Sending your Fiber to the Mill – Are you asking the right questions?

Patty Sanville of Budding Creek Farm and Bridget Brown of Head Spring Fiber Mill spoke at the July Chesapeake Fibershed Meet-up about things you can do to make sure you get a good product from your raw fleece when you send it to a mill for processing.  You can check out the recording on YouTube.   

It’s important to have realistic expectations on what you can get from your fiber since not all fibers and fiber mills are equal.  Below are some questions you can ask yourself, and the mill, to help you select a mill and take any surprises out of the outcome. Turning your fiber into a final product is a commitment of time and money so be sure to know what you want before you send off your fiber!

Determine your end use.

Do you want fiber to use for yourself or to sell?  Maybe you don’t care about the cost for your personal use, but if you are planning to sell your products you’ll want to consider the cost of processing vs. the sales potential.

If you have mill products created, do you have an outlet to sell them?

What products are popular in your marketplace?   Are you looking to sell to knitters, felt makers, or sell hand made goods?

Research the mills available in our fibershed and beyond

Compare prices from different mills to see what your costs will be.  Most mills price by individual services which can add up.  Be sure you’re taking all costs into consideration, including your travel or shipping to the mill.

Is turnaround time an issue?  Some mills can turn around your fiber quickly while others can take a year or more.

Do you have a large quantity or a small amount of fiber? Some mills require a minimum amount of fiber while others prefer working with smaller batches.

Would you like something other than roving or yarn?  Not all mills make all products.

Are you particularly interested in using an eco-friendly mill?

Can you see samples of the mill’s work?   (If you see a yarn or other product that you like from another fiber producer,  ask them where it was milled.)

Ask about the equipment at the mill.  Is the mill worsted or semi-worsted? Pin draft or draw frame?  Specific fibers only? The type of equipment that a mill uses impacts your end product.

Does your mill have a cone winder? Bump Winder? Steam set? Offer skeining?  Offer dyeing?

What is the minimum and maximum fiber length your mill requires?

Will they blend your fibers with other fibers?  Can they add silk or other fibers?  Also be aware that some mills mix wools from several farms together during processing. If you want your specific fiber returned to you, be sure you know their policy before you send your fiber!

Expect loss

How dirty is your wool?  Have you skirted and removed any vegetable matter before sending it to a mill?  Skirting involves removing undesirable areas and matter from the fleece, including hay, straw, dags, muddy ends, burrs, shorter fiber, second cuts, weak tips, felted areas (cotted), and wool break.  Generally, fiber processing is charged based on incoming weight, so if you don’t have your fleece well-skirted, you are paying the mill to throw it away!   If a fleece is particularly dirty, some mills may refuse to process it because it could damage their equipment.  Others charge separately for the skirting process so it’s usually best to skirt your own.  Skirting a large amount of fleeces can be a daunting task, so try to set goals and do smaller quantities at a time

In addition to losing fleece weight as a result of skirting, You’ll also lose weight in the various processing steps.  A raw wool fleece is full of lanolin and the fleece loses approximately 30% of its weight in the scouring process, (alpaca and mohair fleeces don’t lose much in weight when cleaned since they don’t have lanolin).   Weight is also lost in the various processing steps. Depending on the fiber, the carding process alone can lose 10-20% of your fiber weight.  So be aware that by the end of the process, you may have half the weight you started with.

Ready to process your fiber?

There are many variables so don’t be afraid to ask questions of the mill owner.  They want you to have a good experience and are great sources of information.  If they don’t have the capacity to process your fiber in the way you want, they can often direct you to another mill that can.  They can also look at your fiber and help determine what the best end product would be.  Not all wool can be turned into the perfect soft-to-the-skin sweater yarn but there are so many other uses for the fibers in our area.  There’s a perfect use for yours.

Just ask.

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