Couple turns alpaca fleece into yarn

Anne Goodwin and Bob Estes raise 65 alpaca, run a woolen mill and sell their products directly to customers

LINDEN, Alta. — A & B Fiberworks owner Anne Goodwin remembers the event that sparked her woolen mill career. She and her husband, Bob Estes, had attended an exotic game auction in nearby Innisfail in the early 2000s.

She says it was a social outing but also “kind of a remembrance from back home.”

Goodwin operated an alternative game farm and riding stable near Owen Sound, Ont., before she moved west with Estes.

“A really pretty grey alpaca came through the ring”, she says. “I said, ‘oh, he’s so cute. I’d love to spin his fibre.’ ”

Goodwin had received her master spinner certificate in the 1980s and was up to the challenge.

With Estes’ encouragement, she went home that day with Dove and another alpaca. Within a year Goodwin bought about a dozen more alpacas, as well as some sheep.

“They’re herd animals, and should never be alone,” she says.

Next came the purchase of a card, picker, and pin drafter, which is the equipment required to process the animals’ fleece and fibre.

Goodwin started taking orders, accommodating clients with just a few animals who lacked large enough quantities of fleece to send to big commercial mills.

“At first we were going to be a carding mill and just make rovings.”

Anne Goodwin, who raises alpacas and turns their fleece into yarn, stands in front of the twister, which is where two or more single strands of yarn are bound together to create a thicker yarn. | Maria Johnson photo

Rovings are long narrow bundles of fibre ready for spinning or knitting or textile arts.

“Then people kept asking when were we going to get a spinner?” says Goodwin. Spinning turns rovings into yarn.

She felt there was enough demand, so in 2008 she bought a spinner and a twister, which creates the various ply yarns. Both machines were more than 50 years old but solidly built.

The equipment is housed in the 1,250 sq. foot mill they developed from two double-car garages. The mill is steps from the house on their 10-acre farm.

Running the mill was a steep learning curve but Goodwin and Estes are now able to fix just about any issue that arises, although parts can be tough to find.

The fleece- or fibre-to-yarn process takes nearly two weeks. The numerous steps include tumbling, washing, picking, carding, pin drafting, spinning, twisting, and washing again to set the twist.

Roving is the process that produces a long, narrow bundle of fibre from the wool fleece or alpaca fibre that is ready for spinning, knitting or textile arts. | Maria Johnson photo

Goodwin says the time incorporates resting periods between stages “to let (the fibre) relax, and combat static. We’re always battling humidity or lack thereof.”

A & B markets direct from the farm, online, at artisan and farmers markets, and from a storefront that’s open three days a week at Crossroads Market, Calgary’s oldest and largest farmers market.

She sells her line of roving and yarns, as well as other lines from locally sourced wool and mohair, and supplies for spinning, weaving and felting. Finished goods for sale include hats, mitts, scarves, socks, and dryer balls.

Estes helps out at home when she’s away.

“When I’m at the market, he runs the card,” she says.

Estes also steps in for Goodwin at the occasional market, when he’s not driving for Kneehill Transport, the couple’s small trucking company.

“When Bob retires he wants to become more involved in the mill,” she says. “He’s really taking an interest.”

The farm workload has increased with the alpacas, now numbering 65, and 10 sheep. They buy hay and grain from a neighbour.

Goodwin taught her husband weaving on one of her nine looms. Goodwin says she weaves generally only as a specialty order.

Taking up space in the mill is also a dozen antique sock knitters that came out of Ontario a year or so ago. They make an interesting profile: more metal, gears, wires and moving parts and the rounded toe forms pointing up and out at a 45 degree angle.

“We’ll get them up and running eventually.”

Goodwin says she finds the work very rewarding.

“The biggest reward for me is the independence, and the satisfaction of producing a quality product.”

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