February 02, 2011

By: Carol Karsten

Fiber Sorting: Why and How It Works

Maximizing the Profit from Your Annual Fiber Harvest

It’s shearing day. Do those three words make you want to click your heels together three times and find you have missed the day entirely, or is it the most important day of your year? After all, as a fiber producer, shearing day is harvest day! As an apprentice fiber sorter, my goal is to work with other fiber producers to make shearing day not only a much-awaited event but also one from which fiber producers can actually count on extracting the maximum value-added from the wonderful fleece of their alpacas.

Why should we sort our fleeces? The simple fact is that combining different grades of fiber in one product will produce less than desirable results – and a single blanket fleece can contain more than one grade (see below for micron ranges of each grade), not to mention staple length! Have you ever tried “fining down” a coarse fleece by combining it with a fine fleece in a spinning project? You probably were none too thrilled with the results. This method does not work, because when disparate grades of fleece are combined in the spinning process, the fine fleece spins to the inside of the yarn, and the coarser fleece spins to the outside of the yarn. Fiber migration over time, and even pilling, can result – and the handle will be decidedly undesirable because the fibers are not uniform. You might say the fibers ‘fight.’ Hence the “prickle factor” will be heightened by combining different grades of fiber in a single yarn. When we talk about a grade, we are referring to fibers whose average fiber diameter (AFD) falls within a range of 3 microns. Therefore, sorting fleece enhances the “Oooooh” factor and that can translate into some very satisfied customers! Once fiber is sorted into discreet grades, it will have a lovely, soft handle, regardless of the grade. Have you ever put your hands on an alpaca whose AFD was uninspiringly high, only to find that he/she had an exquisite, velvety handle? Well, in all likelihood, that was a very uniform grade fleece.

Again, why sort? Apart from the fact that all commercial fiber markets sort/grade/class fleeces prior to processing, different grades have different end uses. If you take that color champion fleece that has an average fiber diameter below 20 microns and attempt to make socks, those socks will wear out quickly. However, a grade four yarn will make beautiful, durable socks – and because all fiber is the same grade, the handle will be superb. You might never think to take that grade four alpaca to the show-ring, but you will love the socks made from that fiber! Below is a list of grades and suggested end uses for each:

Grade Micron Range Product Uses/Examples

One AFD less than 20 microns christening blankets
Two AFD of 20 – 22.9 microns superfine knitting and weaving yarns
Three AFD of 23 – 25.9 microns most versatile: fine knitting and
weaving yarns, gloves!
Four AFD of 26 – 28.9 microns socks! outerwear yarns
Five AFD of 29 – 31.9 microns duvets
Robust: 32 microns and up rugs

A word about fiber testing as it relates to sorting is in order. Even if your two to four inch sample sent to a fiber testing lab yields a fine average fiber diameter, standard deviation and coefficient of variation, there is the possibility that there is more than one grade lurking in that blanket fleece! One way of looking at having a fleece tested versus having a fleece sorted would be this: if the fiber test is your compass point, then the sorted fleece would be your complete map of that animal. Thus, when you think that simply skirting Fluffy’s blanket fleece carefully and sending it off to be made into yarn will ensure uniformity, it may not be the case. Then again, if Fluffy and Fuzzy, when sorted, both have uniform worsted grade three fleeces, you will love the yarn made from those two guys’ fleeces!

Sorters can work with you at any stage in your process, before you shear or after. Nevertheless, our impact on your harvest will improve if you contact us prior to shearing, when we can give you guidelines that will aid you in organizing shearing day, how best to line up your alpacas to minimize contamination, husbandry tips for cleaner fleeces. We can be present on shearing day, and all leg and belly fleece is weighed and designated for rugs, blanket and neck fleeces are also weighed, and we sort/grade each of those according to micron and staple length. At the end of the day, we will provide you with the individual sort reports on each animal with a range of quantitative and qualitative factors scored, and review your total harvest. We can make recommendations specific to your needs with respect to what grades can be processed into what types of products. If you do not have the room to have us sorting on shearing day for you, we can weigh the fleeces, and roll the blanket and neck fleeces into craft paper or corrugated cardboard, take them home, sort them there and bring them back and do the post-sort commentary with you then, or you can designate someone working your shearing day to weigh and roll the fleeces. We will also sort shorn fleeces that have been collected in bags, but do keep in mind that, even with each fleece in a separate bag -- even with the blanket, neck and belly/leg fiber in 3 separate bags within that larger bag -- there is a degree of contamination that can and will occur when left in a bag.

At the end of the day, the real beauty of employing a fiber sorter to work your shearing day is that you do not have weeks of work ahead of you, skirting fleeces. You instead will see organized bags of sorted/graded fleeces sorted by color. All you have to do is decide what you want to do with each grade, where you want to send it, box it up and it’s OUTTA THERE! Now, that’s a beautiful thing.