Once again, SUNY Cobleskill, known for their innovative programs and workshops, has led the way for the agricultural community by launching the first certificate program for Fiber Sorting, Grading and Classing offered in the United States.
Linda Serdy, Program Coordinator at SUNY Cobleskill’s Office of Professional and Continuing Education (PACE), explained how the program came about. “Last spring Associate Professor Jason Evans was introduced to Wini Labrecque, Certified Camelid Fiber Grader/Sorter/Classer through Olds College in Canada,” explained Serdy. “Wini was looking for an educational institution in the U.S. through which she and other fiber grading/sorting educators could establish a training program that would ultimately lead to a more effective fiber grading system in the United States. The Office of Professional and Continuing Education at SUNY Cobleskill agreed to sponsor the training and develop a Fiber Grading, Sorting, Classing certificate program.”
Serdy said the goal of the program is to educate and train fiber producers, processors and others across the U.S. “Businesses will benefit significantly from systematic understanding and application of fiber grading methods.”
The workshop, led by Wini Labrecque of Star Weaver Farm, along with Pam Ellenberger, Jody Hezoucky and Brian Willsey — all of Certified Sorted Systems, attracted 40 participants, including farmers, spinners, knitters and felters from across the northeast and as from far away as Oklahoma and Canada. More applicants were put on a waiting list. Serdy says the response was “overwhelming!”
Labrecque has been involved in the fiber industry for 30 years and promotes all types of fibers for practical and commercial use. Credited as an Alpaca Owners Association (AOA) Certified Alpaca Fleece judge, she has completed training in grading and sorting of cashmere fiber and is a judge of cashmere, as well.
In addition, Labrecque has raised sheep, alpacas, cashmere producing goats, angora goats and angora rabbits; she has been instrumental in developing criteria and judging protocol for yak fiber and works with the International Yak Association.
“Our purpose as a sorting and grading and classing training program is to try to unify, and make this process standardized across the United States, so we’re all on the same page, we’re all doing the same thing,” Labrecque said. “If you sort fiber in California, it’s going to be the same as us sorting fiber here, and all of that fiber can come collectively together at some point for use; whether you do it at a farm level or you use that fiber in a larger group collection, such as a wool pool.”
Labrecque said that partnering together with Ellenberger, Hezoucky and Willsey of Certified Sorted Systems, presents “a very specific type of sorting” and is actually the collaboration of two different programs.
The program, which involves three training sessions, begins from the ground up — literally, covering everything from pasture management, genetics and breeding selection, nutrition, shearing, sorting, grading and classification; resulting in “improved fiber quality and uniformity to promote more consistent and predictable end products.”
Labrecque said there are a “few ground rules” including keeping an open mind when working with natural fiber. “It’s hard to believe that you can have an argument about fiber. But it happens! So, just keep an open mind!”
She pointed out that each breed of animal would have specific qualities to its fiber. Recognizing and understanding basic fiber physiology including hair follicles, primary fibers, secondary fibers and guard hair, were part of the discussion. Labrecque showed charts and pointed out how each primary fiber is broken down into sweat glands, wax glands and erector muscle, with a hollow core. Secondary fibers have only a wax gland and generally cluster around the primary in groups of three. She explained that the more secondary fibers the fleece contains, the higher the quality of the fleece will be. This is considered in the primary/secondary ratio. Guard hairs are short, stiff and pointy. “You’ll feel it!” she attested.
The effects of medullation (small hollowed areas that are found in the center of individual fibers) on the warmth, weight and wear of fibers was discussed.
Each fiber also has scales particular to the breed of animal. These scales are what cause some fibers to stick together like Velcro, which aids in felting. These scales also contribute to trapping debris, allergens, etc., and contribute to the “itch factor.”
Harvesting fleece was discussed in detail and Labrecque said she recommends using brown paper made for harvesting fleece — not plastic — and “noodling” the fleece. Mark each fleece as to “head” or “tail” before wrapping. Histogram samples should also be taken at harvest time.
Ellenberger talked about the proper way to take histograms and how this information “provides good data for breeding decisions.” Histograms tell average fiber diameter, standard deviation and other details about the specific animal’s fiber, such as “comfort factor” for resulting garment and “spin fineness” for milling. “This is a useful tool for farm management,” said Ellenberger.
Data keeping and documentation is also a key management tool. “Get into the habit of documenting every fleece you see,” advised Labrecque.
Hands-on activities followed the intense, 4-hour, lecture segment of the program. Participants practiced sorting fleece and grading and classifying different fiber samples.
Attendee Elaine Gerber of Woodland Meadow Farm, Saratoga County, NY, has been raising alpaca since 2011 and currently owns a herd of about 30, while partnering on two herd sires. Learning about breeding was a high point of the class for her. “I learned that there are many variables that need to be considered when looking at an animal and assessing the characteristics that may be passed on through breeding. While a single characteristic may be outstanding, there is really a whole picture that should be looked at. In addition I feel that I will be able to make better decisions about my product after shearing through proper grading to determine the best end use. As a fiber producing farm the information is invaluable!”
“The inaugural Basic Farm Sorting & Grading Workshop with SUNY Cobleskill/PACE was an overwhelming success,” said Labrecque. “Attendance exceeded our expectations and shows the amount of interest in proper harvest of natural fibers for production. It is clear to our Sorting Grading Classing team the need to continue this program, incorporating in more class material in all natural fiber producing livestock. We believe our students will become a valuable asset to the growing industry of U.S. natural fibers processed into end product in the USA. It is our goal to enhance sustainability on the farm.”