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Lessons from the Wool Mill's Draw Frame

I took a break from our camp sock yarn this week to clean up some off-white Suri alpaca floor sweeps from a shearing. (Yes, I know most would say this is a big waste of time but when it’s a friend like Andrea, I say why not try! I told myself that it is good practice and should be fun.) Well … The first problem was that it was only 46 ounces. Considering our minimum batch is 5 lbs. in the wool mill, this is not really enough to create projects when you consider the waste leaves you with upwards of a 50% loss. I hand-picked the fibre and selected more guard type fiber than I usually like to try to increase the total weight, but it was quite fine and fell into the 3-inch length which is on the shorter side of what the machinery likes.

Undeterred, I threw it in the wash. Even though Alpacas do not have lanolin, they still do have bodily secretions; probably a combination of sweat and light oils, which combines quite well with dust (think baths) and adheres even better. It took a presoak overnight (in Orvus paste- best grease remover) then two full wash cycles to get the water crystal clear (the indication of clean fiber). It really didn’t look that dirty when I started!

Next, I had to decide what to create, and I was given free reign –kinda. Andrea wants rug yarn but Sue wants sock yarn. Who is Sue, you say? Well, besides being a friend of both Andrea and I, she is the lady that did her Master Spinner thesis on the creation of sock yarns – no pressure here! I know I definitely will not be making rug yarn with this small amount of Suri alpaca as there just isn’t even close to enough. So, I decided on a 50% Polypay sheep’s wool, 25 % Lincoln Longwool sheep’s wool, 12.5% Suri alpaca and 12.5% silk for a fingerling yarn which is also sometimes called sock yarn. Looks like Sue is getting her wish.

I have the first two breeds on my farm but the silk is actually a gift from Andrea from her late mother’s stash. Jean, Andrea’s mom, was one of my first spinning buddies at fairs and such, so I thought it was fitting to put the silk in the yarn as a connection back to Jean for Andrea. A nice sentiment, but …

After drying on the racks, this mixture went to the carder. I noticed the machine was having trouble blending the silk into the roving. No problem, I thought, the draw frame will handle that. That was the start of a two-day breakdown in the wool mill. Not my breakdown – the draw frame’s. It turns out that when you put so many strong, long fibers together in a dry environment you’re asking for trouble. In what felt like nano seconds but was probably five minutes, there was major damage to the carding teeth of the draw frame and no easy way to get the mess out.

Two full days of cleaning later, I can report that cleaning out the draw frame required dismantling the entire top assembly in very small steps that are kind of hard to explain if you aren’t looking at it. The basic idea is that we were removing a beehive with a crochet hook, making only small movements at a time as the machine isn’t meant to be cleaned that way. After we removed as much of the fibre as possible, we had to repair the machine itself to try to get it backs to its original state which involved straightening the teeth on the rollers as best we could- our fingers were dripping in blood from the murderous teeth by the end. Yes, we wore gloves but had to take them off to get our fingers into small spaces or to make small adjustments. Most of our repair work was a series of trial and error, as we tried to make it functional again without really knowing how. When we spoke to our Belfast Mini Mill technician/installer Jeff on Monday, he said he could not recall ever having to do this in 30 years. Right! We ordered the replacement part – and a backup.

Beverly at the draw frame.

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