A Day in the Life of Big Fat Alpaca

Psst…want a behind the scenes look at how yarn is made at a mini-mill? Come on, follow me! Mette of Ranch of the Oaks was kind enough to take many of these pictures during several steps of the process.

First, the fiber is washed in a special non-agitating machine, then set on a mesh rack to dry. I don’t have any pictures of this because it would be rather like….watching fiber dry.

The first fun step is going through the picker. This machine picks apart the fibers, opens up the locks, and fluffs it up. Locks go in, fluff comes out!

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Conditioning oil is then sprayed on the fiber – I know, weird right? You just washed it and now you’re spraying oil on it? This helps keep the static down, and keeps the fiber from sticking to the machines during the rest of the process. Then chunks of fiber (see how much fluffier they are?) are sent to the fiber separator.

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This machine gets out more vegetable matter – oh how those alpacas love to roll and get dirty! – as well as shorts and second-cuts for shearing. It can also be used to dehair and separate downy undercoats from coarser outer coats of other fleeces such as pygora, but requires many passes. Typically, a run will go through the fiber separator twice. Unless you’ve bought fleece that is riddled with vm…ask me how I know! I’m much pickier about my alpaca fleece nowadays. It wasn’t easy, but I now have the willpower to refuse the softest fleece if it’s chock full of hay and stickers. :) Anyway, this is the waterfall of fiber that comes out of the fiber separator.

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The next step is the carder, these are pix I took from a different alpaca run. The carder brushes the fiber and funnels it into a strip of roving. Consistency is important at this step – the more consistent the roving produced, the more consistent the finished yarn will be. The carder operates at a constant rate, so the thickness of the roving at the output is completely dependent upon how much fiber you feed into it. You’ll notice the blue stripes on the conveyor – these are marked so the operator can spread out a consistent weight of fiber between each stripe. To make roving for a bulky yarn, 3 oz of fiber might be laid down at a time. For a lace yarn, 1 oz of fiber might be laid down.


The carder consists of one large central drum, surrounded by 6 pairs of carding rollers. The large central drum really just conveys the fiber from roller pair to roller pair – the pair do the actual carding. You might think that the carders align the fibers, but they don’t. They really just separate them and create a consistenty fluffy sheet. The fiber orientation is still pretty random in this sheet – meaning some are parallel, some are perpendicular, and many are at all sorts of angles and orientations in between. Here’s the roving coming out of the carder:


Do you see where I’m going with this? Because the fibers aren’t aligned, lots of air is trapped in the roving. This is considered a woolen preparation. Most yarn that is mass produced, that you buy in your local yarn store, is spun from a worsted preparation. It goes through a commercial combing process – different machines with different actions prepare the fiber so that each one is parallel to the next, any fibers of inconsistent length are removed, and the resultant top (not roving! Roving = carded prep!) also goes through a straightening and steaming process during which much of the crimp is flattened out. This type of prep is done so that the spinning is as consistent as possible, and it makes a very compact and durable yarn.

Are you starting to see some of the differences? Neither is right or wrong or good or bad, they’re just different! There are many different ways to make yarn, and it’s great to explore them all! If that’s even possible, but I’m working on it. :) Anyway, yarn made from a woolen prep (that’s the carding process that I’ve photographed above) is going to be lofty, airy, but is going to be a little more variable in texture and thickness. It’s also going to retain a lot of the characteristics of the original fiber – since the roving isn’t straightened or steamed before it’s spun, the resulting yarn is pretty lively. Yarn made on a large scale from a worsted prep (the combing & the steaming) is very consistent, and tends to be more compact.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Or are you salivating and considering buying a spinning wheel so that you can experience all of this fiber wonderfulness for yourself? Enabler, me? Never. Anyway, MORE PICTURES!

A hand-spinner could take roving straight from the carder and spin it forever in eternal bliss. But unfortunately, machines aren’t as good as a hand-spinner. Your hands will automatically adjust if the roving is slightly thicker or thinner, and will create a pretty consistent yarn no matter what. A machine can’t tell the difference, so we have to feed it the most consistent roving we can. One way of making roving more consistent is combining it with another strand of roving – the thick and thin spots of one tend to even out the thin and thick spots of the other, and the result is more even. It’s combined at the draw frame – each roving is drafted a little separately, fed together, then drafted a little more together. Below you can see 2 sets of 2 strands of roving going into the drawframe.

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Here (different run) you can see the 2 sets coming out of the drawframe as single rovings.


Now, since we’re further aligning the fibers in this step, we start to leave the realm of a fully woolen preparation. The fiber orientation is still quite random, but not as random as it was before. I don’t think that it’s wrong to still call it a woolen prep, as it’s just a smidge off (and there’s endless debate over the precise definition of these words – some feel that the only true woolen prep is a hand-carded rolag). But you can call it a semi-woolen prep if you like. Clear as mud, right?

And finally, the spinner! These pics are from a day that Mette was spinning quite a large batch – all 8 spinning heads were going at once. From the back, roving goes in:


And at the front, yarn comes out!


For my Big Fat Alpaca run, she only had 2 spindles going at once:

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Now, to further blur lines between woolen and worsted, this yarn is essentially spun short-draw – there is no twist in the zone between the drafting rollers. So a woolen prep, spun with a worsted technique….semi-worsted yarn! No, semi-woolen! No, woolsted! No, worsten! I have an idea – LET’S JUST CALL IT AWESOME.

Now, we have bobbins of freshly spun singles. Let’s ply! The two singles are twisted together in the opposite direction at another machine, which only plies.

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A close-up of the actual business:

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The result:

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And steaming! Which I had to take a quick video of to show you the whole shebang.  This evens out and relaxes excess twist energy.

Leaving you with….ta-da! A cone of beautiful yarn.

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You might think we’re done there. Well, Mette is, but I’m not. I then take the cone of yarn, wind it into skeins, tie it up tidily, and wash it. Why wash it? The cone is wound under tension, so the yarn will be a little stretched out when first skeined. Washing it relieves that tension, and makes is sproing back up again. Plus, remember when we added conditioning oil in one of the first steps? That’s still in the yarn. The yarn is also a little dirty – even though the first step was washing the fleece, the fiber has been picked, separated, carded, and fluffed many times, all which helps loosen up dirt that was initially trapped in those locks.

So I wash, dry, hang in the sunshine, label, and presto!

Yarn, ready for whatever you have in mind.

About alpenglowyarn

Engineer, maker of tools for yarn dyers and maker of other interesting things. I still do some natural dyeing, but not as a business. View all posts by alpenglowyarn

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