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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!
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