Category Archives: Alpaca Fibers

The felted, matted mess

imageLast year, I purchased a beautiful Suri alpaca rose-grey fleece from a local farmer. It was the most beautiful natural colorway I had ever seen in a fleece, with hints of autumn-rose and oatmeals and grey. I handled the fleece with extra care, checking the temperature of the wash and rinse water carefully, handling it gently, quietly contemplating at each phase of the wash-rinse cycle all that might be made from these gorgeous fibers. And then I did something stupid.

I don’t like that word stupid, but it’s the word that really works here. Fiber demands its process. You can’t rush fiber. You can’t tell it to hurry up and dry or get clean. You can’t shear an alpaca and make socks within the next five minutes. If you could, we crazy fiber nuts would find something else to fawn over.

Eager to begin carding, I decided to place the washed fleece in a pillow case and put it on air dry in the dryer for a good 15 minutes. This is something I had done with other fleeces and without issue, but I did not check the air temperature in my eagerness to dry the fleece. Anyone who works with fiber knows the most fundamental of rules:

Heat + agitation = felt.

By the time I realized my error, I lifted a matted piece of felt the size of a corgi out of the dryer. And yes, there were real tears.

I tried in vain to make something useful from the felted monstrosity. I even hung on to the fiber for months, hoping I would come up with something useful to somehow make up for the error. But what I realized was that this felt was destined to compost, as beautiful as it was. And that I had learned a lesson worth 10 times the price of the fleece; that process is important and, in instances like this, vital.

It’s so easy to try to take the short-cut, or to give up when someone tries to throw a wrench in your plans, but when you look at life as a process of growing, of moving from this raw, dirty fleece to a clean, organized useful yarn, it’s easier to see that those little bumps in the road aren’t there to deter you, but to help you broaden your awareness.

There’s a reason Gandhi was so wise; he was a hand-spinner! ūüôā

Things to do when not farming…

The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of

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Identifying cool mushrooms…

June.¬†It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning.¬†An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:

  • Tend to the travelling orchard
  • Improve spinning technique
  • Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
  • Experiment with¬†natural dyes
  • Learn about medicinal herbs
  • Practice grafting techniques
  • Volunteer at school or public garden
  • Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
  • Learn old-fashioned candy-making
  • Focus on food preservation techniques:
    • Pressure canning
    • Smoking meats
    • Drying
    • Fermentation
  • Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
  • Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
  • Explore niche or value added markets
  • Take a botany class
  • Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic¬†farmers and gardeners
  • Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
  • Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
  • Re-read Edible Forest Gardens

The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!

Tender leanings

On the way out to NY last week, I stopped near Port Huron¬†for coffee before¬†the trek through Canada. At the counter of a Tim Horton’s (that’s right, because, well, Canada), a young man behind the counter asked about my scarf.

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The scarf¬†is a beautifully knitted infinity scarf made by my mother-in-law, with our fiber. And amid this¬†industry-hardened region of the thumb, an 18-year-old boy who has never seen an alpaca, leaned forward over the counter and said, “Your scarf¬†looks so soft.”

“Do you want to touch it?”

“May I?”

Now, normally, this might feel awkward, leaning forward toward a total stranger in the middle of a chain restaurant, so that he can feel my scarf, but something told me this kid was genuinely interested in fiber.

As his thumb ran across the corded alpaca and his eyes met mine with a sparkle.

photo (2)“Is an alpaca like a llama?” The questions began. And before long, we were talking about the¬†process of taking fiber and turning it into scarves. Leaving, I ran my own fingers across the soft fibers and thought about the¬†process.¬†And how the process is an ongoing story. And how that story impacts more than just the animal or the farmer. It’s the connections between, whether the winding off of the skein by the hand-spinner, or the carefully knitted scarf by the knitter, or the person inspired by the tactile beauty of the finished scarf, this process inspires conversation.

And hopefully, for at least one person in southern Michigan, it inspires something more. An opportunity to explore a world he may not have known existed. For this gal, from a tiny town in northern Michigan, it afforded a similar impact. This whole journey forward is about exploration, adventure, and expanding our world.

Special thanks to Cindy Graves for the lovely scarf!

Letter to the Greater Schoharie Valley

The woman in the photograph is my great, great grandmother, Rose Render.¬†She lived onphoto 3 (1) a farm in middle Michigan, raising her boys and her livestock on her own, without the help of modern conveniences like electricity and running water. My mother¬†remembers going to¬†Grandma Rose’s for dinner, enjoying chicken raised on the farm and processed by our grandmother’s own hands. My mother described her visits to the farm as travelling back through time. The tiny, sturdy farmhouse walled off to the approach of a fast-paced modern era.

I assume the desire to farm runs deep. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, save for that year I wanted to run for president in the seventh grade.¬†Some of my earliest memories involve planting radishes and pumpkins in a garden beside my mother’s house, beside the neat rows of cherry trees that stretched out for miles in three directions.

We’ve faced hardships as farmers. We’ve lost animals to predators and had to learn to harvest our own birds for meat. We’ve had animals get out of the paddock to explore the lake or visit town. Last year, we lost nearly 200 apple trees planted with love, by hand, to a brutal spell of unprecedented cold winter that¬†followed an equally brutal drought. I’ve wept in the soil for these losses and questioned many, many times why we do this thing called farming.

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The answer always comes back to the successes. Grafting apple varieties on the brink of extinction in order to preserve this unique living cultural landscape. The raising of sheep, of alpacas, of learning to shear by hand, of washing these fleeces with great care and following this education down to carding each, and learning to spin so that the farm could support raising these beautiful animals. The reward in each of these feats far outweighs any set-backs.

Farming has also taught me to follow my instincts, to see failures as opportunities for growth, to find strength in vulnerability, and to be bold, despite the risks.  And this next bold move has taken us down some narrow roads Рexploring the limits of our own fears and anxiety as we venture forth from Michigan to New York. Last fall we sold our house imageand have been staying with family as we make trips out east to locate a farm where we can finally put down permanent roots.

It has taken several trips out, but we finally feel comfortable¬†in saying we would like to¬†land¬†in the region of the Schoharie valley,¬†somewhere between Canajoharie to the¬†undulating, aged¬†mountains that rise up from Roxbury. And we’re seeking help. We’ve met with farmers, and are currently putting out feelers for any farmer¬†or land owner who may be considering selling their farm. We are hoping to locate a farm with a house (we love older homes and are not afraid of renovations) with as few as four acres (more¬†will be put to good use). A barn is not necessary, but a barn or outbuildings are a plus.

IF you know of anyone who may be able to help us, please feel free to share our email address healingtreefarm@gmail.com. We appreciate any help and look forward to becoming NY farmers this year! Thank you._o4xWwwKByO91WVxwu-cQcT7gkqweBxIjtCdCjO2G2U,NuqeJjwABcK9WcVXgvNf4Tkear9KK_FbgJqF45848_s

A Simple Twist that Launched the Modern Era

imageI had never given it much thought previously, but¬†on numerous occasions at the farm, I’ve found myself in need of rope or string and had to twist long grasses as a temporary fix. This is likely how our understanding of the strength gained by twisting fibers grew until we began¬†moving from plant materials like hemp, cotton, and flax to shorter animal fibers like those that come from sheep or alpaca.

That simple twist increases the¬†durability of the fibers considerably by allowing fewer movement between (or increasing pressure and friction on) individual fibers. There’s a whole science to the ideal twist per fiber type, if you’re into that sort of thing. And to take it a step further, this simple act of twisting and plying fibers yielded some pretty significant inventions including cloth, rope, handles, sails, rigging, junkyarnnetting, etc.¬†Try to imagine our lives without it.

Due to the recent move and our temporary living arrangement, I’m not spinning on the
wheel, nor am I processing fiber. I do, however, have the drop spindle and make time each night for some twisting and whirling which never feels like an isolated action, but one handed down generation to generation to generation, a reminder of our ingenuity as humans and our innate desire to remain connected, whether to our animals, to one another, to our ancestors, or to the earth.

 

A day in the life…

We are a family of six. That translates to two kids per parent. Factor in a dog, cat, and four alpacas, and meal planning/preparation,¬†and you can see how a day goes by very quickly for our household. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love farming, but this kind of farming is unique for us. We do not live at the property and without electricity and running water, we have to make daily trips hauling materials¬†in during the winter months over-top heavy snowfall and no matter the weather, and as often as two to three times daily.

photo 1Water is carried in three-gallon drums. We fill it at home and carry the water uphill through the snow because there is no way for our car to traverse the drive this time of the year. It’s good cardio, but not half as good as the 50lb bags of pellets or the even heavier dense hay we carry bale by bale.

A hay shortage this year meant we could not stock up as we had done previously, but thankfully we found a really good supplier just 12 miles from the farm. Today, we’ll haul in another load, bale by bale, through the snow, uphill the whole way. I’m just grateful it’s good grass hay (harder to find with such high demand fphoto 3or alfalfa mixed bales in our area).

Yesterday, was a straw day. We stack two bales on the Prius roof once a week for bedding. The straw is light and not as difficult to maneuver, but takes time, like anything, when traversing heavy snow.

The daily tasks at the farm include the removal of the evening dung-pile (it’s amazing what an alpaca bottom can produce in a day), watering of the animals, a daily ration of pellets (a treat and supplement), hay feed, and feeding the cat, who has taken up residence with the alpacas. They form a harmonious grouping. Cats and alpacas pair well together and the cat keeps the mice away from the feed and I often find the cat and the alpacas nestled together in the deep straw bedding.

Next comes the dumping of the collected dung outside of the barn, then a walk around the perimeter to ensure the fence is in good order. Usually a few nuzzles and snuggles are exchanged and that concludes the first round.

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Another aspect of having alpacas is the grooming. We do not groom their fiber, but we do keep their nails clipped, which is not a very pleasant process for the farmer, unaccustomed to wrestling a 200-lb animal during its routine foot-care.

This summer, I learned to¬†administer both IM and SQ injections for vitamins and vaccines. Also not my favorite task, but part of the routine care of the animals. There’s the shearing, but that’s a biennial event for Suris, and thankfully one we can hire out (though we successfully sheared two on our own – I may be slightly stretching the use of the word “successful” in this instance).

Farming is not for the faint of heart. And farming in this fashion is reminiscent of something older. At times I am working in complete darkness, by feel, and other times I find myself breathing standing before the large looming barn with the feeling time has stopped in this place altogether. It’s a peaceful feeling and I am grateful this special place¬†has been¬†preserved for many future generations to experience and enjoy.

A Woman’s Work

I was just reading an excerpt from¬†Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by E. Wayland Barber and was

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Drop spindle demonstration at the farm. Photo by the lovely Holly Pharmer

struck that though weaving and spinning were developed over thousands of years by women,¬†the¬†mechanization of fiber processing was developed primarily by ¬†men. Barber’s explanation of this is simple. In every culture world-wide, women are the principle child-rearers, meaning any co-existing work must be compatible with the act of raising children.

It reminded me of my frustrations with the lack of recognition of women in permaculture and resonated very closely with me as a mother of four. No matter how finely tuned your craft, it can be overshadowed by those with more time to experiment and labor on other tasks. Or maybe better put, it represents a kind of natural division of labor we see echoed throughout the human timeline.

There is also much discussion about the amount of labor that goes into producing a single product or garment, something we’ve seen shifted significantly since the introduction of mechanized processing. Whether tending to the livestock, waiting for a child to bathe, or as something to do imageas the day drew to an end, fiber flowed through the fingers of our foremothers at every tick of the clock. It was both necessity and something more.

Barber also describes locating twists in the fiber of woven artifacts dating back thousands of year, a sign of shared labor:

“We know… that women sometimes helped each other with their weaving projects… because we sometimes find the wefts in ancient cloth crossed in the middle of the textile. This can only have been caused by two people handing the spools of weft back and forth to each other as they wove simultaneously on different parts of the same cloth.”

Fiber work may have been one of the common threads holding together the social network of these ancient women as it does today. It was an art handed down from one generation of women to the other and remaining artifacts weave a story not only of the technical aspects of weaving and spinning, but of the cooperative aspects. And not to overshadow the menfolk- They did their part, in supplying materials for weaving and in aiding in animal husbandry and shearing.

So, while it isn’t fair that so much of women’s history, whether in fiber or in¬†farming, is overshadowed by our male counterparts,¬†it isn’t that the stories are lost to history. These stories exist in the small twists and vivid colors of¬†an historical tapestry woven throughout time and beckoning our every sense- ¬†as much¬†tangible¬†as an¬†ethereal kind of whisper echoing throughout time.