Part two in our “From start to finish” series is skirting. Some people break this step into two, skirting and sorting, but they seem pretty insepperable to me. Skirting sounds like what you’re doing when you dance around an awkward topic during a polite conversation, or wearing a floppy skirt and spinning around in circles, but we’re talking about the process of removing the sub-par fiber from the prime fleece. Sorting is just what it sounds like: sorting the keepable fiber into different grades.
They are both dirty, dirty processes, so I’m glad to say we’ve moved them out to the barn. When we first started, I skirted in the middle of my living room. I’m still trying to get the layer of fine alpaca dust off the surfaces in my apartment. Shudder.
Anyway, skirting is the very first time the alpaca fleeces get “cleaned”. Combing it while it is on the animal destroys the lock structure, weakening it and making it more susceptible to breakage. Some farms actually blow the alpacas with a leaf blower right before shearing to try to dust them off, but I had trouble convincing Mom to keep them out of the weeds in turnout for a whole day, so I didn’t even suggest we leaf blow them. Frankly, even as the fiber addict in the family, it seemed like an unnecessarily stressful idea.
Skirting tables are designed to allow dirt and vegetable matter to drop out of the fleece. Our prototype isn’t the sturdiest contraption, but it does the job. We made it out of pvc pipe and one inch mesh fencing. We made two rectangles out of the pvc pipe, each about four feet long and two feet wide. They are each covered with fencing that is zip tied to the pipe. We connect the two rectangles and allow the fencing to overlap. The whole thing is put on top of two saw horses.
We lay the prime fleece on top of the skirting table with the tips, the outside, pointing down. Then we bounce it up and down a few times, knocking out dust, grass, seeds, pine needles, and just about anything the alpacas have come into contact with over the year. This also gets some of the second cuts out. Second cuts happen when the shearer starts another pass and the razor clips unevenly, leaving a super short clump that will make your yarn lumpy. After a minute or so of bouncing, we split the table, sandwhich the fleece between the two halves and flip it over. We repeat the bouncing routine until we get bored, and then we are ready to get down to the skirting.
The coarsest and dirtiest fiber is usually around the edges, across the belly, and near the tail. The more of the bad stuff you remove, the better the quality of your yarn, but you have to balance that with the fact that you’ll have less and how long you want to spend skirting. I usually remove at least three inches around the majority of the edge of the fleece. That all is thrown out, and as much as it stings to get rid of it, it’s not worth your time.
Llamas, who are close relatives to alpacas, have a two layer coat that has to be dehaired. The long, coarse guard hairs are combed out, leaving the soft fluffy under-fleece. Alpacas only have a one-layered coat, but they do have some gaurd hairs. We sort the fiber that has more gaurd hair and the shortest fiber into a separate bag for felting.
After the first pass over the fleece, when we feel we have it down to the fiber we want to keep, we start putting it into a clean bag. We go slowly, fluffing the fiber up and pulling it apart as we go. This makes the next step, picking, go faster, and allows more of the dirt and vegetable matter to fall out before it gets into the bag. It’s also a chance to remove any bits of fiber we don’t want to spin.
That’s step two! By the time you finish, you smell like you’ve been sleeping between Mikayla and Tulip in the alpaca paddock, and you’ll be cleaning out your sinuses for a week, but you’ll have a bag of soft fluffyness for your trouble. Skirting half of a fleece takes a full afternoon if you are going slowly. And as with all the processes involved in processing fleece, the slower you go, the better the quality of the end product. I can’t say it enough: the more time you spend at the beginning, the happier you’ll be when you get to the last steps. Spinning well-processed fiber is a joy, comparable to writing a beautiful sentence or singing an emotional song.