This Fairbanks fiber mill owner spins a yarn about wool

Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 4:31 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - In 2016, the Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill began processing animal fiber grown in Alaska. In the mill, fluffy organic material from sheep, to yak, to llama is spun into a variety of yarns. This process takes many steps, as well as good deal of time, and involves the use of several specialized machines.

The fiber is brought into the mill in it’s natural raw form for processing, and Kate Wattum, Owner of Coyote Trail Farm & Fiber Mill explained the process by which yarn is produced in the mill. “We can pre-soak the fiber, get it up to temperature to get rid of the dirt and lanolin, but we also have this dye vat so we can do large batches of dye.”

The raw fiber is processed through several washing machines to remove its natural detritus. Wattum continued, “It gets washed, it gets dried, and then it goes through this unit called a picker. The fiber comes through on a conveyer belt, it opens up the fiber and expands it.”

Now fluffier than ever, the expanded fiber moves on to the separator, which extracts errant hairs from the fibers. This process needs to be done differently to accommodate different kinds of fibers.

“A really fine fiber needs to be run at a top speed so it doesn’t break, because the slower that these rollers go, the more breakage will occur. You saw what goes in, you can see the long hairs and some of the debris in there, and this is what it comes out as,” said Wattum, referring to the output from the process so far.

The fiber is now ready to move on to the carter - the heart of a fiber mill. This machine separates randomly placed fibers from each other and individually aligns them, creating a continuous web at the output end. This process can also mix multiple fibers together to produce new colors and textures in the final product.

“That went in with the black and a little but of blue, so it’s gonna give it a nice little blue sheen to it. It’s actually gonna look a little more natural, the color of a silver sheep, but it’s softer than Shetland. Shetland can sometimes be a little itchy, so we’re putting a little merino in there to make it a little softer, but it’s a really sturdy yarn,” Wattum said.

The fiber’s long journey of refinement through many passes of these machines is all preparation for the processes of spinning and plying. The spinner produces single strands of yarn, and then the plyer takes multiple single strands to create multi-plied yarn.

“You spin things one way and now you ply them in the opposite direction, so you have to ply things based on the speed at which you spun them. The speed of the plyer is mathematically calculated, whether you have three or four or two plys, it changes,” Wattum exlained.

At the end of this intricate mechanical adventure, masses of fiber and wool find themselves transformed into a wide array of colorful locally Alaska produced textiles, ready to be turned into clothing and art.

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