Fingerlakes Woolen Mill
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Tour Fingerlakes Woolen Mill

Contact us if you would like to visit our mill. We enjoy showing off our mill and farm to visitors. If you can't visit in person to the mill, here is a brief tour of how the mill operates.


Fingerlakes Woolen Mill may not be the largest mill in the country but the manner in which we make yarn and the equipment we use are no different than those used in the largest mill you might know. We make yarn using the woolen system (as opposed to worsted) and whether we are using wool from sheep, hair from angora rabbits, silk, or synthetics, the process is nearly the same. I'll walk you through the various steps and show you some pictures along the way.

 

Fibers

For our yarns we purchase U.S. grease wool mostly from local sources. Angora comes both from domestic and outside sources and silk comes to us from China. We use a high grade of wool, meaning it is very fine, very smooth, and has a very soft touch. If the shepherd and shearer have done their job they have removed belly and leg wool, manure tags, and portions of the fleece that may have excessive amounts of vegetable matter (usually the neck). The wool normally comes to us in burlap bags weighing 150 to 200 pounds each.

 

Scouring

Fibers to be processed can not contain all the natural oils and greases produced by the animal. Sheep can produce a lot of grease and fine-fibered breeds such as Merino and Rambouillet (the French type of Merino) have more than others. Most of this has to be removed and the process is called scouring. In our operation this washing is done either by us for small custom work jobs and natural colored wool or, in the case of our own yarns, by an outside firm that does commercial scouring. The wool goes through five vats of hot water and detergent that progressively remove most water soluble oils and a lot of other "junk." It is dried in an oven and then compressed in a 600 pound bale to be returned to the mill.

Angora, silks and synthetics need not be scoured because they have virtually no oil on the fibers.

 

Dyeing

Once the wool is scoured it can be sent to a dye house that will bale-dye the fibers to predetermined solid colors.

 

Picking and blending

Picker From this point on all work is done in the mill. With any one type of yarn we may be working with upwards of three colors of wool or perhaps several different types of fibers. Two things must happen at this point. The fibers must be opened, meaning that we must begin to separate the fibers that hold together in little clumps and, two, we must blend the different colors or different fibers evenly. In our operation this is a continuous, although a two-stage process. Fibers and colors are layered in the picker feedbox which then feeds them to the picker and from the picker the fibers are blown into a large room for collection. Depending on the fibers being spun, sometimes the different fibers must be picked first by themselves, then blended with wool. Blending takes place in the feedbox, in the picker and in the blow room as the fibers are homogenized by the blowing air. This process may be repeated several times if necessary. Several things happen as the result of picking - fibers are opened, fibers are blended and the picking loosens dirt and vegetable matter in the wool which results in cleaner fibers (and yarn).

During the picking process a water soluble oil is sprayed on the fibers. This gives the fibers a certain slipperiness that facilitates the remainder of the yarn-making process and helps reduce static electricity during carding.

The picker pictured above is a three-foot-in-diameter cylinder with hundreds of spikes that work against three smaller cylinders that also have hundreds of spikes all doing their job of opening the fibers.

 

Carding

This is the most involved process in yarn making. The rule in the mill is that if you card correctly you can spin. If not, then you have problems.

The carder is actually a series of machines, linked together in-line, that turn the picked fibers into pencil roving. Several things happen along the way. The fibers are further opened, dirt and short fibers fall off the carder, the fibers are further blended, and the fibers are roughly oriented in a parallel fashion with the machinery. Additionally, the amount of fibers entering the carder is strictly controlled and the distribution of the fibers is evenly placed across the width of the card, thus ensuring an even, uniform yarn.

feedbox The first piece of equipment is the feedbox. This machine allows us to place a large quantity of fibers in a feed hopper and through the use of a feed apron, weigh pan and feed table, to feed a predetermined amount of fiber into the card line. It is at this end of the process that we determine the weight and yardage of the pencil roving at the other end of the machine, and to a great extent, the yardage of the spun yarn.

The picture on the right shows a weighted load of wool being dropped on the feed table for delivery to the breast.

The next part of the carder is the breast. It is a large cylinder, 60" wide, with sets of smaller cylinders positioned above it. All of these cylinders are wrapped with metallic wire which has the appearance of the teeth of a hand saw. This is very tough material and is designed to handle the work of further opening the fibers.

Next we have the first of the major units of the card, the first breaker unit. It is comprised of one large cylinder with six to seven sets of smaller cylinders around it's circumference. These smaller cylinders are called workers (about ten inches in diameter) and strippers ( about three inches in diameter). All of these cylinders are covered with card cloth which holds lots of wire. Carding takes place as the main cylinder passes fibers to the worker, which passes it to the stripper, which returns it to the main cylinder. This is done over and over as the fibers gradually move forward on the card.

Workers There are several transition points on the card as we work to get the fiber from the first breaker to the second or finishing card. To get the fiber off the main cylinder we use a fancy (card cloth with long wire) to lift fiber off the surface of the main cylinder which allows the fiber to be transferred to the doffer cylinder. The fiber is removed from the doffer by the use of a card comb which allows the fiber to then go on to the peralta.

Center Draw The peralta is a set of 1-ton steel rollers. The carded wool passes between the rollers, which results in vegetable matter being crushed but does not harm the fiber. The fiber is then removed via a center draw frame and overhead to another feed table that delivers it to the second or finishing unit.

overhead As the fiber comes over the top on the overhead it descends to a device that lays it on a table having first turned it's orientation by 90 degrees. This has the effect of feeding the fiber into the second breaker sideways. This is very important. By doing this we are able to further ensure that the amount of fiber across the 60" card is even in terms of weight and blend. Imagine this - suppose that on the first breaker we have red on one side and white on the other. If we were to run this straight through till the end we would have some red pencil roving and white pencil roving. The 90 degree turn causes the carder to feed across the grain, so we have the same amount of color across the width. If there was a weight difference, this too would be corrected.

From here the fibers enter the finishing card and the finishing doffer. Note the best carding takes place here as the fibers are well separated and blended and, typically, this is where you have your finest and sharpest card wire.

 

Pencil Roving

The last piece of equipment is the tape condenser. This machine takes the 60" wide web of carded fiber as it is Condenser combed off the doffer and makes pencil roving. It is a three-step process. First the web is divided, in our case, into 120 strips. This is done using leather tapes that trap the fiber of the entering web and strip it into pieces that now adhere to the leather. Spools Second, the leather tapes deliver the strip of fiber to four sets of rubber-coated aprons - 30 individual strips to each set. As the fiber goes between the apron sets the aprons do two things - they deliver the fiber to the other side and, most importantly, they rub the wool sideways, back and forth, causing the strip of wool to be rolled and - condensed, which results in added strength. Finally, the fiber, now called pencil roving, is wound on spools. It is now in a form that can be spun.

 

Spinning

We do our spinning on a spinning frame. The pictures will tell you a lot about the frame but I will describe the mechanical process of how the frame works with the spools of pencil roving to turn it into yarn.

Frame Setup Mechanically speaking, the spinning frame replicates everything a handspinner does while at a spinning wheel. Every basic step or consideration of a handspinner has been thought out by an engineer and can be controlled - delivery of wool, drafting, amount of twist and in what direction, and placement on a bobbin, even a certain amount of cleaning. However, the frame will do this all day, consistently, and normally without complaint. We have in effect, 90 very efficient spinning wheels.

The spool of pencil roving sits on a drive drum. As the spool turns, 15 ends from each spool (this is what we now call the pencil roving) come to one side of the frame and the balance to the other. The route the ends take is this - compression point, twister head, compression point and finally, the bobbin. Here is what happens. Drafting takes place between the two compression points. Through the use of gears we can cause the frame to stretch out or draft the pencil roving by causing the drive rolls at the two compression points to rotate at different speeds. Thus pencil roving carded at 180 grains can be drafted to produce a single strand of yarn that weighs 140 grains, for example (weights are based on 50 yards). By carding heavy and drafting at a high percent you increase mill efficiency.

Between the first compression point and the top of the twister head we are able to facilitate two things. First, a "false twist" is imparted into the pencil roving to give it additional strength and second, through the process of making the false twist the pencil roving is vibrated causing loose vegetable matter to fall off.

Bobbins Yarn is made at the second compression point. To make this happen we have the yarn attached to a bobbin which is on a spindle. These items are rotating at a high speed and impart twist into the pencil roving. The twist begins at the bobbin and travels up to the compression point but can not go further. As more roving descends past the compression point the twist constantly goes into the descending roving which becomes yarn. To see how this works, take some pencil roving or fibers, pinch one end and twist the other. You can see how the twist travels towards the pinched end and if you can let additional fibers slip through the pinch point, you will continue to add twist to new fibers but not overtwist the first.

By changing gears and/or chains we can control draft, direction of twist, amount of twist and other aspects of the spinning frame.

 

Twisting

Twisting - as it is known in a mill, or plying for handspinners. Straightforward twisting is just that, straightforward. The process is very similar to spinning but you work with single spun yarn, not pencil roving. You again use a machine that delivers the singles to a compression point which limits the twist and from that point on the plied yarn, be it two, three or more strands, is carried to a bobbin. As with spinning, during twisting we can control for the direction of twist (almost always the opposite of the direction of spin, known as "S" or "Z" spins) and the amount of twist. It is possible to do fancy twists while plying, but for this you need a fancy twister.

Steaming or conditioning

This step is very straightforward. Moisture, normally steam, is forced into a cabinet containing yarn still on the bobbins. Heat and moisture have the effect of relaxing the yarn in it's present spun condition so when you remove it from the bobbin it does not want to "un-spin" itself but rather drapes naturally. Conditioning can also be accomplished by washing skeined yarn.

 

Skeining

Skeining is the process of removing yarn from bobbins and creating a loop of yarn, a skein. This is done on a skein winder.

 

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