Fiber Mill Caters to Alpaca Fleece

4/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

EIGHTY FOUR, Pa. — Nearly a decade ago, Craig Eslep was burned out after 18 years in the health care industry, when a friend who raised alpacas introduced him to the species.

Infatuated with the animals, he bought a couple and boarded them elsewhere while he and partner Bill O’Donnell searched for a farm to buy. In 2006, Eslep and O’Donnell bought what is now known as 84 Alpacas, a farm in Eighty Four, Pa.

“From the very beginning, I was interested in what could be made from alpaca fiber beyond yarn,” Eslep said. “The fiber is so soft, and the fiber-making process is fascinating. I was immediately envisioning a fiber mill where I could create yarn, felted fabric and different value-added products from the fiber, not only from our animals, but as a service for other alpaca farmers as well.”

In 2006, Eslep began 84 Alpacas Fiber Mill on his and O’Donnell’s farm.

“There is a whole cottage industry of spinning equipment out there,” Eslep said, “where a person can buy a home mill for processing their own fiber, and they can do others’ fiber on it, as well.

“But the turnaround time for the smaller mills is often a year to 18 months,” he said. “Knowing I wanted to process others’ fiber and make larger projects, I purchased larger, more commercial-type equipment that allows a faster turnaround time.

“Generally speaking, people shear in May, and our goal is to have their fleece processed and spun by September or October of the same year,” he said. “It allows them to use it or sell it at craft shows in time for Christmas.”

Raw fleece from clients’ alpacas arrives at the mill in bags from all over the country, freshly sheared and still full of debris. Eslep and employee Ally Kuzupas “skirt out the seconds” by hand.

“The prime fleece comes from what is called the blanket,’ ” Eslep said. “That is the back and sides of the alpaca. Neck, rump and belly hair is usually coarser, and short fibers created by a second pass with the shears are also less valuable. We pull those out before putting the fleece in the tumbler.”

The tumbler works much like a bingo spinner, twirling the fleece around and around. The process flings out more of the short fibers and debris. The tumbling is done in an enclosed room to prevent the debris and dust from settling on all the equipment and processed fiber. After its ride in the tumbler, the fleece is hand-washed and then dried.

“Once it is dried, it goes through the picker, which makes it fluffier, and then it goes into the carder,” Eslep said. “The carder feeds the fiber through rollers with millions of teeth that move in opposite directions. Those rollers organize the fiber by making them all face the same direction, and flings out any remaining debris.”

At this point, the fiber can be made into batts, which look like quilt batting, or it can be made into rovings, which is the next step in the process of yarn making.

“If the yarn will be hand-spun, then the rovings are ready at this point,” Eslep said. “But they are still too uneven for a machine spinner, so if we are planning to do that, then the rovings go into the pin drafter. It works to even out the thickness of them so that we spin a uniform strand.”

Once the strands are spun, they are full of energy from being forced in one direction.

“That is why we ply the yarn immediately,” Eslep said. “When we put two or three strands together, they wrap around one another, neutralizing the energy. If we didn’t do it right away, it can lose its energy, and then the process is much more difficult. Next, we steam-finish the yarn and it is retail ready.”

84 Alpacas Fiber Mill is definitely growing, and there is room for even more growth.

“In 2011, we had 30 clients,” Eslep said. “Last year, we had 130. We processed 4,000 pounds of fiber last year, and that is with only Ally and me working here. We have the size, the space and the equipment to more than double that amount.”

Another new endeavor takes 84 Alpacas to the cutting edge of technology and helps fulfill Eslep’s dream of going beyond yarn.

“We are partnering with Willow Hill Textiles in Mars, Pa., who has invested in a high-end, computer-driven, knitting machine,” Eslep said. “We will be among the first to take raw fleece from a farmer and return a finished product.

“Before now, that required going in with a cooperative to have your fleece shipped to South America for production, and there was a 25,000 pound minimum,” he said. “So you didn’t know if the socks you were getting back were actually from your animal or not.

“But now, we will be able to have products made on a small scale, so your fiber’s identity remains intact,” he said. “It is very exciting.”

Eslep believes that alpacas are, and should be, here to stay.

“They are easygoing animals that are easy to maintain,” he said. “They don’t weigh a lot, and they have cloven hooves, so they are easy on their pastures.

“Also, they clip grass off at ground level instead of pulling it out by the roots,” he said. “They eat hay and grain, which is commercially available now, and raising them offers great tax advantages. Their fiber is a fully renewable resource that is all-natural, warmer than wool and softer than cashmere. They are wonderful creatures.”

For more information on 84 Alpacas Fiber Mill, call Eslep at 412-860-5090.

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