Like most people, Tracy started with 3 alpacas. Unfortunately (or fortunately), alpacas are addictive and she now has 37 (including Shadow who was acquired and has his own diary). The majority of our herd are white as this is the main colour fibre in most of our yarn. Other fleece shades are blended at the mill to produce our array of fabulous natural colours.
Most UK alpacas are sheared annually in the spring. Our herd are sheared in May so that there is enough time to grow a new layer of fleece before the next winter. This is carried out by a professional crew who are quick, efficient and kind. Tracy’s herd don’t like it at all, considering the process to be an affront to their dignity!
Each fleece is individually examined, graded and hand prepared before being bagged ready for the mill. Although we remove as much debris as possible, the fibre needs to be scoured – this is the industry word for washing. The scourer washes at 65ᶷC and it takes roughly 10 minutes for a 20kg batch to pass through it; as there are three baths (one with the scouring liquor and two rinse), this removes all the dirt and dust from the scales in the fibre.
Once it is dry it is then blended to ensure an even colour through the yarn – yarns that are made of multiple colours (like Rain and Mist) often need a second blending before carding to ensure that there are no patches of darker fibre.
The carder evens all the fibres out and adds another layer of blending. Alpaca is quite a slippery fibre and because it is so fine, has to be processed quite slowly so that the fibre doesn’t break or waft off into the air.
Our yarn used to be woollen spun, but the latest batch has been worsted spun. The difference is how the individual fibres are combed to create a sleek, silky texture which is exceptionally soft to touch. It is then wound onto bobbins – these look like yarn but are very delicate and would break under pressure.
The bobbins are then put onto the spinning frame which has 96 spindles. The fibre is spun into ‘singles’; a term for the individual strands in each ball. This important process determines the thickness of the yarn that we offer for sale.
Once the yarn is spun into singles it is then plied together to create the right thickness. This is not to be confused with 2-ply or 3-ply as a descriptive term for other brands of yarn.
The plied yarn is spun onto cones before being washed, dried and prepared in hanks; then returned to us as skeins.
Tracy designs with an excel spreadsheet; this makes sense to her as she can allocate each stitch before picking up the needles and seeing if it works in practice. The pattern is then prepared as a word document and sent to the tech editor for grading. Once returned, a second version of the same garment is sent to one of our sample knitters to make a second one in a different colour and size to check the pattern works.
Our sample knitters will start work on knitting the garments, the patterns are finalised and checked by our tech editor before the collection is ready for the annual photo shoot. Once the images are ready the patterns are printed and we take yarn and designs on the road to see you at the next knitting show!”