While our process begins with fibers, the fibers we use begin with a relationship between animals and farmers. These hardworking Americans go against the grain and follow the ancient tradition of carefully raising and tending animals that grow this renewable resource on their backs. The farmers do so out of a love of animals, a dedication to the environment, and in hope that there are still people out there who want to say "no" to an acrylic sweater in favor of something natural. We've been working with them for years processing fiber for them, and now offer to buy fiber from them in hopes that they will keep tending their adorable herds of fluff, and let us turn the fruits of their labor into something brand new.
Some of our fiber starts on our own farm - shorn once per year is Echoview Farm's own herd of alpacas and mohair goats (we also keep bees and grow dye plants.) The careful keeping of these creatures and plants gives us a deeper respect for the tireless farmers who carry their bags of fiber through our doors.
We work predominantly with wool, alpaca, and mohair - all fibers which are collected after a sheep, alpaca, and goat are shorn once a year (twice a year for mohair goats). We also incorporate silk, organic cotton, tencel (made from eucalyptus wood pulp), and recycled yarn and fabric scraps into our yarns and products. Every fiber has a unique story and origin, and we make sure that we know them. We work directly with farmers, as well as sourcing fiber, and sometimes yarn, from organizations that have been pooling these natural resources and cleaning and processing these fibers for years. We like to know where everything comes from, and are always happy to share a fiber's origin story.
Just like humans have different types and qualities of the hair that grows on our heads, different fiber animals produce fleeces of different quality. We sort fiber by quality so that it will end up in a product that suits its hand and properties, and we make sure that no fiber ends up going to waste.
"Processing" is a simple word that actually covers a lot of different steps. Some fiber we receive has already been cleaned and is ready to spin, but the fiber that comes from farms, our own and others, has to go through a multi-step process before it is ready to be spun. Here is a quick rundown of the process:
- Tumbling & Skirting - This is where we remove a lot of dirt and vegetable matter from the fleeces before washing them. The tumbler spins the fiber around outside so that the dirt can fall loose, while skirting happens on a large skirting table by hand. Removing as much gunk as possible in these two steps helps us to have a better final product. Some fleeces are cleaner than others, and some animals have finer fiber than others, so during this step we also take time to grade the fiber depending on quality and decide what its end use will be.
- Scouring - This is where fiber is washed to remove dirt or grease. We have a Kiwi Scouring Unit, comprised of 2 wash units and a drying unit. Each wash unit has 2 wash bays, and 5 rinse bays. Making sure we get the fiber really clean in the first 2 stages is important because it helps us with machine maintenance further down the processing chain. If fiber is not cleaned after the first wash and dry, we will wash it again.
- Opening - After washing and drying, the fibers have felted so they need to be opened back up into a soft fluffy mass before they get lined up for spinning. They are opened up and returned to their fluffy state, and may even be put through a Dehairer, or Cloud Machine, used for the removal of any guard hairs in the fiber, as well as some vegetable matter that might be clinging on. This machine produces a heavenly cloud of fluff ready for the next step.
- Carding - This is a process by which fibers are opened and straightened in preparation for spinning. They go in one end of the carding machine in a disorganized cloud, and come out the other end a straight length of roving. Our carding machines can also process fibers into wide batts of fiber for felting, or a thick cotton core-spun rug yarn. Depending on the quality of the fiber, this is the time when it continues on to become yarn, or stops being processed and turns into a felted product, like a dryer ball, or stays as roving for hand spinning.
- Pin Drafting - Once a fiber has been determined fine enough and clean enough to make into yarn, the roving is run through a Pin Drafter so that the aligned fibers in the roving are combed and combined again for further alignment and have the most consistancy possible.
Spinning yarn is the process by which fibers are drafted out (drawn out) from roving into a thinner diameter while twist is simultaneously applied. The amount of twist and how thin the fibers are stretched depends on the desired weight of the end product. Sometimes we create a wide yarn with low twist that stands alone as a single ply yarn, but often the twist is tight enough that we ply the yarn back on itself to balance out the twist and create a yarn with two or more ends wound together. Here at the mill, we can make a very very chunky rug yarn for hand knitting, all the way down to a yarn strong and fine enough to be knit on our industrial knitting machine.
It is hard to know where to place the "design" paragraph because everything we do is by design. There are the beautiful designs done by our designers before she makes our knitted products, and designs done by Grace Gouin when she thinks up a new knit kit, but the design really starts before then- Amalia Fragoso knows what every bag of fiber is doing from the moment it comes in the door. She designs the yarn itself, and then our designers, and you, the knitter at home, take it from there. Design is the least mechanical part of the process, but it is the lifeblood of everything we do. It is the inspiration and drive that keeps us pushing to get the fiber from the farm to the finished piece in your hands. It starts with a little research and the testing of a micron count from a bag of fiber freshly shorn, and ends when we put the shipping label on the box and hand it to the FedEx guy.
Upstairs from the spinning machines lives a Stoll Computerized Knitting Machine. This machine works with finer yarn than hand knitting, and while the process is completely different than hand knitting - the structures are the same. Our designer and programmer sits and creates computer programs based on her designs, sets up the machine with yarn, and knits down fully fashioned clothing, home goods, and accessories. Fully fashioned means that the pieces already have the shaping, typically associated with hand knitting, knit into the patterns by the machine itself. Since she does not need to then cut away scraps of fabric to make the arm holes, for example, means that this type of knitting vastly reduces waste made by cutting and sewing. This lack of waste, paired with the fact that about 50% of the power for this machine is solar, makes her designs a step forward in sustainable manufacturing. This process, like all of our other processes, takes a nuanced understanding of fiber, an eye for design, and a lot of practice.
Hand knitting yarns are wound into skeins and tagged, ready to go to a knitter or be paired with a pattern for a knit kit. Machine knit products require a lot more leg work on the finished side of things. Blankets and many accessories are knit ready to go, but garment pieces (sleeves and such) must be attached using a specialized piece of equipment called a Linking Machine. Each unfinished loop is caught on an individual hook and bound off by the machine, and then all yarn ends must be carefully woven in by hand. Then finished pieces are washed, steamed, or blocked depending on their fiber content.
If you're interested in developing a custom yarn, selling your fleeces and fiber to the mill, or accessing our felting machines, please fill out the form below and you will contact Amalia directly - she can fill you in on our policies for processing, minimums, and costs.
(She also loves to swap cute dog stories - don't say we didn't warn you)