Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Visit to Shears to You

This little outing had nothing to do with food, but I had to write about it anyway. And it is about a locally processed agricultural product...

On Saturday we went to Shears To You, an alpaca farm and mill near Listowel as there was an open house at the mill that day. They had a fabulous day for it; clear and mild. There is no sign advertising the store or the farm, but they are at 5128 Line 90, R R #2, Palmerson, Ontario, N0G 2P0 and the number is well marked. Their map instructions are quite clear. You will also know you are there by the alpacas!

These ones were hanging out near the front.

They have rather deluxe accomodation in a large house-like shed.

The guys in the back, by comparison, live in Bachelor Hall. This is the "mobile mating service" which presumably is handy, but not too handy, to the girls across the way.

"Who are you callin' a hayseed...?"

Actually, the alpacas were lovely; very calm and nice tempered, curious and friendly. They are charmingly goofy looking critters who are mostly interested in eating. Their recent sheering left them with mukluks and a funny top-knot.

When we arrived, the females were mostly all out grazing.

However, when we looked into "Alpaca-trazz" they came in to check us out.

Then they stayed around to do some indoor munching.

Next we went into the mill where we were given a tour of the processing plant. When the fleeces arrive, they are bagged and labelled. Shears To You is proud of the fact that when alpaca farmers send them their fleeces to be processed, the farmers receive back their own product. (Other mills will send back the same weight, but from random producers.) The tags will stay with the fleece throughout the milling process.

First, the yarn is carefully washed, by hand or by machine, as many times as it takes to get it clean. Generally, this is two to five times, not including the rinses, which will be more. But wait! they're not done yet: the fibres are then set through a picking machine, which loosens the fibres to absorb conditioners that will improve their ability to be spun and knit. The fibres must then rest while they absorb the conditioners.

Heres' a batch destined for socks, spread out on one of the drying racks.

After being conditioned, the fibres go on to the carder to be combed into long, soft coils called slivers (pronounced "slyvers".) This also cleans out any remaining bits of vegetation that might have been clinging to them.

Next, the coils of carded fibre are "pin drafted". This means they are combed together into rovings (the long coils of unspun fibre) to be spun. This is done at least three times to create smooth and uniform rovings.

Finally, the yarn is spun. The rovings enter the top of the machine, and are spun onto cones.

They're not done yet though; next the spun yarn must be twisted together into plied yarn to give it the finished strength, thickness and twist.

The finished yarn is then wound onto cones by the cone winding machine, or...

onto the skein winder to be wound into skeins to be sold to hand knitters.

You can purchase the finished yarn on cones or by the skeins in their shop. However, much of the yarn goes on to be made into socks. When the local sock-making industry closed down in recent years, Shears to You was lucky to be able to buy some of the old sock-making machines. Even better, the machines came with their cousin who worked for decades in the sock mills and knows how to maintain the machinery. He's now one of only a handful of people in all of North America who are able to do this.

When we were there, they were running sample socks through the machine in synthetic fibres, just so people could see the process. It's fascinating, I must say. A series of round plates (you can see them in the photo above this one) act almost like a crude computer in determining the pattern of the socks. The knitted sock appears, and is received into a drum. I say the sock; it's actually a long tube of joined socks. Each sock-to-be is joined to its' neighbours by yarn that will dissolve when washed. The almost-finished socks are then seamed shut at the toe.

And there, finally, you have it. A sock.

After all this, it will come as no surprise to hear that their socks are considerably more expensive than those produced abroad. At about $35 a pair (some are more, some are less) these are pricey socks, when you compare them to the ones generally available. When I look at the amount of work that goes into producing each pair though, I have to rate them as a bargain, really. There's a whole screed about exploitation and our unjust expectations of ever-cheaper goods which I am going to spare you here, but it sure gives you something to think about when you see the amount of work involved in making a pair of socks. Sure, large companies can make huge savings through economies of scale that just aren't possible here, but mostly we are... oh, sorry. I said I was going to spare you the rant.

When cared for well, these socks should last for a year or two. They should be hand-washed (or at least washed on a very gently cycle) and definitely air-dried.

My sweetie bought a pair to try out. He hasn't worn them yet, as the weather has been very mild (beautiful, eh?!) and these socks are going to be toasty, toasty, toasty warm. We also got some felt inserts made of half alpaca and half regular wool. (We bought seconds. Cheapskates.)

If he decides he loves them, we'll be back for more. We'll have to decide whether to order them on the Shears To You website, or if we want to have the fun of going back to visit those charming alpacas. There's a lot more information on their website, so be sure to check it out.


Oddly, when we went to the St. Jacobs market before heading out to Shears To You, we found another local sock manufacturer. This is Simcan, who produce socks designed for people with circulation problems, including diabetes. They don't produce their own yarn, but the socks themselves are made in Cambridge. Their prices are more standard. You can check them out at Simcan.


Michael said...

Just saying that I enjoyed this post!

Ferdzy said...

Thanks, Michael! It was a fun place to visit.

Hungry Gal said...

too cool!