Selling and Processing
To help calculate the feasibility of your North American Paco-Vicuña fiber business, here is an overview of the steps of fiber processing after shearing to finished items. The initial step, skirting or grading, is always done by hand. The remainder you have the option of hand processing or sending to a mill. Gauging the time, knowledge, skills, and expenses involved are considerations necessary to sell your fiber at the stage of processing that best fits your farm.
Wild Vicuña on Chile’s Altiplano plateau
Source: FreeIMG.net Credit: pvdberg / pixabay.com
It is important to get the fleece off each animal in the best condition possible. The 2nd cuts create neps, or makes a yarn shed and pill, and should be minimized during shearing. Link to minimize 2nd cuts at shearing A longer fiber makes a stronger yarn, and if over 3” it can be spun into worsted spun yarn, that has higher durability. Fiber over 3” often gets a higher price than shorter fiber of the same micron. High levels of VM can be managed in your set-up, though some animals will still find a way to get hay, seed heads, etc. into their fleece. Links to managing aspects to minimize VM Removing excess VM creates a higher loss, or a lower quality product with remaining VM.
Some sections of a North American Paco-Vicuña fleece are not suitable for next to the skin products. Skirting is when you remove the bib and edges made up of coarse fiber that is not suitable for next to skin products, and are difficult or impossible to dye, felt, or spin. Some producers use it to stuff dog beds, garden mulch, or unfortunately have to throw it away along with other sections that are too heavily contaminated with manure and/or vegetative matter (VM). Though even a skilled shearer does some skirting while he or she shears, farmers must know how to properly skirt the fleece, whether selling a fleece to a hand processor or sending it to a mill. When skirting, the farmer also shake out excess vegetative matter and/or dirt from the full fleece and dispose of any 2nd cuts that may be present. Ask your mentor to show you how to properly skirt a fleece.
Though North American Paco-Vicuña trends towards being very uniform, the fleeces still have some variations within them. To produce higher quality products, all fiber processed as a batch needs to fall within a single grade. Micron and staple length are the aspects used to determine the grade, and color is important for final designs. Sorting the fiber allows the fiber producer to command a higher wholesale price or to produce higher quality in the value-added products themselves. Read the Standards for Fiber Products and Suggestions for fiber use link.
Most fiber artists prefer a skirted fleece that is as intact as possible to give them greater control in their work. This is true in particular to make it easier for hand processing. Sorted fiber will cater to larger producers, or fiber artists that will rely on a mill to do some steps of the processing. You may also choose to process them a bit further for a higher price/oz. There are costs up front to have a mill process it. Until you sell it, those funds are tied up. Doing it by hand yourself takes time and skills, but can be very rewarding.
Different Markets and Levels of Processing
You can not compare one-of-a-kind handmade items with machine made and/or mass produced, whether you look at what is a fair price, uniformity and perfection of the execution, or who your consumer is. There are things you can pay attention to and create when hand processing, that machines can not. Machines will work much faster than your hands ever will, and with efficiency can make cheaper products at certain volumes. Machines may also do part of the process, in particular washing and dehairing, create roving, or yarn, and the rest by hand. Do you want to sell finished items, or provide the fiber to those that do? Depending on where you sell, you may want to have a few finished items made of your yarn for display even if you sell roving and yarn, to give buyers inspiration, or ability to touch it and understand the level of luxury they can create.
Hand processing is wonderful but can be time consuming. Is hand processing the best use of time and money in your set-up? When you process by hand, you tend to get a slightly higher yield, and less broken fibers. There will always be loss from washing out dirt and sebaceous wax as well as getting rid of vegetative matter, dry tips on cria fleeces, and guard hairs. Each processing step adds refinement to the fiber and makes it more valuable. If you have the skills or want to learn them, hand processing is great for small herd farmers or for one-of-a-kind individual fleeces without enough matching fiber for a batch large enough for mill processing. One-of-a-kind fleeces are also a good choice if you want to sell raw fleece to fiber artists. Likely your hand processing will focus on finished items and the rather small heirloom market that demands higher prices.
Hand Processing - Combed Top for Spinning
Photo: Thomas Victor
In a mill, loss can vary greatly depending on machines used, the condition of the fiber, and the size of the batch being processed. However, every machine used does contribute to the overall loss. For instance, the dehairer (also called fiber separator) and the carding machine accumulate some fiber that sticks to their surfaces instead of being sent through. Roughly the same amount sticks to the surfaces regardless of the size of a batch. This is why there is typically a lower percentage loss on a larger mill batch.
If you want the mill to return the stuck fiber, make that clear when you place a processing order. This is extra labor for the mill, and may otherwise be left on machines if the color and fiber characteristics are close enough to their next order. You may have to pay for machine cleaning to remove it.
Most mills offer the options of
cloud – washed and dehaired fiber. Can be blended with other fibers for spinning and felting. Hand combing, to separate and align long fibers for worsted style spinning.
batts – often short fiber, carded to sheets. Felting.
roving – carded and ready to be spun. Besides the joy of spinning, some types of yarn can only be hand spun.
yarn – on cones or skeined, sometimes option of washed and labeled skeins. Ready for knitting, crochet, and weaving.
Depending on the mill; felting, knitting, or weaving may also be available, do it yourself, or you can collaborate with a designer or fiber artist for production of finished items.
Products from Jefferson Farms
Photo: Jane Levene
The size of your herd and amount of yearly fiber production will be a practical factor in determining your business model for the fiber aspect. The other aspects that we covered above are things where you may have to learn new skills, consider your own time and labor vs tie up of funds for mill processing, establish collaborations, and find marketing options for this luxury fiber. You may start small with hand processing, but there likely will be a breaking point where you switch to outsourcing some steps.