Saturday, December 4, 2010

Size matters...

If you've done any custom processing of your own fleeces and sold them to others you surely have experienced having to create your own yarn labels.  But what do you put on the label?  Are there any laws that require certain information being stated?  What size yarn do I have?  This is a problem that has really been a struggle for us as a mill.  Processing fiber for producers to sell to consumers who have two different concerns (DENSITY vs. DIAMETER) has proved to be a tricky and feisty little issue.

The Craft Yarn Council site states that it is "the yarn industry's one stop resource".  And while it is a deep well of information all very useful and well organized, it doesn't deal with the tension of density vs. diameter.  They do however offer several things you'll find very useful.  They have a place where you can download symbols to put on your own yarn labels.  They also have a page that helps determine what name it should be called and the recommend hook or needle sizes for working on a project.  The have concluded and I would agree that we want to create "consumer-friendly products" and for the consumers to be able to "select the right materials for a project and complete it successfully".  To that end the CYC has set up this series of guidelines and symbols.

But what this site doesn't help you determine is what size of yarn you actually have.  What most mills will do is spin your fiber into a certain number of yards per pound.  Spinning yarn to a certain thickness is problematic for several reasons.  First, it's under tension and there's no easy way to know how much it will "bloom" when that tension is released in the fulling process.  Two, yarns with little crimp will require sometimes twice as much roving to create the same thickness of yarn desired.  Third, the producer wants to know that they are going to get a consistent number of sellable units based on the incoming weight that they deliver to the mill.  And finally, using the yards per pound measurement is just easier for the miller to do and it keeps them accountable to producer.  However, all that being said, one man's sport weight isn't another man's sport weight - BUT WHY!?

Well in short the answer is that every fleece is different... and if the fleece is different you can bet that the yarn is going to be different. 

But you know me, I don't typically give short answers (c:

So what do you do when your sport weight looks like a bulky but it's really still 1200 yards per pound?  or your sport weight looks like a fingering but it's still 1200 yards per pound?  The problem is that the market (your customer) isn't really concerned about yards per pound as much as they are concerned about how it's going to knit/crochet, what size needle they should use, how many stitches they will get over a certain number of inches... that kind of stuff.  And so we're caught in the middle of this tension of the producer whose concerned about the density and the consumer whose concerned about the diameter.

That's why the "Wraps Per Inch" measurement was created... but that's for another post!

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Turn Around Time, Year of the Icelandic Fleece, & Rugs...

Wanted to write a quick post to let you know that we've cut our turn around time down to 7 weeks and it's shrinking!  We now employee two other people at the mill - Patrick Leitch (carding and opening) and David Artrip (shipping, receiving and wash).  These two new people have helped tremendously in cutting our turn around time down from 16 weeks out just 2 months ago.

2011 is being declared "Year of the Icelandic Fleece" by MSF.  After working with this amazing fiber for the last 4 years we're now ready to drop our prices and ramp up our production speeds.  We would like to begin processing 200 pounds of raw Icelandic fleece each week during the months of December through March.  Icelandic sheep are a primitive breed that have a dual coated fleece.  The outer coat is called Tog and is a 30 micron fiber that is 6-9 inches long.  The under coat is called Thel and is a 18-24 micron fiber that is 2-3 inches long and very crimpy.  Icelandic fleeces are great for felting and thel yarns are amazingly soft.  Lamb fleeces make an incredibly soft yarn even without being dehaired as their first fleece is almost identical between the thel and the tog.  Historically the Icelandic breed has been known for their ability to make an amazingly soft Lopi yarn.  Lopi is a super bulky yarn - lightly twisted single that is 300 yards per pound.  This yarn is great for quick knitting & felt projects and for sweaters, hats or mittens.

Also in the last 12 months we have been exploring the production of rugs in a number of different patterns.  We'll upload examples of the types of rugs we have made here soon.  The cost to weave rugs is $.75/linear inch.

Hope you're having a great start to the winter.  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone and we hope that you have a very merry Christmas.

Your friends at MSF

Friday, August 13, 2010

Paca To Product... fully updated and ready for registrations!

If you haven't been involved in the last 4 years with our annual forum Paca To Product you definitely don't want to miss this year!  Five presenters on key issues on for developing a sustainable and profitable cottage industry model for exotic fiber farming.

Email us at info@morningstarfiber for more information.  Download your registration form at and send it in today!  Only 300 spots available make sure you're one of them.  There's a special $10 rate for the keynote speaker Susan Gibbs of Juniper Moon Farm during the morning session.  Visit the Shishler Center and check out there state of the art facilities.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Change to our layout...

In 2010 we're going to start unpacking what it means to be Morning Star Fiber.  We are so much more than just a processing mill, and over the next year we're going to run a series of posts to help you better understand the burden that we have on our hearts to make an impact not just here locally in Apple Creek and across the nation for rural fiber farmers about around the world as well.

The lady on our banner is a friend we made while on our recent trip to Central Asia.  She is an artisan who makes shyrdak rugs out of merino sheep that her husband raises.  She works with her daughter and granddaughter to felt these rugs year around.  You'll learn more about her and others in the months to come.

Making all things beautiful,

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fiber Evaluation (Staple Length/Variation)

In our last post we began a 7 part series looking at the critical categories that should be evaluated when considering a fleece for fiber processing. Tensile strength is definitely the first, and in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of fiber evaluation, but our critical area today comes in a close second - staple length & variation. I've purposely chosen to combine both the length of the fiber and the variation in the length as one category.

Length plays an important role in fiber processing at four different points: opening, carding, drafting and spinning. At each of these points I will share how overall length and variation in the length impacts each of these four areas. As your friend in the industry I hope that through this post and the others in this series we can better understand the implications and develop sustainable standards, and ideal breeding benchmarks regarding length and variation in length and how it will impact the process of "paca to product".

In order to develop a common perspective with all my readers let's assume the following scenario. You are an alpaca farmer who raises 15 Suri alpacas and every year you have your fleeces shorn and processed into 3 ply fingering weight yarn. There is however one exception - you have one or two suri alpacas that you will take to the show ring and so you don't shear their fleece until the end of year two to have the best presentation in the show ring. Assuming this perspective will allow us to better grasp the impact that processing will have on your fleeces.

Now it's currently Spring and if you haven't already shorn your animals you will be shortly. Harvest time for many is a necessary evil or at best a much anticipated time but latent with potential problems and obstacles that need to be successfully navigated. Needless to say the harvesting of alpaca fiber plays a critical role in the value added chain and significantly impacts its processing performance.

But let's think happy thoughts for a second - let's say: your son does all your shearing & skirting for free and as a certified professional does an excellent job, your animals are all pure white, they have 18-20.9 micron fiber, which produce 6 pounds of usable fleece, and you have a host of customers who are contacting you weekly to find out when this year's clip will be processed into yarn so they can get their hands on that lustrous, silky smooth yarn that they just love, oh and your mill has just a 4 week turn around time and a great price! Like I said we're thinking happy thoughts here.

So here you sit in your dining room (which has been converted into your sorting facility) with three distinct groups of fiber in front of you ready to take down to the mill. Now all the fibers are identical in every way except that their staple lengths are drastically different. You have one group of fleeces that has 13 to 15 inch Suri fiber from your two year old show ring animals. You have another group that has 2 to 3.25 inch Suri fiber from your seven year old girls who still produce amazing offspring every year. Finally you have the third group, which makes up all the other fibers in your herd, and they have 4 inch, 5.5 inch and 7 inch fibers.

So what happens to these three groups during processing and how does their staple length and variation impact their processing performance?

First, it's important to understand that any fiber in mill processing going on to yarn will follow the same basic steps regardless of what mill it is processed at: tumbling/scouring, drying, opening, conditioning, carding, drafting, spinning, plying, skeining and fulling. Certain mills have additional steps but this is the basic process that the industry follows.

The first area in which staple length/variation will have a significant impact is at the opening stage. Opening is the stage in fiber processing where each clump of fleece is separated into individual fibers so that it can be carded most effectively and efficiently. But the question is how does length effect the opening process and what kind of impact does variation in length have on this process as well.
Let's start with the 13-15 inch show animal fleeces. I am not a judge nor do I show alpacas in the show ring, but from listening to our customers these are some thing that I have learned. As show ring alpacas one of the areas they were evaluated on was the consistency of their lock structure. In the show ring points can be taken off for fleeces that do not demonstrate the same consistent lock structure across blanket of the animal and ideally across the whole animal. The type of lock structure (flat, tightly twisted, loosely twisted, etc) is not as critical to the judges as this consistency issue. This benchmark finds itself in conflict with many stages in fiber processing and opening is one of them.

Tightly and even loosely twisted locks are virtually impossible to open by machine without damaging the fiber. Each of these individual locks have to be opened by hand before they can be run through the picker or the fiber separator. This becomes a conflict in processing due to time - and in processing time is money. Opening by hand the individual locks of suri increases the time greatly. On standard length (4-7 inches) fibers it can double the amount of time it takes to open them. And on extra long length fibers (especially 13-15 inch) can multiply the job exponentially! I once opened a 24 pound lot of 10+ suri locks which took me 2 weeks to open because they were so tightly twisted together. Typically in our mill we open between 20-30 pounds of fiber per day. For this very reason many mills reject long suri fiber that has a tightly twisted lock structure, while others place additional charges to the processing cost. While standard length suri fibers with a twisted lock structure are harder to open they are not impossible. Ideally, from a processing perspective, suri will have a flat lock structure (or minimal twist) allowing their processing time to be no different than huacaya. Another great way to test how quickly it will process if try opening a single lock by hand. How easy was it to pull it apart?

All that to say that length (when coupled with a twisted lock structure) can have a significant impact on the time incurred in the opening process.

Well enough about lock structure we were talking about length and variation in the opening process. The opening process is such that your fiber will be thoroughly reshuffled when it is done being open. It will be impossible to tell from what part of the animal a certain fiber came from. So when fiber is sent in and there's greater variance than 1.5" in the staple length, as is the case for fibers that are 4", 5.5" and 7". If these fiber lengths were all in the same bag for processing you can bet that they will be even distributed after the opening stage is completed. This doesn't pose any kind of problem at this stage in the processing but compromise the quality of the finished product on down the line.

In the last group of fibers that are 2" to 3.25" we experience no problems in opening or individualizing the fibers and because they are within a 1.5 inch variance they will not do anything to compromise the quality of the finished product later in the processing of the fiber.

The next major step in processing where length is an issue is in the carding stage. Carding is the process where individualized fibers are kept separate while gently combing them through a series of rollers called workers and strippers as they travel clockwise around the main drum called a swift. (see diagram) Fibers that were previously opened and individualized are now combed and brought into a more parallel direction (see diagram below). In the mini mill system this degree of alignment is within 30 degrees of completely parallel.

Short fibers under 3.5 inches quickly align themselves with each other, while longer fibers take more time. Consider how long it takes to align long hair with a comb as compared to short hair. After one pass at the carder long fibers may not have been effectively aligned, while shorter fibers (under 5 inches) have carded at peak efficiency.

Another potential problem with long fibers at the carding stage is fibers that are longer than the two points of tension or "pinch points". In the case of the Belfast mini-mill system the pinch points are where the fiber leaves the swift at the worker and where the stripper transfers the fiber back onto the swift. (see diagram above) From my observations a fiber which has a length longer than 12 inches will have a high tendency to do one of two things: wrap around the stripper with the end of the fiber trapping the beginning of the fiber and not allowing it to be transferred onto the swift, or the fiber will be broken when the stripper is trying to pull it off the worker but the end of the fiber has not yet left the pinch point between the swift and the worker.

In our next post we will look at how staple length and variation have an impact on the drafting and spinning processes. I hope this has been helpful for you to better understand why fiber must be evaluated in this simple 7 step process of Strength, Length, Micron, Crimp, Vegetable Matter, Dust, and Second Cuts. By evaluating these 7 areas in your fleeces prior to processing (and even prior to shearing) you can minimize your farm costs and maximize your profits from the value added steps a mini-mill can provide.

Your friend in the industry,

Saturday, April 10, 2010

new post coming April 15th...

I'm in the process of working on part 2 of a seven part series on fiber evaluation. This new post will be on evaluating staple length and variation in a fleece and the its impact on processing performance. Stay tuned!

UPDATE 4/21/10:
With lambing season in full swing, a new baby which arrived on the 19th and a garden that needed put in last month I'm way behind on getting this new post out but I'm getting very close. I should have something worth publishing with in the next few days.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fiber Evaluation (Tensile Strength)

If I was granted one wish in the alpaca fiber industry it would be to create a high level of tensile strength in all alpaca fiber. But alas not all alpaca fleeces are created equal! While this article focuses on the implications of tensile strength and how to properly evaluate it in your fleece, we will also consider how farmers can develop a win-win partnership with a local mill.

When you bring your alpaca fleece to a mill for processing, you are entering a partnership with that mill. Obviously, you want the best possible product, and the mill wants to process in a way that you and your customers will be happy with. This will result in additional profits to your farm; increase the reputation of your quality alpaca products and the ability of your local mill. But it will also supply the farm and the mill with new customers through grassroots marketing. So how can properly evaluating tensile strength allow you to help in creating a dynamic shift in local economies?

The answer to that question begins in January of 2007. After two years of processing here at Morning Star Fiber we were finding it difficult to explain why products were turning out the way they did. We wanted to make sure that both the farmer and the mill were working most effeciently and effectively together in their partnership. Therefore we realized we needed to develop an ad hoc grading system for incoming fleece. By implementing this system we might be able to more properly assess the root of problems and also successes. This in turn could allow us to better recommend what type of processing should be done with the fiber that farmers were bringing in. After following this system for three years we wanted to communicate clearly what we have found so that everyone can mutually benefit.

During the implementation of this grading system it was found that there are seven areas that dynamically impact the end product and the response of the market to these value-added steps. You will find that these areas impact not only processing, but breeding and harvesting practices as well. Our hope long term is that standards can be created from these findings that will help improve the consistency and quality of the products being processed, the type of fiber that should be used to produce that kind of product and a greater demand in the marketplace.

This article will focus on is tensile strength. Although in future articles I hope to speak to staple length/variation, variation in micron, crimp, second cuts, vegetable matter and dust. But to start, I can think of no other quality in alpaca fiber that has greater implications on the fiber industry than tensile strength. This is the one area that can render a fleece unusable for processing and require that it only be sold as raw fleece to an artisan for hand spinning or needle felting. This is one area that impacts all the major players – producers, harvesters, processors and artisans. It also provides the key to greatly reducing processing costs which mean lower price points in the marketplace and a dynamic shift in the alpaca fiber industry.

Tensile Strength:
Tensile (tension) strength is the fiber’s capacity to be stretched without breaking. Obviously every fiber has a breaking point but what we are concerned with is how much tension can it endure without breaking. Commercial milling is a very aggressive process and fibers must be able to withstand a certain amount of tension without its structure being compromised.

Testing for tensile strength can be a very objective measurement. However, in the fiber industry there are currently no cost effective tools that would allow individuals to measure tensile strength objectively. Therefore, we are left with varied, subjective means to test for tensile strength. There is an opportunity here for someone to develop a hand held device that would measure tensile strength and it would greatly improve the fiber industry as we shall see.

A method of evaluation:
In our mill we developed a basic evaluation when testing for tensile strength. While it is subjective it has produced consistent results. We start by pulling a representitive lock of fiber from the fleece. It need not be more than 30 or 40 individual fibers. We then take this lock and open them up by hand so that they are no longer clustered together. This allows us to test the fiber in a similar fashion to what will be experienced at the carding stage. We then take this opened lock of fiber and grab each end in our hands using our thumb and forefinger. We then place the opened lock up to our ear and pull, gently at first but with an increasing amount of tension. We listen to the sounds that the fiber makes as it is under these varied amounts of tension, and this allows us to assess it tensile strength capacity.

Like I said before this is simply one of the varied, subjective means by which tensile strength can be tested in the fiber industry. It is subjective because my understanding of “gently at first but with an increasing amount of tension” will not be the same as yours. As a 6’4”, 285 pound ex-collegiate football player my ability to increase the amount of tension will be different from others and sometimes significantly – not to mention my definition of gently! But alas I have found a way to know what a fleece with a high degree of tensile strength sounds like from inspecting thousands of fleeces that have come in over the last three years. At this time I’m not able to state an objective measurement that would be required for greatest processing performance. However, I know that some research has been conducted by Xungai Wang of Deakin University in their Textile Testing Laboratory in Australia. I was not able to conclude that the results found in his report would be comparable with our fiber here in Ohio using Belfast Mini-Mill equipment under the humidity conditions of this region.

Affects on processing:
I have found that tensile strength directly relates to processing performance. For example, a fiber with a high degree of tensile strength can be processed in a mini-mill at four or even five ounce feeds at the carder while fibers with a low degree of tensile strength require much lower feed rates – even as low as one ounce per feed! This directly impacts not only the mills processing turn around time but the price per pound at which these fibers must be processed. If all alpaca fibers could be processed at five ounces per feed a mill could process over 9,100 pounds of alpaca fiber per year. This has staggering implications that I will deal with later. However, if all alpaca fiber must be processed at 1 ounce feeds only a little over 1800 pounds could be processed in that same year. Therefore, tensile strength has a dynamic impact on the price per pound a mill must charge in order to stay in business.

Since alpaca is a protein fiber, it’s tensile strength is greatly reduced when it is wet. This requires that mills allow for adequate drying time of fiber before moving on to the opening stage. However, when alpaca fiber is too dry the mill can be rendered inoperable due to static electricity. This problem increases in the winter months when lower humidity levels are experienced. Therefore it is key to constantly monitor the humidity level in the mill and in the fiber, so that tensile strength is not compromised and static electricity is kept to a minimum.

Not properly evaluating tensile strength prior to processing can greatly compromise the end product and reduce its market value. This becomes a factor during the opening and carding process, and indirectly during the spinning and plying of those fibers. While these fibers are being opened and carded their tensile strength is put to the test, and if they fail those fibers will be broken and damaged creating neps in the roving. A nep is a small tangle or knot of short fibers. These neps are very difficult to remove from the roving and have an impact on the rovings ability to draft and for twist to be uniformly added to the roving.

In the marketplace:
When these fibers are processed into yarns it results in a yarn that looks slubby and inconsistent. These qualities deplete its market value as they have very limited applications – knit and felting projects may be the only exception. Not only does the yarn look inferior, its performance in knitting, crocheting or even weaving will be compromised. Even after the artisan’s project is completed the fabric created will continue to pill and shed these short neps. As each nep is removed the fabric weakens. But as suggested some of this can be overcome by felting the project. Therefore tensile strength has a direct impact on price points in the marketplace.

Implications for the industry:
A low degree of tensile strength poses several problems for the alpaca fiber industry. There is a movement within the industry to push for finer micron animals. While this finer micron will allow alpaca fiber grown in Ohio to hold a greater exotic fiber status, we must understand that this finer micron will inevitably have a weaker tensile strength which will require a higher cost in processing. Do these finer fibers draw a market price that justifies the additional processing, harvesting and even breeding costs? This is a question that must be well thought through when considering how fiber fineness will play a role in your business plan.

Our studies show that fibers that are 23 micron and higher typically have a high degree of tensile strength and can be processed at a three and half ounce or greater feed rate in the mill. This has huge implications on price points in the marketplace. If a mill could expect this kind of performance from alpaca fiber it greatly increase its output. In theory a mill could generate 6,400 pounds of fiber or more per year allowing it to charge as little as $18.75/pound for bulky yarn – however there are other areas to evaluate. But if these rates were possible and no other factors limited the mills ability to process, the mill would still be profitable and sustainable with two full time mill operators and a part time office manager. At the same time the farmer could obtain 4 ounce skeins of yarn for less than $6/skein even at a 25% processing loss. While this is a theoritical proposition it is worth investigating further.

What if farmers and mills could partner together in the most effective and efficient ways possible? What if farmers were able to produce fleeces that were uniform in their high degree of tensile strength? What if mills could process at five ounce feeds with confidence and lower their cost per pound accordingly? What if we could organize a state-wide evaluating system that could provide local mills with this kind of fiber on a consistent basis? If we could do this the implications are staggering!

Consider this… if the 22,870 registered alpacas in Ohio could produce a little over 137,000 pounds of fiber (6# per animal) with a high degree of tensile strength, and there were 15 regional mini-mills staffed by three people who could process bulky weight yarn at 40 pounds/day, we could create a dynamic shift in local economies. This would effectively create an additional 35 jobs just in the mills alone, fuel local farmers with an additional $5.25 million dollars in net income, and showcase Ohio as a premier spot for the alpaca fiber industry.

However, the reality is that many local mills struggle to finish 15 pounds per day when processing alpaca due largely to tensile strength issues. Therefore the price per pound is closer to $26 or even $30. This is just one way in which we are limiting the growth of our alpaca fiber industry.

In conclusion:
We hope that this has helped you to see the dynamic impact just one area of evaluation can have on the processing performance of alpaca fiber. This is just one of the ways in which Ohio farmers and millers can better partner to realize high quality end products in the marketplace and an explosive new trend in the alpaca industry. It’s important for everyone involved in the industry to develop a win-win partnership with a local mill, by developing an accurate method to evaluate effectively the tensile strength of the fiber. By doing this we will begin to see a dynamic impact in the marketplace. Because this issue requires dialogue I’m suggestion we continue this discussion and read about the other six areas for which fiber should be evaluated by visiting (this blog).

We hold the future in our hands – even if it is with the thumb and forefinger! It’s time to establish a cottage industry level platform from which the alpaca fiber producers, harvesters, processors and artisans will be able to realize an ever expanding market that is both profitable and sustainable for all involved.

JC Christensen

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Welcome first time readers!

Are you serious... does the world really need another blog? In 2006 the "blogosphere" was doubling every 6 1/2 months! Granted it's great to be able to express your opinion and feel like others are benefiting from it. But that liberty seems to come with the obligation to read everyone else's opinion, which gets a little oppressive. Okay really oppressive, like you want to run away and live in a log cabin, sitting in front of a crackling fire and sipping hot wassel while there's two feet of snow outside and it's still coming! Can I get an AMEN?

So why start another blog? Why enter onto the blog superhighway at rush hour when information is at a stand still and no one seems to be able to get to the exact information they want all while being slammed with all kinds of information that they didn't want? Is this the online-life we're regulated to?

In the world of natural fibers we have producers, harvesters, processors and artisans and sometimes those four hats are all worn by one person! So it's not uncommon to find folks who are juggling their day job with farm life and trying to carve out time for their favorite fiber art - not to mention catching up on all the latest web savyness (c: Yet with the creation of the "mini-mill" several decades ago creative custom processing of even exotic and rare natural fibers has become increasingly more accessible giving even more credance to hobby and small scale farming of sheep, goats and camlids. But this accessibility has made us aware of the need for a network that provides better bridges to education, subways that quickly connect innovation, and large harbors with opportunity for trade.

Think of all the people in the alpaca fiber industry that are stuck in this morass! The numbers are endless and we're all sitting in this traffic jam together.

What we need is an online port of authority that would conceive, build, operate and maintain infastructure critical to the world of producing raw natural fibers that are processed into rare niche finds.

So here's to another blog where posts can create bridges between relevant bodies of information in the natural fiber industry with the opportunity for you to put your own "spin" on it.