knit | spin

Fibre Journey: Alpaca

July 18, 2014

IMG_1846This is Rosie. Well, a bag of Rosie’s fibre. Rosie is an alpaca who with her brother and mother live with my parents in country Victoria.

IMG_3478Alpacas originate in the Peruvian Andes and were beloved of the Ancient Incas. According to The Fleece and Fibre Source Book, the quality of alpaca fibre declined after the Spanish invasion which beggars the imagination when considering just how soft and fine the fibre must have been at the height of the Inca civilisation.

IMG_1108This is Chester, her brother. I have no picture of Rosie as she is people and camera shy. So just imagine an all black, more elegant version of Chester.

When my folks got their alpacas shorn for the first time, I took a bag of Rosie home to spin up for them.  Alpacas like to roll like dogs on the ground and her fibre was full of dust and vegetable matter and lots of burrs. Alpaca fibre is renown for its warmth and given the small amount of fibre I had, I decided to make a winter hat for my father. This way he could have something useful and warm and made from his own animal.

IMG_1848This was my first time working with alpaca so I did a bit of research and winged the rest. I didn’t wash it as I would a sheep fleece as alpaca fibre is not greasy. I flicked the locks with a flick carder which opened them enough to release a lot of the grass bits. As I flicked, I blew on each lock, blowing out the dust and more grassy bits.

IMG_1862The staple length was quite short, about two inches and I flicked my knuckles a lot. Those wires are sharp and painful and at the end of every session I had to soak my hands in disinfectant. You hear terrible stories about flick carder infections and I decided that wasn’t a road I wanted to travel.

IMG_1869Again, due to the shortness of the staple, I decided to card the fibre into rolags. This was my first time using the hand carders but under the guidance of the YouTube oracles, the rolags formed airily and fairly consistently. They looked like little furry pets lying there. You could not help but squeeze them.

IMG_2834The next stage was to experiment with the spinning, the amount of twist and thickness of the plies.  The sampling process was documented in a previous post, Sampling for Calm and geeky deets are ravelled here. The yarn was finished with a wash and thwack. At the end of processing and spinning I had 207 m of two ply yarn with 7 twists per inch, approximately 50 grams of fingering weight.

IMG_2927After swatching with different needle sizes to get the right drape and a useful gauge, I worked out stitch counts for head circumference and row counts for length. I cast on 108 stitches on 3.75 mm needles.  This is a slightly larger needle size than usual for fingering weight yarns but apparently alpaca blooms a little after washing and I wanted to account for this. The hat is a simple beanie with a fold over brim for added ear warmth in a broad rib 9 x 9 rib pattern. The crown was shaped with leaning decreases along the edges of the rib pattern every fourth round, finishing with a round of centred double decreases before threading the yarn through the remaining stitches. The finished unfolded hat is 26 cm long for a head circumference of approximately 56 cm. Ravelled here.

IMG_3482This is my first project of entirely deliberate, planned spinning for a specific project. It worked!  I am pleased with the process and the extraordinary softness of the yarn but the processing time for this particular fibre was inordinately time consuming.  It is hard to tell just how many hours are in this hat but the journey unfolded over the last six months albeit in the nooks and crannies of regular life. Here is a list of all the processes that went into transforming a bag of Rosie into a warm winter hat.

  • Flick carding to open the fibre
  • Blowing out dust and plant material
  • Carding into rolags
  • Sampling
  • Spinning singles
  • Plying
  • Finishing the yarn
  • Swatching for gauge and needle size
  • Pattern design
  • Knitting
  • Blocking

Imagine doing that lot every time you needed any kind of garment! There is something to be said for mechanisation and mass production.