Last summer I was treated to a very special ‘behind the scenes’ visit to The Border Mill, a small mill in the Scottish borders, where husband and wife team Juliet and John make beautiful yarn, with particular focus on processing alpaca fibre. One thing that is special about their business is that they don’t have minimums; they will process as small a lot as a single fleece.
What surprised me was learning that the making of yarn, they way Juliet and John do it, is a CRAFT process. I suspect that the word Mill had led me to make assumptions of a much grander scale and automation. After spending a hands-on afternoon looking at the steps from fleece to skein (and even to hand-woven textiles), I have a new appreciation of the level of time, attention, expertise and craft that go into every part of the process.
how yarn is made at the Border Mill
Juliet and I spent an afternoon going through the process from fleeces arriving at the mill from all over the UK, to finished yarn all ready for your knitting, crochet, or weaving pleasure! While The Border Mill does process both sheep and alpaca fibre, they specialize in alpaca, which requires care and special handling to achieve the best results.
checking the fleece
Juliet and John receive fleeces from clients across the UK, and first they assess them for quality and feasibility. There are some kinds of fleeces that the mill can’t handle (for example, if they are altogether too dirty).
Next, alpaca fleeces go into a ‘tossing basket’ outside (this is probably not the technical term!), in which they are tossed and tossed, like in a tumble dryer. A good deal of the dirt and dust plus many of the guard hairs are shaken out through the mesh of the basket.
Next the fleece is washed in big commercial washers. This can take a long time. Sheep fleeces can be relatively easy to wash because they have lanolin, and when the detergent washes out the lanolin, it carries a lot of the dirt and grime along with it. As alpaca fleeces do not have lanolin, they hold onto the dirt and dust more stubbornly.
After the first wash, fleeces air-dry for a day or two on mesh racks.
into the blower
Fleeces are sent into the picker room next, which is a very basic method of opening up the fibres.
through the pre-drafter
The fiber next travels through a pre-drafting process, which opens up the fibres and separates out a lot of the shorter staple lengths and guard hairs, improving the fibre that remains.
a second wash & dry
At this point the fleece goes back into the washing machine, and out onto the drying racks for a second cleaning, now that the fibres have been opened up significantly, and any of the shorter fibres removed.
While much of the yarn that the Border Mill’s produces are undyed natural shades, Juliet also creates EXQUISITE tweedy colourways. Fibre is dyed into several different shades ‘in the fleece’ – that is, before spinning – and then these different colours are blended together in in the following steps to form tweedy and heathered yarns.
On the carder, we begin to blend fibres for the finished yarn. To make my yarn, we combined different colours and fibre types, layering them one on top of another on the conveyor belt that fed the carding machine. I chose to combine dyed black British BFL wool with red and pink dyed British alpaca fibre. What came out the other end of the carding machine is called a ‘sliver’ – a long snake of partially-drafted fibre, ready for further blending.
combing & blending
The slivers were blended together further as they travelled through a combing machine called a drawframe, creating the final ‘semi worsted’ sliver which has partially-aligned fibres. The number of times that the sliver passes through this machine impacts how aligned the fibres are, and also how evenly blended the colours are.
Because I wanted my yarn to have a ‘tweedy’ finish, with hints of the base colours that we began with showing through, we didn’t want the fibres to be too evenly blended.
Next the completed sliver is spun into singles! The spinner looks like a pretty complex piece of machinery… I was very impressed.
plying singles to make the final yarn
Once singles are produced, they are plied together on a machine similar to the spinner, to form a 2-ply (or more) yarn. We designed my yarn as a 2-ply, and between fingering and sport weight, so that it would match well with Border Mill Alpaca Tweed Silk, and I could pick some contrast colours from the shop’s delicious rainbow!
Once the spinning process is complete, yarn is finished by steaming it, which helps to set the twist so it doesn’t split too easily. Lastly it’s wound onto cones, and then off onto balls or skeins, and labelled for sale.
For some Mill customers, Juliet also creates custom hand-woven textiles. She really stewards the entire process, from fibre off the back of the beast to a fabulous result! Visiting her weaving studio brought home once more how artistry, craft, and care are woven into every aspect of the business.
I designed the Tortoiseshell shawl for Laine Magazine issue 6 in Border Mill Alpaca Tweed, a tweedy worsted-weight.
Plus I’ve gotten part-way through a sweater for myself in the yarn custom yarn that I made! I’m still planning to adjust the yoke design slightly before I call it ‘done’, but here are a couple of ‘work-in-progress’ shots. What do you think?