Farm to Yarn: How to Process Raw Fiber Into Yarn

By Tracy
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Have you ever wondered how fiber from an animal ends up as a sweater? I can now do all the steps from home – if my spinning was better, and if I could knit a sweater – so I thought I’d share how it works.

When I first started spinning, I used roving. That’s fiber, all combed into one direction, then formed into strips that make it easy to pass into the spinning wheel. Charlie and I had seen raw fiber, and then roving. The big question was, “How does it get that way?”

The first step is to select the fiber. Wool is the most commonly used, but there are so many more! My favorite to spin is alpaca, but it tends to need to be blended with something, like wool, to add some body and stretch to the yarn. Llama can also be used, but I haven’t gotten my hands on any yet. Angora rabbits produce angora fiber. Easy enough. Angora goats produce mohair. Seems like they should maybe call them mohair goats, but no. There are also a lot of more “exotic” fiber, like silk, yak, buffalo. All kinds of cool stuff.

Sheep are pretty clean, compared to alpacas. Alpacas love a good dust bath. Either way, the fiber needs to be skirted and cleaned. During skirting, the fiber is spread out on a screen. All the yucky fiber, guard hairs, dirt, and grass/hay are removed. Well, as much as possible. Some people like to spin it right from this point, but I need it to be more organized, and I’m not a fan of my hands getting all sticky from the lanolin on wool.

Once the fiber is skirted, it’s time to wash it. It would be super easy if the fiber could be thrown in the washing machine, but that can’t happen. Too much agitation – which is very little – will cause the fiber to felt, and then there isn’t much that can be done with it. Instead, the fiber is put into nylon laundry bags, and submerged in a tub of hot water, with dish detergent. Allow the fiber to soak long enough for the water to soak all the locks of fiber and break down any dirt. After 30 minutes or so, drain the tub, gently squeeze water from the fiber, and do the whole thing over again. I find that three times is usually good. Each time the water will run cleaner. Some people will lay their fiber out at this point to dry. I’m in Washington, and it’s wet and cold right now. I run the fiber through just the spin cycle to remove a lot of the water, otherwise it may not actually get dry until spring.

When the fiber is dry, it can be carded. Once upon a time, people would use hand cards, brushing the fiber from one brush to the other, until it was fluffy and all facing the same direction. Some people still use hand cards today, but a drum carder makes it so much easier. I recently got an electric drum carder and it’s wonderful! I feed in cleaned fiber, and it comes out neat and ordered.

The carder can process quite a bit of fiber. When the big drum is full, the fiber can be separated horizontally, and the fiber just lifts off. This is called a batt, or batting. The batt can be used to make felt, spun directly from this point, or pulled into strips to spin.

Fiber is spun into singles on the bobbin. Using a Lazy Kate to hold individual bobbins, the singles can then be plied into what’s recognized as yarn. I typically use two singles, but some people will use three or four to make a chunkier yarn, or even ply strands of doubles, then ply those together.

When the yarn is spun, it’s removed from the bobbin, onto a Niddy Noddy. (Half the fun of the fiber world is the names of some of the equipment.) The Niddy Noddy also serves to help measure how long the yarn is. I’m not at that point yet, so for me it’s just a way to get the yarn off the bobbin in an organized fashion. The yarn is tied in several places to keep it from getting tangled, removed from the Niddy Noddy, then submerged into cold water. This “shocks” the yarn, and sets the twist.

That’s it! Once the yarn is dry, it’s ready to use. I have the most beautiful brown alpaca fiber (the fiber shown drying, above) that I was planning on sending to a fiber mill. This is my dream yarn, and now I get to do the full process right here. I will have a whole blanket, made from the fiber of animals I’ve actually met. It doesn’t get any cooler than that!