Last week, the News reported about how a local couple started an alpaca ranch and fiber processing facility. This week, the News explores how the couple turns animal fiber into yarn.
WILLIAMS, Ariz. - Most business owners in Williams associate summer with tourist season. But for Rob and Donna Jorissen of Mystic Pines Fiber Processing, summer means shearing season.
The Jorissens will be busy in the coming weeks collecting fiber from about 30 alpacas that they own in order to produce yarn. Since January, the couple has also been accepting fiber from other people, including sheep's wool, mohair, and fiber from alpaca, llamas and camels.
Shearing is just the first step in the yarn making process, which takes place at the Jorissens' fiber mill off of Espee Road.
The Jorissens generally hire someone to shear their alpacas in May, depending on the weather.
On shearing day, the Jorissens prepare by covering the floor of their barn with mats. Then they use a leaf blower to remove some of the dirt from the alpacas.
Next, the shearers lay one of the alpacas on the mats and then tie the animals down to help keep them still during shearing.
"They're very high-strung animals," Donna said. "It gets pretty nasty when you're trying to shear and they're spitting up this green crap all over the place, so they get a sock put on their snout."
Some of the alpacas scream during the shearing process and may also relieve themselves.
"It's a traumatic day," Rob said.
The amount of fiber each alpaca produces varies depending on its size. Alpaca fiber is unique because unlike other materials such as sheep's wool, alpaca fiber is not an allergenic. The length of the fiber must be no less than 2 1/2 inches to process.
"Generally the blanket, which is the main part of the alpaca, from the backside to just underneath the belly, that's the prime fiber, and a blanket will usually run three to four pounds," Rob said.
If the Jorissens start with four pounds of fiber, they might lose a pound of dirt from tumbling and washing it. Those three pounds of fiber from one alpaca can produce about 14 skeins of yarn.
The temperature and humidity inside the processing facility need to be in the 60-65 degree and percentage range for the yarn making process to run smoothly.
When the Jorissens receive a batch of fiber, they weigh it first and then weigh it again between each step. The first stop is a machine called a tumbler that breaks up the fiber and uses nails to remove dirt and vegetation. Then the fiber goes through two wash cycles and two rinse cycles.
"It doesn't look that bad, but boy that first tub of water is like chocolate, it's just filthy," Rob said.
After that, an extractor removes excess water before the fiber goes on a drying rack. Once the fiber has dried, it goes into a machine called a picker, which uses teeth to separate the fiber.
At that point, the fiber is ready to go into the main machine, the 35-foot long Davis & Furber card machine from the late 1940s. This machine has multiple parts, including plates with spikes that move in opposite directions and a series of rollers with teeth on them that go from coarse to fine.
"All the card's doing is combing out that fiber, trying to align the fibers," Rob said. "I mean it goes in looking like a mess, like dreadlocks."
The material that comes out of the card machine is called roving.
After the roving comes out of the card, it moves on to the pin drafter, which contains 24 combs that rotate in a circle to align the fibers even more.
The final step is the spinning frame, which actually spins the roving into yarn using rods and bobbins. The Jorissens make different kinds of yarn, depending on the number and thickness of the strands.
"It's all the same size roving, it's just all controlled on how fast it feeds here and how fast it spins," Rob said.
The process is finished when the yard is wound into skeins.
The Jorissens said the entire process could likely be completed in two days, but in general they work on several bags of fiber at the same time that are in different stages of the process.
To keep costs down and use fewer resources, the Jorissens have made their facility as eco-friendly as possible. They collect rainwater for washing the fiber, for the alpacas, and for drinking water for themselves. While the Jorissens hope to expand their rainwater capacity, they can currently hold about 20,000 gallons of water that they collect off of their home, the milling facility and a barn.
To conserve even more, the Jorissens hope to use water from the final fiber rinses, which is fairly clean, again for the first wash on different batches of fiber.
Since the water has to be a minimum of 140 degrees to wash the fiber, the Jorissens use a wood gasification boiler in the building, which heats the water and the building itself. The couple uses wood from local forest thinning projects for the boiler.
Eventually the Jorissens would like to set up a storefront at their processing site to sell their products and learn how to dye fiber to make colored yarn.
For now, the couple is balancing the mill operations with their full time jobs. With Rob working as a lineman for APS and Donna working as a coder for Mayo Clinic, the couple mostly works in the mill on the weekends.
The Jorissens hope the fiber processing business will help support their retirement, and would like to eventually involve their two adult children in the business.
With the amount of fiber the Jorissens have received since January, their processing time is currently three to four months. However, the Jorissens' goal is to someday process about 400-500 pounds of fiber per month.
"It's lots of little steps to get to where we really want to be," Donna said.
More information about the alpaca ranch and processing facility is available at www.mysticpinesfiber.com.
Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Article comment by:
I really enjoyed reading this two part article! Thanks for reporting on this family business. My parents live in Williams (I live in Portland, OR) and I'll have to check out the farm when I visit next. Do the Jorissens encourage visitors?