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.


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.


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


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


Granite Haven

I’d been looking forward to visiting Granite Haven for months. It’s the perfect name for a farm in the Strathbogie ranges. The land here is hilly, with short grass dotted with granite rocks. It reminds me a little of Scotland, but there are more eucalypts here!

Llamas

Llamas

Cheryl had opened Granite haven to the public for a day and she’d been hosting visitors all morning. We were lucky to arrive at a quiet time so we had Cheryl and her husband Warren’s attention all to ourselves!

We visited the sheep in the lowest paddock. They were all interested to meet us because Cheryl had a snack for them. I was surprised to see the sheep coming up to Cheryl for cuddles; she knew where they liked to be scratched!

Gotland sheep. The Vikings used these sheep for meat and skins on their voyages.

Gotland sheep. The Vikings used these sheep for meat and skins on their voyages.

Cheryl runs her Gotlands in family groups, and believes their nutrition levels benefit from year round open range. Cheryl taught me that whethers produce good fleeces, because they haven’t put all their energy into bringing up a lamb. Gotlands aren’t flighty like other sheep breeds, they’re friendly and won’t run away. Cheryl’s seen them play on rock piles in the field and says they’re very funny. Cheryl and her husband have a playful way about them too, I think they’ve found animals that compliment that 🙂

Gotlands are traditionally grey. Cheryl’s bred them to bring out black, charcoal, white and blended silver grey to charcoal colours. Their wool has a long staple, high lustre and soft handle. The grey wool overdyes in beautiful soft tones. Cheryl’s wool is either processed on the farm or at a mini mill. In both cases, she makes sure that phospherous-free detergents are used. She’s well versed and proud of the low environmental impact of her fibres.

We also got to visit Cheryl’s llamas. They’re alarmingly large compared to alpacas, but they were just as curious about us as we were of them. I love that Cheryl bought them because she likes to trek in the surrounding hills! Llamas love a dirt bath, so their fibre is more trouble to process. Cheryl does sell llama tops but doesn’t process yarn any more. She’s been told by spinners that llama has a reputation for being better than alpaca, but we’re not exactly sure why.

Yale with llama

Yale with llama

All the farmers I’ve met so far have been wonderfully open and helpful, but Cheryl takes the cake. She’s given me a list of people to contact and had lots of good tips for the Fibershed project. Best of all, Cheryl told me about an experimental yarn blend she’s working on that could be an eco-alternative to conventional sock yarn (which contains non-biodegradable nylon). I’m going to use this idea when making my first #1year1outfit garment!

Cheryl had a small farm shop open on the day full of rovings, plain and blended yarns in skeins. She also sells knitting kits with beautiful patterns by independent designers. I was amazed how tight Cheryl’s margin on yarn is – it was a wake up call for me on how challenging developing a boutique product can be.

Products in the Granite haven farm shop

Products in the Granite haven farm shop

We left Cheryl and Warren as the sun was setting over the granite hills. We’d stayed much longer than we intended, warmed by stories, cups of tea and cake. The trip had been worth the wait!