This month it was my turn to secure a speaker for Third Thursday Thrive, our grassroots organization focused on sustainability and community networking to benefit the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast. I’ve been thinking about fibers, especially animal fibers, as Textile Science was my major in grad school. I learned lots of interesting facts, but gained no practical experience.
Enter Niele, who agreed to be our speaker this month. She has years of experience raising angora rabbits. She also spins their fleece into yarn. But she doesn’t stop there; she assists local farmers with shearing sheep and alpaca, and sorting the wool for various uses. She’s dyed wool, and spun every imaginable natural fiber. And when she has time, she knits with the yarn she’s spun, taking the process from animal to a piece of clothing. Now that’s practical experience.
Given my desire to put flesh on the bones of my education, I was delighted when Niele asked if I wanted to join her at an alpaca shearing last week. I’ve never seen an alpaca up close; never been on a farm – any kind of farm. Somehow I had alpacas mixed up with llamas. All I knew is that llamas spit and kick. So my imagination began to run away with me.
I volunteered to drive us up to Ahualoa, a small community mauka (up the mountain) from us. Niele opened the gate when we arrived and closed it behind us, explaining that the farm is fenced and the alpacas roam the entire property. As we drove up the winding dirt road, she warned me to stay away from the dogs. “They live with the alpacas and protect them. These are Meremma Sheepdogs. You don’t want to give Leo or the others any reason to go after you.” My monkey mind started to chatter: Why was I doing this exactly?
Driving further I saw them. “Look, alpacas!” “No, those are goats,” Niele corrected softly. “Oh, yeah.” In my defense, they were far away. I hope she doesn’t regret bringing me. Finally we arrived at the barn where the alpacas were penned outside, the girls separate from the boys. The farm owner greeted Niele warmly and welcomed me. Shearing started earlier that morning. The Kauai shearers they hired would be working until they finished all of the alpacas, just shy of a dozen.
Niele took me across the road to meet the animals. They were all colors and sizes and the girls were smaller than the boys. Actually, they were all surprisingly small, especially compared to the llamas in my head. The girls are about shoulder height, their long necks taking up much of that space: the body is hip height – theirs and ours. Some of the girls’ fleeces were much shorter because they also put energy into making baby alpacas. The boys only have to grow their blankets. I whipped out my notebook and tried to write down as much as possible – still the student at heart. “What’s a blanket?”
“That’s what they call the really long fleece on the alpaca’s back. It’s the best fiber. We’ll be sorting the blankets into Firsts, Seconds, hair, and compost. But because the best and longest fibers make up the blanket, most of it will be Firsts. You’ll understand better when we start doing it.”
I was much relieved to find out what I’d be doing – nothing with the alpacas directly, so no kicking or spitting, though the girls in front of us looked a bit nervous and started moving backwards. The dog stood right in front of me (inside the pen) and barked fiercely. “Okay, I’m leaving.”
I wandered over to the boys’ pen. Yup, they definitely had more hair, uh, blanket. And they were standing together, attentively looking at the girls. “They’re very social, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” said Niele patiently. “Have you ever been around herd animals before? That’s how they act. They will crowd together and talk to each other. You should see the moms with their babies. The babies are called crias and they’re adorable.” Unfortunately, there were no little ones present.
The shearers had just finished their second alpaca, and the owner was letting her off the leash. This was Xena, about eight years old. Once free, she wandered over to the pen. No need to put her in unless she wanted to be inside. Because the whole property is fenced, she was permitted to wander. When I left for the day, I found her halfway down the drive, contently eating on lush green grass.
But at this moment, the other girls were checking her and Enora out. Enora was the other sheared alpaca and Xena’s daughter. She had a rich brown fleece. Niele continued with the lesson. ”They might not like the shearing itself, but they are far more comfortable when they’re shorn than before. That blanket is hot. Hey Enora, you Popsicle head,” she called cheerily to the alpaca. And indeed, she did look like a Popsicle with her long skinny shorn neck and unshorn head. They also didn’t shear her legs or tail, just shape them. She reminded me of an elongated poodle but without the curls, or a ballet dancer with leggings.
The shearers had spent about 15 minutes on Xena. That didn’t count all the prep time of maneuvering the alpaca next to the vertical shearing table, putting a belly band around her, then slowly tilting the table to a horizontal position. The belly band came off and someone held her legs. The owner sat at the alpaca’s head and stroked her gently, talking to her softly the whole time. They seemed calm. They were now shearing Toni, who would take more time. Younger females and boys might have twice the amount of fleece as older females. Totals would vary from 3 to 8 pounds.
Niele directed me to a screen table, where she had just shaken Xena’s fleece out of a bag. It’s a big pile and looks like an animal could still be hiding in it. “The first thing we do is fluff the fleece to get some of the dust out. Alpacas roll in the dirt and pick up straw, bits of twigs, even bugs. We have to remove all that.” I immediately gained confidence – I can do that. Because the fleece is so dense, most of the organic debris is close to the surface.
“The guys are already doing some sorting. They know that the blanket is the premium fiber, so they put that in one bag. The neck fleece and other areas go in a different bag, because they aren’t as long. They might be as good a quality, but it’s harder to spin when under two inches. So the best it can be is Seconds. This blanket will mostly be Firsts, but it too will have Seconds, hair and compost,” she said as she fluffed dust out of Xena’s blanket.
“No, hair is rough, coarse fiber, only suitable for felting into horse blankets or rugs. Here, feel this. We’ll put the hair in the bucket.” It was easy to feel the difference between the fine grade fleece and the coarse hair. And most of the time I could also see it: Xena’s fleece was black, but the small amount of hair in it was coarse, long, and gray. I readily picked the hair out of the fleece in front of us.
“Well let’s tackle something easier first. We’ll turn the fleece upside down, with the shorn side up, and look for second cuts. See this little chunk of fibers sitting on top of the fleece? It feels good, but it’s only a half inch long. That’s where the shearer went back to make a second pass in the same area, and got a ‘second cut.’ Spinners can’t do anything with fiber this short, so basically it’s compost. You can throw it on the floor with the organic debris and we’ll sweep it up later.”
We combed the fleece lightly with our fingers and pulled the second cuts off. “Hey, where’s the lanolin?” I asked.
“Alpacas don’t have lanolin – you’re thinking of sheep,” she explained. “Now sheep are interesting to shear. We can go some time. The farmer flips the sheep on its butt and holds them in that upright position, then shears the whole thing in one operation. There are New Zealanders who can shear a sheep in 45 seconds. With sheep you spend more time sorting the wool because the shearers don’t sort as they go. There are four types of sheep’s wool available on island. I like Midnight.”
“Is that a type?” I inquired.
“No, that’s the name of a sheep I like. He’s a Clun Forest type. I go back and get his wool year after year.” Turns out farmers label their fleeces with the animal’s name – a real hook for the buyer, so they spend much time picking out the right name.
Niele talks as she handles Xena’s fleece, sorting clumps of fiber into the First and Seconds bags, feeling them thoroughly first. “Here, try it. It’s mostly a tactile job. Seconds are between a half and just shy of two inches long, or slightly less fine than Firsts, but better than hair. You want to err on the side of down-grading the fiber. The Firsts need to be consistently the best, or the mill could reject a full bag and put it into Seconds.” That made me nervous, so I focused on removing hair and organic matter. I even found a dead scarab buried in Xena’s wool.
Niele picked out a small tight knot of fibers. “This is a nit. You take these out too – compost. You are nit-picking, and that’s where the phrase comes from!” Cool. I love words even better than fibers.
After about 40 minutes, I think I have it down pat and we finished Xena’s fleece: one bag of Firsts and a third of a bag of Seconds. As quickly as we cleared the table of the black fleece, someone dumped Toni’s caramel-colored blanket on the table. “Actually, this is half of Toni’s blanket.” Holy cow! Toni was about three years old and had a very thick fleece.
Her blanket was very different from Xena’s. The fibers were long, maybe 3-5 inches. Xena’s had been shorter, right at the cut-off for Firsts, as she puts much of her energy into motherhood.
So with Toni’s fleece, it was easy to make the decision on Firsts based on length. In fact we found almost no Seconds or second cuts. But we saw a different issue with Toni’s blanket. It seemed to have dandruff: hard little specs that sat on the cut surface. They were stuck really hard to the fibers, and we’d be spending lots of time picking out a fair amount of fleece to get it all out. So we conferred with the owner. She said it might wash out, so she didn’t want to label them Seconds. We decided to put the clean fleece in the Firsts bag and put the dandruff fleece into a bag labeled Firsts-with-dandruff. The mill can sort it out later.
Niele explained, “Each fleece is different. I’ll think I’ve seen everything, but then I get a surprise like this.” Toni’s fleece was also dustier than most: even the shearers sneezed and coughed as they worked on her. Now they were exposed to her dust again as we shook and flounced the dust out.
We’d sort the fleece and prepare to put in the Firsts bag when Niele checked it one more time, looking at it through the light. There they’d be, the little dandruff specs. It took a long time to shake and pick through Toni’s fleece. We got three bags and then they dumped the second half of Toni’s blanket on the table. This could be a long day, and I was beginning to get a headache from the dust and the vog spilling over the hills. We slogged through Toni’s other half.
By this time the guys had shorn a white alpaca too, Duncan. He had been less dusty, but with us shaking Toni’s fleece nearby, everyone was sneezing. The shearers needed a break, and so did I. I wandered back outside to look at the proof of our progress.
I was getting quite an education. I began to understand that sustainability as it relates to natural fibers was a long process and hard work. Given that retail clothing is so readily available, this was something you had to love or appreciate as an artisan. It was easy for me to decide that my sustainability efforts around clothing would be to ‘reuse’ by purchasing at thrift stores: easy and cheap.
As I mused, I watched them. Duncan, Toni, and Enora stood together, a pen full of Popsicle heads. They were talking to each other, a noise much like a squeaky toy. It made them all the more endearing. They were so cute and curious – nosy really. But I kept my distance. Like their larger relatives the llamas, alpacas do spit.
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