Step 1: Shearing
In the spring of the year, once we are done with winter and the alpacas no longer need to be wearing their “sweaters”, we shear them. This lets the alpaca be cooler in the heat of summer, while allowing enough time for them to grow it all back by the time the weather starts getting cold again.
The best alpaca fiber for yarn comes from the blanket area of the alpaca. This fiber is the longest and most luxurious.
Step 2: Skirting
Now that we several pounds of raw alpaca fiber, we need to manually go through and pick out all of the debris, hay, straw and other organic material to throw away. This is a tedious process that takes a long time to do it right.
Step 3: Sorting
Next is to go through all of the locks of fiber and sort by length, quality, and sometimes color (depending on the animal).
Using fiber of a uniform length makes for a smoother, silkier yarn that has fewer small pieces that might make the yarn more “picky” and less comfortable to be worn against the skin. Smaller pieces are separated out to be used for socks or rugs.
Step 4: Washing
Alpacas love to take dust baths, so not it is time to get all of that dirt and dust out of the fiber.
The fiber is soaked several times in hot water with a mild detergent, taking special care not to agitate the fiber so it does not felt.
Step 5: Picking
Once the alpaca fiber has spent a few days drying, we run it through a device called a picker that both separates all of the locks of fiber and and knocks out any trapped dirt that may have been missed during washing.
What we have a this point is a huge ball of puffed up fiber that looks like cotton candy.
Step 6: Carding
Now that we have a big ball of clean, puffed up fiber, we need to get all of the individual strands of alpaca fiber going in the same direction. (This is kinda like combing long hair after towel drying).
A device called a drum carder is used to comb all of the fibers into the same direction. The fiber is now what is called roving, and is ready for the spinning process.
Step 7: Spinning
Now the fiber is ready for a spinning wheel, or drop spindle.
Twisting the fibers together results in a single ply of yarn. Plies can then be combined to make 2-ply, 3-ply or 4-ply yarn.
The entire process from shearing-to-shelf averages about 1 year.