We are on part three of our fiber series now: picking. Picking…sounds kinda gross, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not, or it’s no grosser than any of the other processes, anyway. Picking is the process of removing the clumps and opening up the locks of the fiber. It’s also the last chance to get out ANY of the vegetable matter or sub-par fiber. Beyond this point, everything is so well homogenized that you’d rather pull your hair out than try to remove any of the straw or hay (read: I’ve tried it and it was not fun).
The first time I picked a fleece, I had to spend a solid five minutes talking myself into starting. Up until this point, you do everything in your power to keep the structure of the fleece and the locks intact. Disorder spells chaos, adding hours to your processing time. It’s hard to impossible to skirt the edges off a fleece if you don’t know where the edges are! And the first year we had the alpacas, we didn’t have a drum carder. I can spin straight from the staple easily, although the product is much denser. But I can only do that if all the staples are lined up, outside tips facing in the same direction. Otherwise I have to stop and sort too often to really get any spinning done. Dropping a box of sorted staples is a tragedy more akin to shattered Austrian crystal than spilled milk. And picking takes that lovely, spin-able fiber and turns it into a cloud of disorganized fluff you have to card before you can spin.
This process is (surprise) very dusty. We try to do some of it as we skirt, to keep the dust out in the barn where it belongs, at least until Mom gets the push broom out. The second pass at skirting is done as Dad feeds the fiber into the carder.
I start by isolating a staple, or lock, of fiber from the rest of the fleece. I put my left hand down on the body of the fleece, and grab one tip from between my thumb and the rest of my palm. This keeps the remainder of the fleece organized, and prevents me from ending up with a bunch of tangled, wispy under coat.
Then I hold the lock in my left hand, and use the thumb and forefinger of my right to pull on the side of the hairs. It will go from a dense bundle of fiber to a sheet so thin it’s like holding air. When the whole staple is fluffy, I put it into yet another clean plastic bag. Picking a whole fleece probably takes around four hours, although since it is usually rolled into skirting, I’m not too sure of that estimate.
The next step is washing, which Mom has pioneered and perfected. I’ll call her and get the so-called “deets” before I even try to post on that topic. There may be just a touch more picking after washing, because the fiber tends to felt just a bit during the washing process.