Do you know what the best type of friends a yarnie nerd can have?
Friends that let you join them in a spinning mill when they're creating a yarn!
When my good friend Briony from byBriony told me she had some top that she wanted to get spun into yarn at a local mill I begged her to let me tag along; after all, this is the stuff I geek out over. I gave her my best puppy dog face and luckily, she didn't take a lot of convincing and a couple of weeks ago we found ourselves stepping into the daily life of Nick and Isabel Renters from Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill.
Nick and Isabel run a Western Victorian based bespoke mini-mill. In terms of sustainability and creating yarn with a small footprint, they are incredibly well placed. The mill runs off solar power, they farm their own alpacas and are within coo-ee of a couple of excellent wool producers. Additionally, they're about 160kms from a couple of the four remaining scourers in Australia. In a country as big and as sparsely populated as Australia, that's super-dooper practically next door neighbours.
Briony brought with her 7kg of top; 2kg of Corriedale/silk and 5kg of Moorit Corriedale/Suri. The plan was to create a yarn that isn't readily available on the Australian market; following that age-old advice about looking for the gap in the market and filling it. Australia is a country built on its use of merino 8ply. Knitters in Australia absolutely suck this shiz up like nobody's business, so a deliberate decision to not produce an 8ply was made - instead we looked at yarn weights we like to knit with but aren't readily produced here. The answer is pretty obvious; a 5ply/sport weight (almost the perfect weight for the Australian climate) and a gutsy worsted weight more like an Aran than a 10ply.
After a cup of tea for the more civilised and coffee for the sleep deprived, it was yarn making time. Nick and Isabel have a philosophy that if you're spinning yarn they like you to be in the mill, it's not compulsory but their belief is that it helps you understand the process and how your fibre behaves - because as any mill operator will tell you not all fibres behave the same way. This doesn't mean standing around watching Nick work his magic, it means getting in there and helping out on the machinery.
Our first aim was to turn the Corriedale/silk into a 5ply/sport weight yarn with a 3ply structure. As Briony's fibre had already been scourer and processed into tops at Cashmere Connections, we could skip a few steps in the mini-mill process. We did need to re-card our tops though, as we needed a smaller diameter for the machinery than the top was in.
Briony and I set to work on the carder, separating the fibre and feeding it through in exact lots to create a roving the correct thickness for the Draw Frame. (It's quite interesting how in a mini-mill the equipment is slightly different and performs its function just a little bit differently from a big commercial mill) The actual weight of the yarn being fed through on each section in the carder can be varied to create different weight yarn, more weight in each section makes for a heavier weight yarn - which makes perfect sense really. The carder's job is to separate and align the fibre so you get a continuous length of roving coming out of the roving deck. It will also remove dust and any other vegetable matter or contamination left in after scouring.
Once we had a number of cans of roving, these were fed through the Draw Frame. The Draw Frame further aligns rovings to create a continuous roving that is consistent in size over its entire length.
When we generally talk about semi-worsted production, it's generally taken to mean that yarn has undergone woollen processing and is then spun on a worsted frame. In a mini- mill however, even though it's classified as creating a semi-worsted product, the function that the Draw Frame performs isn't really one that exists in woollen processing where after carding, the web of fibre is divided into thin roving or slubbing.
The Draw Frame drafts the roving by drawing out the fibre to create a sliver. It also performs a function called doubling which basically means two or more lengths of roving are fed through the machine and they come out the other end as one length. Drafting and Doubling are processes that occur in what is generally referred to as the Gilling stage of worsted processing. Some mini-mills use a Pin Drafter at this stage, they seem to perform the same function but I'm yet to understand how it is that they really differ.
Unfortunately, I seem to have been distracted at this stage of the process every time and didn't take a photo of the Draw Frame in action.
What I found amazing at this stage, was how much maths goes into spinning. A whole lotta maths. Nick explained the sums and calculations he makes at each stage to determine yarn weight and optimal processing. Briony and I did fairly good impressions of dithering fools as these explanations flew over our heads.
Disclaimer: neither of us are dithering fools, we both use a good deal of maths in areas of the industry but you know what they say about the unfamiliar.
Nick hit us with some more quick calculations before feeding the sliver through the spinning machine. He fiddled with dials and made a few adjustments to help create our ideal yarn. We learnt how to thread? (load) the sliver into the spinner and sat back and watched the magic happen. This is the stage where we both started to do little excited jumpy dances as the fibre was beginning to resemble yarn. Watching the machine in action, you can clearly see how the fibre is drawn out (drafted) in the top section and then twist is applied to it as it forms a yarn balloon. Yarn balloons are all sorts of awesome.
The process all seems to run fairly smoothly, but as Nick said as soon as you set the machines to run and try to do something else you can guarantee something will go wrong. And sure enough, as soon as we sat down for lunch the spinner decided to throw a couple of minor hissy fits.
After the spinner, the single plies are fed through the twister, which as the name suggests twists the required number of plies into one continuous strand of yarn as we know it.
After an initial uber-small run, we were able to get out our needles and knit up our sample yarns, discuss any changes we felt needed to be made and go through the process again. Once we were happy with the sample, that's when we hit go for all the fibre to be processed into yarn.
While at this stage we do have yarn, it's not where the process ends. The yarn is then wound off the bobbin/spool onto a cone. If it's not being sent to a dye house, it also goes through a steaming process. Much like steaming helps in blocking, steam helps to relax and set the yarn's fibres into place after it has been pulled and stretched and processed. After being given a chance to relax, it's then skeined and ready for the knitter or crocheter to enjoy.
Yarn making in a mini-mill is not a quick task and there are so many other factors that come into play. The weather; humidity and wind can cause chaos with static electricity making the carding process pretty much impossible on some afternoons. Different fibres will behave differently on the machines, and in such a small mill the option to control this behaviour a bit more and create truly bespoke yarns is a fabulous asset, but like any good quality bespoke product made with thought and consideration, it is one that does take time.
A 5ply/sport weight Corriedale/Silk merino with a 3ply structure.
The Moorit Corriedale/Suri Aran weight with a 3ply structure.
We started out with a 50/50 blend but in the carding we lost a bit of the Suri (remember how I mentioned different fibres behave differently), the end product was more a 60/40 blend.
Here they are together. <3
If you're interested in using some of Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill's yarn, you can purchase them from their website here.
And coincidentally, I've just released a pattern using one of Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill's yarns; Loch Ard which is a glorious blend of their own alpaca and Tarndie's Polwarth. I used the colourway Riverstone.
Cutting Edge is a semi-circular shawl with a simple eyelet pattern throughout that makes for meditative knitting. Cutting Edge is finished with a garter stitch knitted-on edging providing the knitter with an engaging and interesting way to finish the shawl. The snuggliness factor of this shawl is sure to make it an instant favourite as it sits comfortable over shoulders, laps or even sleeping babes.
This pattern also features a simple and effective technique for working garter tabs that you'll wish you knew eons ago!
Available for purchase on Ravelry.
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