Thursday, December 15, 2011

Otepopo Fibre Mill

A few people have remarked that my work space(s) resemble a ‘mini’ mill. My daughter claims this applies to the whole house. The ‘Otepopo Mill’ has actually been here for a while. The mill worker keeps long and unsociable hours. The pay rate is poor but the conditions aren’t bad and she can help herself from the fridge anytime.
The aspects are pleasant with plenty of birdlife and some feline company.

                                                       View from the dyehouse
It is a spinning, dyeing and weaving mill predominantly for alpaca, llama, wool and silk fibres.
                                            Here is a little guided tour:-
                                                The Woolroom
Raw fibres purchased from local breeders and growers go into the raw materials store at the back of the garden, which happens to be the 1960’s typical kiwi wooden sleepout.
                                                  Fibre soaking in the washtub
From here it visits the small laundry area next to the kitchen for washing before laying on racks to dry on our covered deck area (which is also the skein winding area in good weather and skein drying area in bad weather).
The mill sublets the laundry to other house ‘occupants’ who sometime express dissatisfaction with the appearance of their clean clothes (added alpaca fibres create fluffy shirts!)
                                              the carding machine
Once the fibre is dry it goes into the carding department for picking (opening) and drum carding on the mill’s very modern electric carder. Sometimes the fibres are then hand combed if a really smooth preparation is desired. The fibres may be dyed after the washing process if blended colour batts are required. The mill blends these colours to specific colour recipes recorded in a handmade book (made by the Oamaru Bookbinder).
                                          Rustic carding room and dyehouse
                                          colour diary
From there the fibres continue to the spinning room (which is fairly mobile depending on where the spinning operator happens to have her wheel). The fibre is elongated and twisted in the old fashioned way using pedal power. The spinner has a number of machines available to her including an electric spinner mostly used for plying when her legs feel particularly tired or if she has run out of empty bobbins on the other wheels.
After 25 years practice she can maintain quite good speed and precision. She has worn out the flyer of one wheel.

Once spun and plied the yarn is skeined from the bobbins.
a basket of suri yarns

The fibres have a second trip to the laundry for a warm gentle hand wash before either reskeining for sale or moving onto the weaving department. Prior to this they may be dyed either with natural plant dyes or synthetic wool dyes.

box of natural dyed alpaca yarns

mordanting yarn

Natural dyeing involves some preparation before dye days as the mill worker needs to collect and chop, steep and simmer raw plant material such as gum leaves, onion skins or flax and also mordant the yarns prior to dyeing. Purchased extracts for the brighter reds, blues and yellows do make her life a little easier. She will spend some time in the dye lab testing plant colours and tweaking her dye recipes since each year the conditions the plants were grown in will affect the colour outcome.
Although dyeing with synthetic dyes is quicker, her methods of applying colour to the skeins requires patience and careful planning.

Some locally spun alpaca (from a much bigger mill) is brought in to dye.
The mill has a casual worker who for the price of some lunch is a dab hand with the electric skeiner and together they can dye10 - 15 kilos of yarn in a day.
Whichever method is used, once dyed the yarns go back to the laundry for washing, drying and finally reskeining. This may be followed by reballing for the weaving department or labeling for the store, website, market etc.

Ashford Jack loom

                                                          Mecchia 8 shaft Dobby
Once in the weaving department the yarns are wound onto shuttles and also onto the looms’ back beams for weaving into shawls, wraps, scarves and fabric lengths.
The mill does some custom work.
Three floor looms are used which can create a myriad of different fabric options.
A whole day may be spent warping just one of them. The biggest flying shuttle loom lives in The Oamaru Textile Emporium and I will take you on a virtual tour of that premises later in the blog.

The Mecchia flying shuttle loom at Tote.

Once fabric comes off the loom it goes back to the laundry for washing. Before washing any skips are mended, fabric is ‘crabbed’, fringes are twisted, and ends are darned in.
Once washed fabric is pressed.

 Not bad for a part time mill worker and her mill cat.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tweed fabric samples

 This sample is sett at 16 ends per 2.5cms and I think it could even benefit from being set at 20ends. The yarns are hand dyed and handspun yarns woven in a broken herringbone twill.
 I tried a few different coloured wefts. I like how the tweediness of the yarns is apparent in this fabric.
I also did some natural dyeing today. Visit my other blog for the results.
One day I will make a tweed fabric/yarns from scratch using natural dyes instead of the acid dyes, need to get the colours really saturated first.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Alpaca yarns


About five years ago Andy an alpaca breeder from Flagstaff alpacas in Dunedin started taking his cream alpaca fibre down to Milton Spinning mill to get made into yarns for knitters. Mostly spun into 8ply with some machine knitting weight yarn.
I bought some of the undyed yarn from that original batch and began dyeing it. The yarn took the colour beautifully and retained its shine and soft handle. Rosehip

So we have created several repeatable alpaca yarn weights such as the 4ply, 8ply and blends and now dye the colours in 1-1.6kilo dye lots. You will see that code numbers are beginning to appear on our labels so that we can record the individual dyelots. This makes life easier when people have run short of a yarn in a specific colour.
Every colourway has a name. Some of the early colourways are no-longer produced. In the first year of production the colours were not recorded whereas now I have a lot more repeatable colours which are carefully documented.
I will discuss the problems of exact colour matching and repeatability in another blogpost.

Colours I enjoy dyeing include ‘The Wild’ series with ‘wild rice’ and ‘glacier’ being the first in the series. Wild Rice Glacier

‘Poison’ came about because the colours reminded me of ‘deadly nightshade’ flowers and ‘foxgloves’ which both can do you harm if ingested. Poison is one of the more complex colourways to achieve as the colours are muted by mixing carefully, yet I didn’t want to end up with too much brown. Poison

‘Flamenco’ and ‘all that jazz’ are exuberant reds and pinks. When these go into the dyebath I have to be careful of the next colourway as they always leave a little residue of red somewhere in the pans. They always take the longest to ‘cook’ too. I try to get the dye liquid to go completely clear after each dyebath so that I can reuse the hot water for the next colourway.


Stipple above reflects my love for blue and a deep cedar brown.

Lookout in my blog for a peep into my dye studio and a dye day.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

tweed yarns from scratch

I love working with these yarns but they are very time-consuming to make. The spinning is a real pleasure as the fibres are so well carded in the blending process.
To repeat a yarn I weigh out the fibre colours to a recipe which is recorded in my book with a sample of the yarn. So today I'm repeating a yarn colour.

The fibres are predyed New Zealand Romney colours from Tally ho carding, with white. The yarn has a dominant lilac shade but with smaller amounts of bright contrasts such as raspberry pink and jade.

Then I handmix the clumps of colour roughly. The carder is going to do all the work of blending, but mixing at this stage cuts down the number of passes needed.

The fibres are spread in a thin film on the tray so I can still see the metal base through them.

I use the carder at full speed but don't let clumps of fibre through as that can jam the drums and damage the pins.

First pass you can see the colours still as quite distinct areas and the batt below is still uneven in colour.

I do sometimes spin my batts at this stage and it does make a very pretty yarn with small shots of the individual colours.

So the batts are stripped down into smaller pieces and fed back into the carder for a second carding. Sometimes a third mixing and carding is required.

The finished batts with yarn spun from a previous carding session. The spun yarn always makes the colour appear darker so these batts will spin into a virtually identical yarn. Since I need about a kilo of this yarn for my weaving I have a few more batts to mix and spin.

Here's another colourway blended twice and ready to spin.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A rare event and a ‘waulked’ tweed fabric sample.

Finished fabric.

It began with a few snow flakes.

Last week was different weather wise, beginning on Sunday afternoon with a front that brought a few flakes of snow which gradually became flurries. This is a very unusual event for Oamaru as we are at sea level. Since I live 20 minutes away from the town I left the shop early when the snow began falling in earnest.

By the early evening the whole landscape had changed. In 13 years of living here I haven’t seen this much snow on the ground. So fearful that it would be gone by morning we went out in the dark to throw a few snowballs and enjoy the still quietness of the snow falling.

We did get into work the next morning although it took more than double the time and we were very glad to have the 4 wheel drive. The roads were very empty and also icy so it was a slow cautious drive. By the afternoon it had nearly all turned to a wet slush. Good news for those few early lambs though who have enjoyed warm sunny days following the event. Icy empty road at 8.00 am in the morning.

I also ‘wauked’ my handspun tweed sampler. This involved washing, rinsing, squeezing, wringing, and generally pressing, squishing and agitating the fabric carefully in my case by hand until it closed up, began to develop a slightly fluffy surface (raised nap) and generally felt like a more substantial piece of cloth. I periodically pulled the edges to keep the selvages straight.
The broken twill pattern becomes less obvious and more intergrated into the colours if you compare it with the piece still on the loom. Before - fabric still on loom.

Finally I pressed the fabric firmly with a dry iron to compress it and bring back a little of the sheen. I did this hard press on both sides 3 times and it still wouldn’t do it any harm to have a steam press prior to tailoring. Now to choose which colour combination I’m going to use for the yardage. Waulking fabric by hand or foot on your own is such a lengthy process. Yet there is no company here in NZ that I know of, who could do some fabric for me. Oamaru ironically had a full woollen spinning and weaving and processing mill which produced all sorts of fabrics, established in the late 1880’s. The mill still makes yarns for the carpet industry. But production of fabrics has long gone.

Next time I’ll blog about how I developed the colours by mixing different amounts of pre dyed fibre together before spinning. The fibres in this fabric are mostly 60% New Zealand Romney and 30% alpaca. In the photo the yarns show the sheen of even as little as 30% alpaca.
Romney sheep are a main line breed here important for the meat and breeding industry with a long history and are thoroughly adapted to cope with climate. They are spread throughout NZ. The fibre has lost some popularity with handspinners over the last 10 years but it is such a versatile and easy fibre to prepare and spin. Not overly greasy to wash, or delicate, with good length staple. I recommend it for beginners to cut their spinning teeth. It suits the type of carding cloth most of the NZ commercial craft carding companies have on their machines and so you can purchase some good prepared sliver for a reasonable price if you don’t want all the work of washing, carding etc yourself.
Handspun yarns used in the fabric.

In fact my next fabric utilises Romney sliver from Tally ho carding here in Otago. I’m using their basic predyed colours with a few hand dyed ones of my own which saves me a little time in what is a lengthy process.
The more I weave with my own yarns the less I’m attracted by commercial threads. I can custom the threads and colours so precisely to my fabric design ideas. So any company out there considering making a really mini mechanized mill to fit a handspinners pocket, that won’t cost me $NZ 100,000, plus? Something with a couple of spindles maybe? I’m sure there would be a market for it. I want the next step up from handspinning but not quite the size of a mini mill. Any ideas?