Why Alpacas Should Be Part of Your Self Sufficient Life

By on June 6, 2013

Raising your own yarn is a great way to be self sufficient. This article will concentrate on alpaca yarn, and the steps it takes to get it from fiber to finished product. Alpacas are relatively easy to care for, and anyone with as little property as an acre can raise a few for their own use.

Natural yarn starts its cycle as a living, breathing animal (or in some cases, a plant). One of the most luxurious yarns available is made from the fiber of an alpaca. There are other animals that produce the raw fiber for yarn as well, such as goats, rabbits, llamas, sheep, oxen and more. Even the family pet can provide fiber for yarn.

A Brief History of Alpacas

First of all, a little history lesson is in order. Alpacas were domesticated more than 6000 years ago by the Incan civilization.The fiber was very valuable and was reserved only for royalty. As the centuries have passed alpaca fiber hasn’t lost its appeal. An increase in breeders worldwide has, however, made it more affordable and accessible for more than just the richest of people.

General Fun Facts About Alpacas

  • They rarely exceed 200 pounds, even the biggest of males
  • Their quiet demeanor and easy care requirements make them the ideal livestock for people of all ages
  • They do not damage the soil and pastureland like horses and cows do
  • Their feet are padded instead of hooved, and they cut the grass rather than pull it out by the roots
  • They are naturally resistant to disease and require minimal human intervention
  • Their natural environment has hard-wired them to give birth generally before noon to ensure the highest survival rate of the cria
  • They do not require a special diet; grass and hay (in winter or dry periods) is sufficient. Their only other dietary requirement is fresh water and free choice minerals.
  • They share a communal dung pile, which makes paddock cleaning easier (it is also a great garden fertilizer)

Keep Your Alpacas Fenced In!

Alpacas do require protection from predators, so a mesh wire fence is best. Barbed wire is not recommended as dogs and other predators can easily get through. Plus, their fleece gets caught on the barbs and they can easily become entangled and perish. The best fencing is a rectangular mesh (2” by 4”), as they cannot poke their heads through and stretch out the wire. They do not generally challenge a fence line, but will seize the opportunity to escape if given the chance.

Shearing Your Alpacas

Now comes the fun part. They are sheared annually, usually in spring or early summer. This not only keeps them cooler during the summer heat, but also allows enough time for their fleece to grow before the cold of winter sets in. Shearing is usually done by stretching the animal out and securing feet and head, then using electric shears to remove almost all of the fleece. Some people prefer to shear with hand operated clippers with the alpaca standing.

While shearing, the fiber is placed in bags and labeled, generally with the animal’s name and the quality of the fleece. The softest part is the blanket (the back and sides). The neck, belly and legs are also sheared, but this fiber is usually reserved for yarns for rugs or for felted products (such as insoles).

Tip: blow or vacuum debris from the fleece before shearing. This will cut down on dirt, dust and other matter (twigs, burrs, hay and poop) that will need to be removed from the fleece later. This step also reduces wear and tear on the clipper blades.

Sort and Clean the Fiber

After the shearing it is time to sort and clean the fiber. This is best done on a frame with a wire mesh (no bigger than ¼”); this will allow the bits of foreign objects to fall through, but not the fiber. This is a task best done outdoors, but if there is a risk of wind move inside to prevent the fiber from being blown away.

Card the Fiber

When the fiber is sorted, it is time to card it to get it ready for spinning. Purchasing a set of wool cards makes the job easier, but rectangular wire bristled dog brushes also work well. The purpose of the carding is to line up the fibers so they can be drafted into rovings. To card your fiber, place a small handful on one of the cards, distributing it as evenly as possible. Hold the card with the fiber on it in your less dominant hand, and use your more dominant hand to pull the other card lightly across the fiber. Do not press too hard or you will risk damaging the wire teeth on your cards. You may have to repeat the process a few times (simply switch cards to make the next pass) in order to loosen up the fiber and remove any additional matter.

Make Rolags!

When the fibers are lined up via the carding process, simply roll the carded fiber and set it aside. This is called a rolag, and you will draft it out into roving for spinning. The carding process may be used to mix colours together to create one-of-a-kind yarns. For the adventurous types, hand dyeing the fiber before carding can lead to some interesting combinations indeed.

It is suggested to card several ounces of fiber before spinning, as you will run out rather quickly once you get going. When the carding is finished and the rolags are ready, it is time to draft the fiber into rovings. This is done by gently pulling on one end of the rolag with one hand while holding the undrafted fiber with the other. The thickness of your finished yarn will depend on how much drafting you do. A six inch rolag will generally draft out to approximately three feet or more of roving for a single ply of a worsted weight yarn. Lightly wind each drafted piece in a ball and set aside. When all of the rolags are drafted, it is time to spin.

Next Step: Spinning

Using a drop spindle is the easiest and cheapest way to get started. There are online resources on how to make them, plus they can also be purchased. A basic drop spindle can be made from a two inch wooden wheel (with a hole in the center), a 12 inch long dowel and a cup hook. The dowel should fit inside the hole of the wheel, so check the size (generally ¼”). To make the spindle push the dowel through the wheel until the end of it is about two inches past the wheel. Screw the cup hook into the center of the dowel at the end opposite the wheel. Tie a leader piece of yarn around the bottom of the dowel, pull it over the whorl (wheel) and wrap it around the dowel twice. Secure it by tying it to the cup hook and make a loop (the beginning of your drafted roving will go here).

To start spinning, twist the end of your roving and pull an inch or two through the leader loop. Spin the drop spindle clockwise and slowly let it drop toward the floor while the roving is spun into yarn. If you spin too fast you will risk the fiber coming apart; it takes time to learn so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work out the first time. There are many online resources and videos on YouTube to show you how to do it right. When you have spun a length of yarn, it is time to wind it around the spindle. Be sure to apply some tension to the yarn as you wind, or it will double back on itself. Secure the yarn by wrapping it three times around the cup hook, then repeat the process.

When the spindle is full (or you have run out of roving) it is time to wrap it into a skein and wash it. The back of a chair works nicely for wrapping. Secure the strands together in three or four places and place in hot soapy water. This will get rid of any dust or dirt in the yarn. Wring it out, then place it in clear water to rinse. Be sure the temperature doesn’t vary much or you will end up with a felted lump. Hang to dry outside, preferably in the shade. Use a hanger and something as a weight at the bottom of the skein to keep its twist. When dry, roll it into a ball and use it for your next knit or crochet project.

Just Jump Into It

As you become better at spinning, you can make the thread finer and use it for weaving. The woven fabrics may be made into clothing or quilts, and the thicker yarns may be woven into rugs. By spinning your own yarn, you will not only provide yourself and family with clothing, but any excess may be sold to provide you with an additional income source.

As your skills improve, you can try your hand at plying two or three skeins together to make a thicker yarn. To do so, you will basically follow the same procedure with the spindle, but spin it counter-clockwise this time. This will ensure you are not unraveling your hard work from earlier.

Alpaca-Gruppe
Alpaca-Gruppe by Heinrichs_FJ, on Flickr

Why Alpacas Should Be Part of Your Self Sufficient Life

Alpaca fiber is one of the warmest fibers available and sells for around two dollars per ounce for raw fleece. The spun yarn can sell in upwards of twenty dollars for as little as two ounces. It is a viable and renewable resource, and now you know how to raise your own yarn.

Good luck!

About Diane Ziomek

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