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Author Archives: YarnSuperhero

Unicorn at Work with Hand-Dyers and Fiber Processors

We love the look of this alpaca fiber, washed with Unicorn Power Scour before the dye bath.  Check out Cyndy’s blog to see her glorious colors!

Also, stop by and join our Ravelry group.  Here’s an interesting thread entitled “What’s Your Story?”  We love comments and questions of any kind from product users, or folks who are just curious about how to get the best results from Unicorn Fiber Wash, Rinse, and Power Scour.

In other news, here’s my Cashmere/silk Hitchhiker scarf, all clean and incredibly soft.  It feels and looks (and, certainly, smells) better than even before it got dragged through the rainy grocery store parking lot.  Now I can start wearing this piece every day again–even inside my house it’s nice to have something soft and warm draped around my neck!

Look at the colors!

Do you have a favorite handmade piece?




Another Great Reason to Always Have Unicorn!

I’ll follow up to this post with some “results” photos.

My DH was bored today so we decided to get out for lunch and some light errands.  It’s a nice, rainy, late December day in Pittsburgh and the grocery store was busy.  So I was nominated to run in for the plum tomatoes and cat food we decided we needed.  No problems there.  I got through the self-checkout and out to the curbside pickup just in time to jump into the car.   I felt like we were making a clean getaway.  But then DH told me that my scarf had been hanging halfway out the car door for part of the time that I was in the store.  Points to him for noticing and rescuing it, but who knows what kind of environmental hazards it was exposed to!  Mud, motor oil (gasp) or other garbage.  EEK!  After my recent destash of almost all of my personal yarn (I have enough “work yarn” to keep me busy for at least this lifetime,) I kept only the most special skeins in my collection.  One skein was a Tanglewood Fiber Creations Cashmere Silk in Lavender Moon (yum!) that I was holding onto until I found just the right pattern for it.  I swatched multiple times over the two or so years this skein lived in my collection, and nothing was quite doing it for me.  It turned out that the right project was the ingeniously simple Hitchhiker Scarf.  And it turned out that this precious pile of pure pleasure was  dragged for at least a few minutes through the Giant Eagle parking lot.  Double eek!

No worries, though–Unicorn products to the rescue!  Upon inspection, my treasure didn’t seem too oily or dirty, so I decided on a Unicorn Fibre Wash, followed by a Fibre Rinse refresh.  If I had noticed any bad oil or stains, after I stopped weeping, I would have reached for the Unicorn Power Scour, which is especially made to take bad stuff out of the finest animal fibers.

Now with more bowls of soaking knitwear!

So, I’ll give this a good final rinse and show it to you when it dries.  Stuff happens.  When stuff happens to your special knitwear, make sure you have some Unicorn products on hand.  Disaster averted!  Have you experienced any episodes like this?

Let’s Wash a Fleece!

I surprised myself in May 2010 when I bought my first fleece.  8 lbs of Romney, complete with VM (not too much) and “farm dirt,” which is what I choose to call the remnants of various bodily functions that would be present in a Fresh From the Farm fleece.  The surprise really was not that I found something fiber-related that I wanted to buy, but that I really enjoy the washing of the whole fleece, by hand, in the back yard.  I had at first thought that I would hand process only about a pound or so, just to see what it was like and to get some hands-on experience with the Unicorn Power Scour, and would send the rest off to a mini-mill to be turned into roving or yarn.  A year and a half, and 3 fleeces later, I have to admit that the fiber prep is almost as fun for me as the spinning!

My most recent adventure in fleece washing was the Coopworth Lamb that I bought at the Great Lakes Fiber Show in Wooster, OH this May.  Won’t you join me as I relive it?

My trusty assistants.

Here’s where it all starts.  No need to heat water on the stove.  I cranked up my hot water heater a little and the hot water out of the tap is about 136-140 degrees, plenty hot enough for my needs.  Of course, I will use the Unicorn Power Scour, which was especially formulated for this exact job, getting dirt and grease out of animal fiber.

My first thought was that I would measure out equal amounts of fiber for each small batch.  Many people have done side-by-side experiments, and have been quite scientific in their methodologies.  I am not a detail person to that extent.  So I didn’t end up using the scale.

Yum, Coopworth Lamb!

Here is the prizewinning fleece itself.  I think it was about 5 or 6 lbs, maybe a little more.

Here are some of the other tools I used, loosely following the Beth Smith tulle envelope method.

Here are some of the lightest colored locks.  But you can see the aforementioned “farm dirt” causing these silvery locks to look yellow. It’s important not to put too much stock in the color of your fleece when it is still dirty.

Nice and fluffy, though.  Not much VM, and nice crimp.  Coopworth is not the softest wool out there, but it feels good to me and will make nice socks or a jacket, maybe.

See how shiny it looks?  Still unwashed, mind you.  And aren’t those black strands interesting?  This gave me the idea to sort for color.

You can see there is a lot of color variation within this one fleece.  There were very white looking locks, and some dark grey, but most of it was “medium.”

I sorted…

and made a bunch of tulle envelopes.  Mine are small, and it was kind of fussy work.

I sorted, and packed…

And sorted and packed,

And still I had this much fiber left!

So, since I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing this, and I wanted to wash some fleece, after all, I shoved the rest of the locks into my 4 mesh lingerie bags, and I got down to business.

My routine is to fill up my buckets with about 5-6 quarts of hot water from my tap, with a big squirt of Unicorn Power Scour.  Not very exact, I know. You can see that in this bucket, the water is pretty brown.  That is the farm dirt and lanolin.

I then do a second wash, with the same amount of water and slightly less Power Scour.  This lamb fleece was really not too dirty, as you can see.

Here is another view of a “first wash.”
Kinda brown, but I’ve seen a lot worse! I follow the two washes with one or two warm water rinses, and incorporate a squirt of the Unicorn Fibre Rinse into this step.  It will help soften the fleece for spinning and makes it smell nice, but not perfumey.  I like the somewhat sheepy smell, and I never try to get out all of the lanolin.  I like a little in there because it helps the locks spin easily and it is a nice moisturizing treatment for my hands.

I then spread out the fleece in my yard and let it dry.  The locks in the tulle envelopes will be nice and organized for when I sit down to flick and spin them.

They are all oriented with tips in the same direction.  The locks in the mesh bags, not so organized, but will still spin great.  I will end up with more waste from those locks, I predict.

You can see here the difference in color between the washed and unwashed. Pretty dramatic.

Here are some of the clean lightest and darkest locks.  I wish I had more dark ones.  Something to look for in my next fleece purchase!

Do you like to wash your own fleeces, or are you now intrigued to try it?  You can get free samples of the Unicorn Power Scour and Fibre Rinse, which gives you enough for a small scale experiment.  Here’s the little bit I’ve spun up so far.

The lamb locks are very clean and soft. I wonder what my yarn will be like and what I will knit with it?


Thank Goodness–A Sweater Comes Clean part 2

I’m pleased to report that Yvonne’s husband’s sweater is almost as good as new! Too bad she was not able to get to the stains right away, but I think the Power Scour results speak for themselves. Read the rest of her story here (pictures too!)

Mill Customer Interview Series: Ozark Carding Mill

If you want to learn about fiber preparation, and meet two of the nicest people ever, find Gail and Jim White from Ozark Carding Mill at a Fiber Festival or event near you this fall!

The booth at MDSW. Look at those colors!

YarnSuperhero:  Gail, I have had so much fun hanging out with you and Jim at the last two Maryland Sheep and Wool Festivals!  Your roving and yarns are so beautiful and many people say they will never process their fiber with anyone else.

What do you think sets you apart from other mills?

Gail White:  Our customer service. We strive to give our customers what they need. If we can’t do the job, either all or part, we will find the right service for them, to get to their end product. Most of our equipment is industrial carding equipment, designed for mill laboratory production. Our card is designed for “Cottage” industry, only in size. Otherwise, it too is industrial in application.  After visiting Pharr Yarns in NC, I came home and asked my husband if we could do the same on a small scale and that’s what we did. Jim is an electrical engineer, machinist and quality assurance all wrapped up in a wonderful DH. We offer all our customers a processed coil of roving that is easy to draw out of a bag and spin from directly. No ball winding, broken roving, just one continuous piece of wonderful roving to spin from. Our spinning frame makes a tighter twisted yarn that is very suitable for lace scarves, shawls, socks, sweaters, and hats, mittens in lace, fingering, sport and DK weights. We can do the heavier weights when needed.

YS:  Why did you decide to start the mill?

GW:  I’m from a manufacturing family. Our family had its own company; my brother is still running it 60 years later. I wanted my own business and having 15 years in fiber fun, knitting, spinning, weaving, decided I wanted to have my own mill. Also, my daughter had angora bunnies and I just couldn’t throw the fiber away, so began Ozark Carding Mill in Snohomish, WA in 1995.

YS:  What was it like getting started?

GW:  I got the seed money for the mill from my parents estate. At that time there were only two cottage mill manufacturers, Patrick Green and Belfast Mini Mills. I elected Pat’s equipment and we went to Canada to order it and picked it up 6 months later. I worked part time on the mill, while working full time at Boeing in Everett, WA. Did that for about 8 mos. We made a family move to Warsaw, MO to help my brother with the family business, my husband worked for my brother and I did the mill. We moved cross country with my Patrick Green card and picker and 8 Targhee ewes and our some of our household goods. We spent 12 years in Warsaw where I did the mill, raised Targhee and Targhee crossed sheep. Used the wool for my retail and sold the lambs.

YS:  Without giving away any of your trade secrets, what are some of the more tricky aspects of processing wool and camelid fleeces?

GW:  To get the grease out of wool and the dirt out of the camelids. We use Power Scour as a finish wash to the wool and use it exclusively on all the camelids. It gives the wool and camelids a wonderful handle. It causes the dirt to drop out of the camelids, reducing the amount of rinses we have to do to get the dirt out. We do use 150 degree water with the wools and another detergent to get the initial bout of grease out and finish with Power Scour as is strips the last little bit of lanolin out of the wool. The combination works especially well on the super fine, high lanolin sheep fleeces.

YS:  Which of your products or services excites you the most?

GW:  I love it all. I really like designing multi colored, multi fiber rovings the best. However, once the yarn is spin and skeined, I really enjoy coming up with different color combinations on the yarns.

Some of Gail and Jim's yarns--they are quite a team!

YS:  What things have been the most surprising, or unexpected about being in the fiber processing  business?

GW:  The number of mills that have started up in the last 10 years.  When we started you could count the number of mills that would do small lots on both hands. Now there have to be almost 300 in the US and Canada.

YS:  What is the most fun part of your job?

GW:  It’s all fun, even the washing. It’s fun to put an icky, dirty fleece in the washer and see what a beautiful color it really is when clean.

YS:  What is your typical day at the mill like?

GW:  Busy! It’s just Jim and I. Sometimes we bring in a gal who does the twisting, splicing and skeining on large lots. So we trade off washing, picking, carding, pin drafting and spinning. Jim’s my master spinner. He makes the spinner do wondrous things.

YS:  What are some of the more challenging aspects of your business?

GW:  Trying to give the customer what they want, when the fiber isn’t really conducive to the end product they desire. This is especially true in yarn. Irregular fiber lengths make for slubs and boucles, not smooth evenly twisted yarn.

YS:  I’m happy that you use Unicorn Products at your mill.  Can you tell me what you like the most about them and what made you decide to switch from the products you used previously?

GW:  Unicorn products are the best thing that’s happened to fiber in years. I’ve tried just about every product there is to get the grease out of wool. PS will get the grease out of the finest wool fleeces, when used as recommended by the manufacturer. However, PS is expensive when compared to detergents on a per fleece basis. So as to conserve, we use a detergent in the first wash and PS in the second and third when necessary on the wool fleeces. We use PS exclusively on all the camelid fleeces in both washes. It is low sudsing and rinses out easily, so there is less handling of the fleeces, which reduces the possibility of felting the cut ends. It leaves the fleeces nice smelling and they have a wonderful handle.

Thanks for the interview Gail!  I always feel smarter after I talk with you!  Find Gail (and read her forum posts–what a goldmine!) on Ravelry as MadamFluffy.


Unicorn Mill Customer Series–Mountain Meadow Wool

For the second installment in the series, I interviewed Karen Hostetler and Valerie Spanos, the principals of Mountain Meadow Wool in Buffalo, Wyoming.

Karen and Val, two of my favorite people!

They are some of my favorite people and I love, love, love the yarn.  I designed this piece (Morning on the River Kimono, from the Jul Topografie Collection, and soaked in Unicorn Fibre Products to block–of course!) in their Sheridan, a 3 ply bulky merino.

Squishy, nice stitch definition, beautiful color, warm...what else could you ask for?

I will wear this kimono every day in the winter!  If you are a Ravelry member, hop on over here and see the gorgeous projects other people are making with the yarns.  Spinners, they make roving also–it is super-yummy!

YarnSuperhero:  I think it is so cool what you are doing, and your yarn is delicious!  All of my yarnie friends who know about you say that Mountain Meadow Wool is “Yarn with a capital Y.”  Why is your yarn so much more alive than other yarns?

Karen and Valerie:  This is a great question and we really believe that it is the quality of the wool from our great growers that makes a big impact on our yarns’ aliveness.  The wool is sourced from the best fleeces in our state and not blended with any lesser grades.  

We use the words “gently processed” in our advertising and it is true.  The wool is not subjected to harsh chemicals at any time and our soaps and oils are environmentally friendly and gentle.  Of course, we also believe that the environment where our yarn is created is so full of good energy, from the workers, to the beautiful scenery near our location, that we can’t help but make delicious yarn!

YS:  I totally agree!  You guys are so wonderful, and make what you are doing so meaningful, that it gets embedded in your product, for sure!  Why did you decide to open your mill?  What was it like getting started?

K & V:  Valerie and I initially wanted to open a natural toy store for children and families!  We both had raised lambs and we both loved wool, so we thought it would be great to have wool products  from the area ranches to resell, but there was nothing available.  We hauled a bale of wool to Canada for processing and then we started questioning why there wasn’t a mill in Wyoming.  That started the ball rolling and the mill was born.  

It was a daunting task, getting the mill started, from finding equipment, to learning the intricacies of yarn making.  We are always questioning and wanting to know the answers, so we started looking into grants.  Thus far, we have received several research grants from the USDA-SBIR Program and we continue to work with this program.  Our latest grant is for treating the effluent from the washing system so that as we learn more, we can enable smaller mills to be more environmentally friendly. 

YS:  Without giving away any of your trade secrets, what are some of the more tricky aspects of processing wool and yarn?

K & V:  We have beautiful fine wool in the Mountain West, but the fibers are short.  This presented a huge challenge for us to spin the fiber into excellent yarn, but we learned how to do it and can now make just about any weight of yarn that is needed.  Yarn making is a skill and getting the weights correct is always tricky.  Our plant manager went from 30 years working in a sawmill, to a yarn mill, but he is great at troubleshooting.

Who is that behind the fiber?

YS:  What is traceback?

K & V:  From the very beginning, we felt strongly about helping provide viability and sustainability to the ranches that have been in the West for over 100 years.  This is a big vision and in an effort to keep this way of life profitable  and to allow the vast open spaces of the West, really open, we decided to tie our profit into the profit of the ranchers themselves.  

We select our growers based on their fiber quality and then the wool is followed through the system so that we always know which grower’s product is being run.  This is more work for us, but it ties the family ranch to the consumer and makes a nice connection.  The consumer knows exactly where the wool comes from, by information on the tag, and the rancher has pride in seeing their raw fiber made into something beautiful.

YS:  What a neat idea!  What things have been the most surprising, or unexpected about being in the yarn business?

K & V:  Everything has been surprising, but the biggest surprise has been the relationships that abound within the industry, from the manufacturers to the dyers, to the yarn shops, there is a great connection between all.  Through these connections, we have really grown our business.  It has been invaluable to talk with these people and the customers to really know where the industry is heading and what the consumer wants.  Everyone is friendly and open, this was a nice surprise!

YS:  I agree, when I first got into the fiber arts business, I was struck by how people try to make connections with each other, not just about their enjoyment of the crafts they are involved in, but even on a more personal level.  I have made many friends in this little world, and anyone who goes to the trade shows knows that there are way more hugs than handshakes happening!  What is the most fun part of your job?

K & V:  Because of the variety of the work, there is never a dull moment and Valerie and I never know what to expect.  The best part is when we hear people reacting to our yarns and loving them.  That is so great and satisfying.  Or when one of our ranchers comes in and sees the yarn being made from his flock and he just stands there watching and smiling, then says, “Keep making that string stuff!”

YS:  What is your typical day at the mill like?

K & V:  We start off the day by going out onto the production floor and talking with the workers on the jobs we are working on and get the day lined out.  The rest of the morning is spent checking out our email, fulfilling orders, visiting with customers and working in the dye kitchen if it is needed.  We try to spend the hours after lunch on different projects and work mostly in the office.  The day ends with checking our emails again and closing out the day with the workers.

YS:  How much of a challenge is it to try to keep your operations as environmentally friendly as possible?

K & V:  Our biggest challenge has been in the washing and cleaning of the wool.  We use Unicorn Products and feel confident in their environmental impact.  We really are very environmentally friendly in our production.  We stay away from harmful chemicals and we recycle as much wool waste as we can.  The cleaner wasted is used in our felt products, like dryer balls and cleaning pads.  the dirtier waste is bagged up and we resell some and the rest we use in items like floor absorbent pads and pet beds.  The water from the washing is our next issue.  We have received a USDA grant on an in-house effluent treatment system which we will be working on over the next 2 years.

YS:  I’m happy that you have switched to Unicorn Products at your mill.  Can you tell me what you like the most about them and what made you decide to change from the products you used previously?

K & V:  Clean wool is important to us and to our customers, so the first thing we look for in a cleaning product is its ability to get the wool clean.  Unicorn products are working very well for us, and compared with the product we used before, we have to use a lot less to get the job done.  Unicorn Products smell fresh and clean and the heavy grease content of our fine wool is being removed well.  We now have used these products for a year and our yarn quality has improved because of it.

YS:  A big thanks to you both for the interview.  Keep up your great work!

An Interview with Worthington Acres Alpaca Farm & Fiber Mill

This is the first of a series of interviews with some of our tremendous Mill customers.  Introducing Craig and Jane from Worthington Acres Alpaca Farm & Fiber Mill!

YarnSuperhero:  I am really impressed with your website and also with the variety of products and services you offer.  What do you think sets you apart from other mills and farm shops?

Craig & Jane:  From the start our alpaca farm has been geared towards fiber production. Our goal has always been sustainability. While we offer top quality genetics and have many happy customers on the breeding end our main focus is on the wonderful fiber products made from alpaca fiber. During 2009 we opened a fiber mill on our farm. Our goal is to provide our customers with quality fiber processing that allows for a profitable return. In less than 2 years our client base has grown to over 150 farms, many being return customers from year one. Our mill does not have a minimum order requirement which allows us to cater to our clients needs. We also charge for outgoing weight rather than incoming. This allows for a return on the processing investment which is greater because customers do not pay for waste. During 2010 we fell in love with felt.

Felt from the new FeltLOOM at the mill.

Our newest investment on the farm is a 48” needle FeltLOOM. The products produced from the FeltLOOM are of the best quality felt possible. We have also developed our own line of felt shoe inserts called FeltPAC shoe inserts. Mostly 100% alpaca and occasionally blended with a small amount of locally grown wool. Finally we contract with many artists’ who are more than happy to knit up a nice sweater, hat or some mittens made directly from yarn grown on our farm and processed in our mill. What sets’ our farm apart is the services we offer. From start to finish Worthington Acres Alpaca Farm & Fiber Mill offers full customer support to our clients who quickly become friends.

YS:  Why did you decide to raise alpacas and offer mill services?  What was it like getting started?

C & J:  We researched a variety of livestock prior to finding alpacas. Truth be known we fell in love with the big brown eyes the first farm we visited.

Alpacas fit into our lifestyle and enabled us to remain at our day jobs which we both had too many years invested in to leave. Getting started was easier than we anticipated since we started our farm from an open hay field. We were fortunate enough to find a great mentor farm right from the start. Our initial purchase was 1 maiden female and 2 males. Our herd has grown and we currently have 90 – 100 alpacas on our farm. We are now at the number of alpacas we feel are needed to support our growing fiber business especially our trademark product FeltPAC shoe inserts.

YS:  Without giving away any of your trade secrets, what are some of the more tricky aspects of processing alpaca fiber?

C & J:  Getting the fiber clean is most important. Depending on the husbandry practices of the sending farm this can be a challenge.

Short cuts and varying fiber lengths can also be a challenge. Shorts, varying lengths and debris can cause “slubby” yarn.

Suri and Mohair fibers can always present a challenge. Regardless of the type of fiber, patience is what is truly needed to process a quality end product. Vintage yarns can not be rushed.

YS:  Which of your products or services excite you the most?

C & J:  Our needle felt fabrics and FeltPAC shoe inserts. Most months we process and hand craft 100’s of pairs of FeltPAC inserts and send them off to farm stores across the nation and into Canada. Felt fabric is in high demand and highly sought after by crafters and artisans alike. Felt from our loom is quickly becoming the largest part of our mill business.

YS:  What things have been the most surprising, or unexpected about being in the fiber processing  business?

C & J:  From day one we have had a minimum of 6 month backlog. Fiber arrived at our mill for processing before our mill equipment arrived. We are amazed at the amount of fiber there is to be processed.

Creamy alpaca roving from Worthington Acres

YS:  What is the most fun part of your job?

C & J:  Dyeing fiber, felt and yarns is fun. We get to do this with our daughter who is a master at dyeing bright and brilliant colors.

YS:  What is your typical day at the farm like?

C & J:  We awake early on our farm and after a relaxing morning coffee we head to the barns for daily clean up of manure, fill water buckets and hay feeders. After the morning chores it is time to go into the mill and begin to process fiber. Most weeks we welcome 2  or 3 farm visits. During the visits we get to show off our alpacas and our fiber mill. After a day of processing fiber we head to the barn again to re-fill water, hay and feed some grain. We also like to spend time with the alpacas in the afternoon halter training cria, trimming toe nails or just relaxing on the bench for an hour after the chores are complete. The afternoon takes us back into the mill and we typically process fiber until around 9:00 pm. After an hour or so of answering email, updating our web page and keeping up with our Facebook friends we head to bed for much needed rest, tomorrow is another day.

YS:  What are some of the more challenging aspects of your business?

C & J:  Keeping up with the demand and making sure our clients have finished fiber products in a timely manner.

YS:  I’m happy that you use Unicorn Products at your mill.  Can you tell me what you like the most about them and what made you decide to give them a try?

C & J:  The fiber wash seems to clean our fiber better than any other soap we have tried. We also seem to use less fiber wash than other soaps.

The fiber rinse does a good job helping to control static. 

Many thanks to Craig and Jane from Worthington Acres Alpaca Farm & Fiber Mill.  You can find more info about their products and services, and about alpacas in general, at their excellent website.