traps air and makes the finished product warm to wear. Alpaca is less elastic, so garments drape well, but may not keep their shape over time. Some people knit at a higher tension to reduce this problem. Its possible to blend alpaca with wool to give more elasticity. Suri fleece twists instead of having an elastic crimp. This is what gives suri the lustrous, slippery qualities that I admire. Alpaca doesn’t pill (yay!), but it does shed.

Examples of different animal fibres

Examples of different animal fibres. from left to right, top to bottom: Huacaya alpaca, Merino sheep, Suri alpaca, Angora goat

It’s also a soft fibre; suri fleece is even softer than huacaya. The fineness of fibres is measured in microns. One micron is one millionth of a metre. Alpaca can measure as low as 15 microns, which puts it in the same realm as superfine merino. More often, alpaca comes in at 27-28 microns, perfect for fashion fabrics.

Creswick woollen mills make socks, jumpers and scarves with alpaca. Rugs sold here are often produced in New Zealand. Coats and other garments are often produced in Peru. They have more expertise and resources for these products than Australia. Alpaca is also used as a quilt filling. 28-36 micron fibre is used in carpet. Amazingly, there is a carpet maker in Victoria making carpets with alpaca fibre!

Sounds pretty amazing. Why wouldn’t you use alpaca all of the time?

…because no product is the answer to everything! Alpaca is a growing industry. It’s made up of many small farms of varying quality and range of colours. It’s hard to get commercial quantities of fleece in a consistent level of quality. Alpaca is currently a niche product, with an expensive price tag.

Where can I see alpacas locally?

Fresh field alpacas – Somerville, Mornington Peninsula.

Pitchingga Ridge alpacas – Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula