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.