Search This Blog

Monday, 21 May 2012

Shearing week means Toft is buzzing

Our new team member Helen experiences shearing week and runs her first Felting workshop at Toft.

My first month at Toft has flown by and although I have experienced many great things working here nothing quite prepared me for the buzzzzzz that is shearing week. With over 180 alpacas (plus 1 llama) to shear over 3 days, our shearer Ben and his assistant Ruth had their work cut out, so to speak.

Ben shearing, Ruth holding and Charlie skirting, it's a busy table!

Ben uses a shearing table with foot harnesses to lay the alpaca on its side and hold them steady while he swiftly denudes them with a razor. He starts by shearing a small sample patch from the best quality saddle region which is bagged, tagged and set aside for testing to produce a record of the quality of fleece each animal is producing.

He then proceeds to shave from the back legs up towards the neck end, before rolling them over to complete the other side. Meanwhile Ruth gives them a pedicure and checks their teeth are in good condition. For the most part the alpacas are quite laid back and let us get on with the job, however there were a few drama queens who made high pitched whinnying noises and yes, I got spat on a couple of times whilst I gathered the fleece up. The whole process takes about 10 minutes, before Ben sends them on their way with a little pat on their new skinny rears.

Newly shorn lovelies.

Whilst Ben is shearing we do an initial 'skirting' wherein the coarser fibres from the legs, neck and belly regions are separated from the finer quality saddle region which is passed onto the expert fleece graders for sorting. You can read more about this process in our intern Olivia's previous blog entry. Its a very skillful process to ensure only the finest fibres make it into Toft yarns.  Baby alpaca grade heads straight into Lace, Fine and DK bags, young adult into Aran and adult into Chunky bags.  These will all wing their way to the mill in the next week or two. Fleece that doesn't make the grade is used for duvet and cushion fillings so nothing goes to waste.

On Thursday I led my first felting workshop at Toft. It was quite nerve wracking as I'd seen and experienced Carrie's workshops before and knew I had a lot to live up to, but everyone was really supportive so I knew I'd be ok!

Before the workshop we went on a walk around the farm, so that everyone had the chance to see the shearing and grading process before heading out across the fields. I have never seen the alpacas so lively, the boys especially were prancing about seeming to relish their new found lightness. We were also very fortunate to witness a birth whilst we were walking which just made everyones day.

Getting to grips with felting.

Once back at the studio and  refreshed with tea and biscuits we started making felt using Toft's carded fleece of which we have two oh-so-inviting giant baskets of in the studio.  Several people wished they could just curl up in them for a snooze but instead we lay the fibres out, made them wet and soapy and rubbed until the magic happened and what was once light, airy fluff was turned into lovely sheets of felt. After lunch we made felt beads for pieces of alpaca jewellery and experimented with different bead shapes, sizes and combinations to create necklaces, earrings and bangles.

Just look at all the space we have in our new workshop studio.
I had a great time teaching my first workshop, everyone seemed to enjoy it and left with some lovely pieces and extra fleece for their next projects and I'd like to thank all the participants for making it such fun for me as well!

Just one of our new Cria.
Our new workshop schedule to the end of 2012 will be appearing online very shortly, so look out for lots of newbies, such as an Aran Afternoon, Giant Knitting, Lace Knitting, Sock workshops, Crochet Christmas and lots lots more!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Fleece Sorting: Olivia's report on her first experience in the sorting shed

Olivia is thrown in at the deep end in her first week of interning here at Toft:  

Within the first week of my internship with The Toft Alpaca Shop I got down to the nitty gritty of fleece sorting

Fleece sorting is the second step after shearing in the process of producing Toft yarn. It is the most important aspects of the whole manufacturing process as it guarantees quality and colour. 

Huacaya Fleece 
Firsts - Fine yarn - Cria/Young alpacas
Seconds - Double knit yarn - Cria/Young alpacas
Thirds - Aran Yarn - Young adult alpacas
Fourths - Chunky Yarn - Adult alpacas
The rest would be suitable for interior stuffing

Alpaca fleece over eighteen years old wouldn't be used as it lacks quality.

Suri Fleece
There are only two grades when sorting Suri fleece
Grade one - Best quality fleece from the saddle area, blanket fibre.
Grade two -  Fleece from the neck and the legs of the alpaca.

Sorting the fleece into grades 

The alpaca fibre is painstakingly sorted into different colour coded and graded bags before being sent off to the mill to be spun into yarn. Each fleece that is sent to Toft from other alpaca owners and breeders has to be checked individually and thoroughly. The saddle is where the best fleece is grown on an alpaca, quite often the leg and neck is not used because it is too coarse or it isn't long enough (4-6") to be spun.

Whilst we are fleece sorting we look out for following;


Brightness is the term used to describe the degree to which a Huacaya fleece reflects light and luster is the term used to define whether the Suri fleece reflects light.

Light fawn Huacaya fleece
A Toft Huacaya Alpaca
A Toft Suri Alpaca
Grade 1 Suri fleece                        

Guard Hair 
Guard hair is thicker and a lot stiffer than the rest of the alpaca fleece which makes the yarn very itchy on the skin. We can spot guard hair from seeing and feeling the fleece, fleece with high levels of guard hair will not be made into yarns.

Shirley using some comedy spec's to search for guard hair!

Infestation in the fleece
The fleece has to be in a good clean condition to be sent off to be spun. If the fleece is contaminated with foliage we cannot use this as it can ruin the quality of the yarn.

The staple is the length measured of each fibre which has to be over 5 cm. If it is any less than this the fibre wouldn't be long enough to spin. The staple is defined by how long the fibre has grown from one shearing process to the next.

Crimp is only  found in Huacaya fleece.  This is not an essential quality of good fibre for processing, but it is used as a indicator of quality and fineness, it is very important in the show ring when judging alpacas.

The colour of the fleece is very important. 
The Toft Alpaca Shop only use 100% natural fibre to create their products. We do not use dyes or bleach when processing our yarns. The colours of yarn that Toft produce are cream, oatmeal, stone, camel, fudge, chestnut, mushroom, silver, steel and charcoal and black. 

As we were fleece sorting we came across a grey fleece. Grey alpaca fleece is very rare and hard to get hold of, so to produce our silver yarn we spin black and cream fleece together. Silver and Steel are our most popular yarn colours to sell.

Sorting fawn huacaya fleece into grades

Archie the Llama paid us a visit!


Friday, 4 May 2012

An update from Charlie: off to the alpaca mill!

Our new team member Charlie gives her first impressions of a trip to the mill.

‘Monday morning saw us - Kerry, me, our new intern Olivia and Pete the Dog - piling into the Toftmobile and heading to Banbury to pick up some of our latest batches of yarn from the mill. 
Cheeky Pete!

Having been at Toft for just under three weeks I’d managed to get a good overview of the way this fantastic organisation is run – since arriving I’d got used to being greeted every morning by a field of friendly alpaca faces, had a whistlestop tutorial in fleece sorting, and spent time in the shop and on the website getting to grips with the gloriously unique products on offer. But something was missing. How does the meticulously sorted fleece come to be spun into the top quality yarn gleaming in rows under our newly installed workbenches? The answer could only be found at the mill!

Laura and Richard met us on arrival, and after the requisite fussing Pete always demands we were taken on a tour. The mill is an impressive centre of traditional engineering – all the machinery has been painstakingly adapted from the equipment used to spin sheep’s wool in order to process the far finer alpaca fleece in which the mill specialises.

A waterfall of fleece
Laura led us past vast flues, rollers and vats, explaining how each particular machine works to soften and refine the fleece flowing constantly through it.

Yarn ready to be spun
 She demonstrated the giant bobbins onto which the refined fleece is rolled before being spun into yarn on long rows of whirring spools.

A school of spools
She talked us through the minute changes that had to be made to ensure particular weights of yarn weren’t over-or under-twisted, and spoke with pride about the difficulties the mill had overcome in this area in order to produce Toft’s unique chunky weight yarn.

And then there we were, at the finished product – all boxed up, freshly returned from being laundered and ready to be loaded and taken home. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place, building up a complete picture of Toft’s field to fashion production ethos.’