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High-Paying Wool Production

Demands Proper Growth & Handling

By Tim King

Making top quality wool yarn and finished wool products requires top-notch husbandry of your sheep and their fleeces, according to Nancy Gonsowski, who owns Blue Hills Alpacas and Fiber Mill in Bruce, Wisconsin. Although she doesn’t raise sheep she’s seen the effects bad animal husbandry have on fiber quality: It just doesn’t look good.

Your finished yarn can sell for up to $60+ per pound.
Your finished yarn can sell for up to $60+ per pound.

“I just received a fleece and I could tell that the animal hadn’t been healthy,” she said. “A fiber has a breaking point. It is the point in the growth of the fiber where the animal was sick. It’s a weak spot in the fiber that marks the point in time where something happened to the animal like illness or stress. I had a fleece from an alpaca a few years ago and I put it in the water to wash it and it broke. When I lifted it out there was like a bathtub ring of broken fibers around my washing vat. I called the owner and he said the animal had been gelded and the other guys were picking on him all the time.”

Good Handling Equals Better Profit

While good animal husbandry is the first step to getting prime wool, good fleece husbandry is the second. Jacketed sheep usually make for the cleanest fleeces. But clean fleeces can be had without jackets.

Nancy Gonsowski's Blue Hills Fiber Mill.
Nancy Gonsowski’s Blue Hills Fiber Mill.

“Some folks send me uncovered sheep fleece that is relatively clean of vegetable matter, dung tags, and debris. Others come in loaded with hay, straw, wood chips, pieces of twine, wire, toenails and anything else you can imagine. But I do a lot of work for folks that don’t cover their critters and yet their fleeces are clean and nicely prepared prior to sending them to me.”

Nancy said that there still are a few shepherds who feed sheep by throwing hay on them and yet expect a quality wool product. Fortunately, they are the exception.

More often than not the people who have clean fleeces have also skirted them well. If you don’t want to skirt your fleeces prior to shipping them Nancy will do it for you. But if you want to save your money and her time she strongly encourages shepherds to skirt their own fleeces. That allows her to get down to the work she does that you can’t-processing your raw fleeces into yarn.

Best-Selling Wool Products

The carding machine is easy to clean between jobs, allowing Nancy to process even small orders at reasonable prices.
The carding machine is easy to clean between jobs, allowing Nancy to process even small orders at reasonable prices.

“Most of my customers want me to make yarn,” she said. “I have a few people that ask me to make roving, but those orders are usually small. Most people who have any number of sheep want yarn and they want to sell it at shows or from their farm. I’ve even got people who have a consignment deal with a yarn shop in their area.”

The yarn made at Blue Hills is often of blended fibers. The blending is done so as to improve the final product. Yarn for making socks is one example.

“My sock yarn is one-third wool, one-third mohair, and one-third alpaca,” Nancy said. “You get soft, strong, and a little extra warmth with that blend. Alpaca is a little warmer than wool and wool wicks away the moisture and keeps the whole thing snugger to your foot because it has so much memory. Of course wool is warmer than acrylic or nylon. Mohair is strong and will make your sock yarn tougher and more durable.”

Nancy makes each yarn-and each fiber blend-based upon what use a customer intends for the finished yarn. Recently she had an order that totaled fifty pounds of finished yarn, which the shepherd wanted made into three different kinds of yarn. She also blends for color and will find a color for you if you don’t have it in your flock.

Wool leaves the carder as a 'rope' of roving.
Wool leaves the carder as a “rope” of roving.

“I’ll make the kind of yarn needed for any desired finished product,” she said. “We can do eight or nine pound batches at a time so it doesn’t cost us more. But we do charge more for smaller jobs because we have to. Every machine gets cleaned after each job. If the job is less than four pounds you need to add $2 per pound. It takes me the same amount of time on a four pound order as it does on an eight pound order.”

Equipment Matters

Wool that is skirted and washed is then picked, to open up the locks and prepare it for carding, which aligns the fibers. “After the wool comes out of the picker it’s weighed out into two or three-ounce piles, depending on the type of fiber,” Nancy says. “Those weighed pieces are laid out in marked sections on trays and then they go into the carder.”

Nancy is proud of the equipment she uses to process her customized orders. She especially likes to brag about her McDermott carder. The carder does an excellent job of aligning the fibers after they leave the picker. It also saves her time, which means it saves you money.

Nancy says, “The McDermott carder does a very good job and it’s easy to clean. With most carders it can take a long time to get say, black fiber out of the teeth of a carder when you want to follow with a white fiber. I deal so much with people who have a little spinner flock-maybe they have some white and they have some black-and I can’t afford to spend two hours cleaning in between each one of those fleeces. The McDermott carder cleans itself; we spend maybe five minutes between different colors and then a few minutes vacuuming up and that’s about it!”

When the roving (the “rope” of straightened wool fibers) comes out of the carder, it drops into buckets.

After carding, the wool is pin drafted on this large and complicated machine.
After carding, the wool is pin drafted on this large and complicated machine.

From there Nancy takes it to the pin drafter, a big machine that Nancy got from a carpet mill in North Carolina that had closed its doors. The pin drafter improves upon the work of the carder. Nancy will pass the roving through the pin drafter at least twice.

“It evens out the heavier spots and the lighter spots on the roving,” she said. “If your roving is uneven it’s harder to spin it into yarn. Your thin spots are going to break if you’re setting the twist to your heavy spot and your heavy spots will be over-twisted if you set the twist to your thin spot.”

Spinning For Softness & Durability

Once she’s satisfied with the evenness of the roving, Nancy will set up the spinning job. Then the yarn gets spun to the customer’s specifications.

“I always try to spin a yarn soft to take advantage of the fiber’s natural softness if it’s a soft fleece,” Nancy said. “If it’s a medium soft fiber you don’t want to spin it so it’s rock hard. Whatever softness the wool has, I want you to feel that after I’ve spun it. I set my spinning machine so the yarn has just enough twist to stay together. You lose the soft feel if you twist too much. With sock yarn I’ll take it to the point where it’s just staying together and then I’ll add a little extra twist so it’s more durable. I make a lot of socks and sell them myself and the last thing I want is somebody’s socks to wear out right after they’ve bought them. I make a lot of sock yarn for other people and they like the fact that it will stay together.”

Nancy has also worked with and blended fine wools, such as Merino, Cormo, and even Angora rabbit, for sweaters.

The spinner turns the pin drafted roving into salable, high-value yarn.
The spinner turns the pin drafted roving into salable, high-value yarn.

“The thing with my mill is I’ve got to have fiber that’s longer than three to three-and-a-half inches, after it’s processed,” she advises. “A lot of Merino starts out at three inches and by the time it’s processed it’s under three; so I have to be real careful with the Merino that I get. I also have a hard time with fibers over seven-and-a-half inches such as Icelandic with long guard hairs.”

To find out if Blue Hills Alpacas and Fiber Mill can help you improve your profits by adding value to your fleeces contact Nancy via email at ngonsow@brucetel.net or by phone at 715-868-3074. Prices for the mill’s services can be found at their website www.Bluehillsalpacasandfibermill.com.

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