From the field to the market: Local farm turns raw fiber into yarn, felt
Alan and Rachel Boucher haven’t always raised alpacas. In fact, their farm, Rach-Al-Paca Farm southwest of Hastings, is only about 10 years old.
The couple first saw alpacas at a fair in Massachusetts, where they used to live. They moved to Hastings in 2002, saw the alpacas again, and decided to buy their own with the intent to keep it to use the fiber. But as they did their research on the market, they found that they could help the alpaca industry in another way.
Alpacas need to be sheared, and the fleece is processed and turned into yarn or fabric. But the Bouchers found out quickly that it was difficult to find a mill that would handle such small batches as they were producing. So they decided to start their own.
Rachel Boucher was a librarian before they moved to Hastings, so she used her skills to do a lot of research, she said, and they hired a consultant to help them get the mill going. It launched in 2004 on a shoestring budget; two additions and four employees later, it’s processing fiber from more than 100 farms all across the country.
The processing process begins with a pile of fleece that has been sheared from an animal. Rach-Al-Paca Farm handles all sorts of fiber, including alpacas, llamas, sheep, Angora rabbit and goats.
“I even did a dog blend once,” Rachel said.
The fiber is put into a tumbler, which knocks out excess debris. Next it’s washed. It takes 50 gallons of water to wash a load of about six pounds of fiber, Rachel said. After washing, it’s spread out on racks to air dry.
Once the fiber is dry, it goes into a picker, which is a big steel drum studded with spikes on the inside that teases and fluffs the fiber. From there it’s carded. Carding aligns the fiber and rolls it together onto a drum; the machine can produce wide flat batts or roving, a narrow, loose tube of fiber.
For making yarn, roving is run through a pindrafter, which combs and drafts the fibers into a smooth stream. Fiber has to be run through this machine three or four times before it’s ready to go on.
Some fiber producers choose to end the mill process here, preferring to spin their own yarns. Rach-Al-Paca can also continue the process.
The spinner takes sliver (a narrower form of roving) of fiber, teases it out on fast-moving rollers and spins it into a narrow yarn, which winds onto a bobbin. To strengthen the yarn, strands are twisted together, creating 2-ply and 3-ply yarns. More plies are used to make a bulky weight yarn.
The final step is to wind the yarn into skeins (loops of yarn) or onto cones, wash it one final time to get rid of any dust picked up in the process and send it back to the producer.
Rach-Al-Paca also makes felt sheets out of the fiber. Instead of turning the fluffed fiber into narrow tubes, it can be made into batts, which are then wet and rubbed until they form a fabric.
Rach-Al-Paca Farm isn’t just a fiber processing mill. Rachel and Alan Boucher have their own herds of animals that help supplement the processing business.
There are nine alpacas, 30 sheep and several goats on the farm.
When the Bouchers bought the farm in 2002, it came with meat goats, they said, so it wasn’t hard to continue raising them. They continue to breed and raise them for meat and milk.
They started raising Shetland sheep as well, a small, hardy breed. There are 30 sheep on the farm currently, but 18 of those are lambs that will be sold. The sheep are sheared twice a year and the Bouchers mill it themselves, sometimes using it to blend into other fibers if requested.
The nine alpacas round out the fiber producing animals on the farm. They’re a mix of Huacaya and Suri; Huacaya alpacas have fluffy fiber while Suri alpacas have long fiber that sometimes resembles dreadlocks.
Yarn and more
As if taking care of the farm and running the mill full-time weren’t enough, Rachel Boucher sells her own yarns and some yarn products. There’s a whole room in her home dedicated to yarn, with skeins filling up walls of storage cubbies. She also weaves rugs out of the tougher fiber and makes handmade coffee cup sleeves out of the fleece from her farm. She also sells socks, but those she has made for her, she said.
She sells the products and the yarn at three sales each year. The next one she’ll be at is in Hopkins Nov. 2.
Next weekend, Rach-Al-Paca Farm will be opened up to the public for the third annual Sheep and Fiber Farm Tour, an event that features selected fiber farms in Hastings, Welch, Faribault, Zumbrota and Houston. Locations, including the Rach-Al-Paca Farm, will be open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 11, 12 and 13. For more about the tour, go to www.fiberfarmtour.com.
For more about Rach-Al-Paca Farm, go to www.rachalpacafarm.com.