May 16, 2011

Washing Alpaca Fiber...

Cleaning alpaca fiber is not as hard as it seems...  It is always nice to have your fiber processed at a mini mill into clouds, rovings, top or yarn!  But  sometimes you need to wash it yourself, and it certainly is good to know how. 

Cleaning alpaca fiber in the kitchen sink or a basin is easy to do in small bunches if you have only a couple or even a few pounds of fiber, such as bought from the fair or online. This is also a flexible method if you urgently need a small amount for a spinning or felting project.  But, if you have literally pounds and pounds (and pounds) of this to wash,
the kitchen sink is obviously not the best option!  So, we have installed two top loading washing machines for this purpose.  However, it may be as good or better to have a series of deep utility sinks for washing and rinsing with a spinner at the end. Regardless, the basic tenets remain the same so these pictures are still worthy of viewing.

If you have ever handled raw alpaca fiber, you will find that it is missing the waxy lanolin that you may know from sheep wool.  Depending on the alpaca, there is some variation of the natural oils on the fiber so that some feel a little more slippery or greasy, but in general alpaca fiber is very clean with respect to oils.  So, you will find that raw alpaca fiber weight is much closer to the actual weight than for sheep wool (of which you can easily lose 30% by weight after washing!). 

However, another noticeable difference between alpaca and sheep fiber is the level of actual dirt - sand and grit - that is present.  The lanolin in sheep wool is what helps protect their skin from dirt.  In contrast, being from a more arid climate historically, alpacas LOVE to roll in dirt and try their best to drive it down to their skin to help ward of bug vermin (like the elephant 'dust baths' you may have seen on TV).   So, the intent in cleaning alpaca fiber vs washing (scouring) sheep wool is different.  It is good to remember this when cleaning the fiber.... 

Of course, the first thing you need to do is sort / skirt the fiber by grade.  Washing does not remove 2nd cuts or coarse fiber.  In fact, 2nd cuts are the number one thing to remove now since it tends to 'hide' in the fiber after washing. Then, unless the alpaca was on lovely green pastures with no extra hay or vegetation,  "monkey skirting" or picking out all the big pieces of vegetation and foreign matter is necessary.  If you are using baskets in your sink, then you just place the fiber in it.  If you are using washing machines or deep sinks, then it would be best to put the fiber in net laundry bags to make transfer easy. 

You don't want to overstuff the bags since you want the dirt to be able to move away from the fiber and fall to the bottom.  In the washing machine, you can fit a few such bags.  But, you don't want too many bags for the same reason you don't want to overstuff them.  In fact, I have found that while I sometimes use the medium level, most of the time I am using the small water level.  This is why a series of deep sinks would be just as effective -- mostly, except for the spin cycle.

Before you run off early to clean some fiber, *don't* until you know one critical thing.  Do not ever use agitation!  This will make a very large felt ball.  Unless you have a very large kitty, this will not be very useful.  This is also why a front loading washing machine will not work, since you cannot prevent its rotation. 

So, there are a some variations in the number of washes/rinses, the order of them, the soap used, the temperature used.  I will only give you what I know has worked or not worked for me.

In the kitchen sink, I performed 3 wash/rinse cycles (that's 6 water dumps!), removing the basket each time the water was added to prevent felting from the running water.  That's a lot of work for a couple of ounces, and I didn't really get the cleanliness I wanted.  In the washing machine, I started with a similar set of cycles, but running the spin cycles in between.  The spinning helped remove more dirty water, but I found a sticky residue that I could not consistently eliminate.

Well, it was obvious that residue was from the soap but why?  It was quickly apparent that temperature, time in the water, and amount of soap played a part.  I had started using a Synthropol substitute detergent available online and quickly transitioned to Dawn dishwashing soap.  Dawn was recommended by a number of people / blogs and I found that it was less likely to leave a residue.  Also, it was important to use very little soap.  In fact, at the end, I was only using a couple of teaspoons for the whole load, added after the drum was filled and swirled in by my hand. The temperature I found to be not as critical since I was not really removing any lanolin, and frankly my water heater just wasn't capable of that quick of a recovery.  The main reason that time in the water played a part was because of the temperature drop.  Besides a heavy soap / long-cold-soak for wool has done wonders for removing lanolin.   I have since also used Eucalan for its lavender scent and low rinse need.  So, I think the real thing to note about soap is to use very little of it!

Advice of Andrew of Spring Too Fibers was to do less washing and more rinsing.  I believe he suggested a wash-rinse-wash-rinse-rinse cycle.  I have since found that dust and small vegetative matter (VM) was still the biggest concern.  So, I often do a wash-rinse-rinse only or maybe use some of that Eucalan soap in the second wash period to avoid residue.

In a washing machine, you stop the agitation after it fills.  Then, add the fiber bags, pushing to soak it down.  After the soak, then move the dial to the spin cycle, and run the spin cycle once or twice to remove the water.  You will need to remove the bags before filling the drum again with water.

After the final rinse and spin cycle, you will need to dry the fiber on racks to allow air flow around the fiber.  They say don't touch the fiber, but I have found that it takes much longer to dry and dries into a brick if you don't gently pull the locks apart, teasing not pulling the fiber apart to fluff the fiber up.  One washer load will take 3-4 4x6 screens to spread out.   Then, don't touch until fully dry.  At this point you can rake the fiber further to separate it, pick at it further, card it, or send it out to be made into super clean rovings or clouds.

That was the "long version" of cleaning your fiber, so you understand the in's and out's and my "why's".  But, I think it would be a good thing to have a  quick summary.

  • Soak, don't agitate.
  • Use minimal soap to avoid residual film.
  • Use several rinses, to remove maximum dirt silt.
  • Like everything else, it's all in the prep: sort, skirt, and pick your fiber first. 
  • Have free space / extra water below to allow dirt to fall away.
  • Don't stuff the bags, and don't stuff the bins / drum / sinks.
  • Remove the fiber when adding water for each cycle.
  • Gently tease apart to fluff and spread out on racks to dry.

Just to throw out a couple of things.... I have not yet used a fiber tumbler, but I think it would work after sorting / skirting to help with the monkey skirting.  Just remember not to over stuff or there will be no room to open the locks and allow the VM to fall. You can find the mesh laundry bags online at very affordable prices; and keep an eye on Craigslist for deals on used top loading washing machines!

I know that there are other variations in process, especially if you are using a series of tubs or sinks.  That proceeds more like an assembly line from one tank to the next with no draining until the spinning at the end.  The details of this methodology will be another posting!

There is nothing like controlling every aspect to open your eyes to your fiber qualities!  For instance, another fallacy is alpaca "crimp" since it all "washes out" to an overall fluffiness.  In contrast, wool crimp remains after washing due to a difference in the actual fiber structure.  Again, that's another posting.  But if you don't believe me, look at the pictures of the washed CVM-Teeswater wool below versus the washed alpaca fiber above.

Good luck, and don't be afraid!  You can always wash again if you need. :)


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