Friday, December 03, 2021

DIY 3D Printed Mini Wool Combs - Spinning Unwashed Alpaca


A few months ago, I bought an alpaca fleece from a nearby farm called Grange Alpacas.  I must confess that one of the main reasons for visiting the alpaca farm was to meet these lovely animals.  I've always had a soft spot for alpacas, but I've never met one in person, so it was a real treat!


I had Sojourner, the travelling Daedalus Sparrow, with me at the time, and Ruby here was drawn to the blue of the e-spinner.  She was so friendly and came straight over to us and let us stroke her soft neck.  It's not difficult to see why people love alpacas so much!


While I was there I bought this beautifully soft alpaca fleece.  The owner of Grange Alpacas is not a spinner and so it's not technically a 'blanket'  - it has only been skirted to remove the worst of the dirt and so it was up to me to spread it out and select the finest, softest parts of the fleece from the back and sides.

Alpaca is quite different to sheep's wool in that it has no lanolin content, and so it's not unusual for spinners to decide to spin it without washing.  The fibres and locks don't stick together in the same way as maybe a Blue Faced Leicester fleece might.  The only problem with alpacas is that they love to roll on the ground, so unwashed, uncombed alpaca fibre will be very dusty and full of vegetable matter.

I chose to spin the alpaca unwashed for a few reasons:
  • Alpaca felts very easily and I’m very good at accidentally felting fibres…
  • It uses significantly less water and detergent (not to mention physical and electrical energy) to wash spun yarn than a whole fleece. 
  • Hanging skeins of yarn take up a lot less drying space than a fleece that needs a large amount of flat drying space.  I could have washed small amounts of the alpaca locks at a time, but as drying space is limited, and the UK weather is unpredictable, I would much rather just spin it raw and not be governed by the weather.
  • It’s much easier to comb alpaca if the lock structure is maintained - keeping the lock structure of a whole alpaca fleece together during washing is quite difficult. 

I've spun alpaca before, but it was when I only had my treadle wheel.  Back then, I didn't wash it either, I just fluffed it up to open up the locks, and spun it from the cloud.  

Unwashed alpaca locks

I don't know if it's because it's a white fleece but this fleece looks significantly dirtier than my earlier experience. I suspect however that the majority of dust and vegetable matter will drop out with a really good combing.


I'll be using my Hansen Minispinner, and as much as I love my electric spinning wheels, I do find it so much easier to spin on them if my fibre is very well prepped.  While spinning from the cloud is certainly possible on an e-spinner, I don't find it as enjoyable or as relaxing as if I had a well-prepared, pulled top that doesn't require too much stopping and starting.

Unwashed alpaca fibre on the left, with
pulled top, combed with a dog comb on the right

I tried prepping a little of the fibre on my homemade hackle using a dog comb - which worked very well for small quantities, but it also taught me that I really need to get myself a pair of fine wool combs, if I'm going to be spinning a large amount of alpaca. Like most specialist spinning tools, wool combs are expensive and I could easily spend £100 on a pair. As I rarely spin raw fleece, and I've had previous experience making fibre prep tools, my first thought was to try to make my own.

Most home-made combs I've seen instructions for are made from nails, but for a shorter, finer fibre, like alpaca, I need something a lot more refined.


My DIY Hackle made from onion holders/slicers is still serving me well, and so I decided to use the same evenly spaced spikes to make my wool combs too.

I've also made a tutorial video on how to make mini wool combs to accompany this blog post, for anyone that prefers it - 


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Full disclosure - This blog post contains Amazon Affiliate links to products that I bought myself to make my mini wool combs.  If you purchase anything from Amazon, using these links, I may receive a small percentage of the purchase price at no additional cost to you.

Materials needed to make a pair of 3D printed, fine, 3 tiered, mini-wool combs



I began with 6 of these onion slicers/holders as I'm going to make two, three-tier combs.  These onion slicers/holders come with these cute plastic sleeves, which are going to come in very handy for covering the sharp points when I'm not using them.  Beware, those points are sharp!


If you hold the onion slicer up to the light you can just about see how far into the plastic handle the tines are embedded.  I want to cut the spikes just below this line so that I'm not having to cut through stainless steel.


Draw a line below where the spikes end in the handle and, with the handle held tightly in a vice, cut straight across.  I'm using my Dremel 8220 with the Flex-Shaft attachment, but a hacksaw would also do the job.


Here are all 6 onion holders cut down to size.  


Before you glue the plastic bases together, give the shiny surfaces a light sanding to help them adhere to each other better.


Mix a small amount of both parts of the epoxy glue together on a piece of waste card.  With a cocktail stick, smear a generous amount of glue onto one of the plastic bases. Position one onion holder over the other so that the tines alternate.


I found it much easier to glue the plastic bases together in two pairs, rather than try to glue all three holders together at the same time.


Clamp the two onion holders together for at least 5 minutes, or until the glue cures.  


Here is the point in the video where I begin gluing the onion holders together.

I found it helpful to lightly clamp the holders together first, then check either side to make sure that the spikes are level with each other before tightening the clamp in place.


Once the glue has hardened, repeat by attaching the third row of spikes, making sure that the two outer tines are opposite each other.  Clamp them together again and leave for the glue to completely harden.


Meanwhile, print out the front and back sections of the mini wool comb handles, twice.  We have a Creality Ender 5 Pro 3D printer, but many libraries or Makerspaces will carry out 3D printing for a small charge.


I've separated them into two halves for a neater finish and to avoid the need for supports.  I'm sure that they would be usable without the back section, but I do much prefer holding the fully rounded handles.


Sand the two flat surfaces of the comb handles and glue the two halves together.


Then sand or roughen the insides of the rectangular recesses so that epoxy glue and resin will stick to the 3D printed plastic handles much better.


Using two-part epoxy glue, apply a generous amount to the cut sides of the onion slicers/holders and glue them into the rectangular cavity.  Many wool combs have the spikes leaning towards the handle and so rather than try to balance the spikes on the cut ends of the plastic handles, I also leaned them slightly inwards, as it was much easier to leave them to cure in this position.  While I was angling them, I made sure that no part of the plastic onion holder handles was above the top, flat section of the comb handles.  I wanted to make sure that all of the coloured plastic would be covered later with resin.


To firmly secure the onion holders into the cavity, I used epoxy resin.


Mix together some epoxy resin to pour into the area surrounding the spikes.  In this instance, I'm using Reschimica epoxy resin from Italy, but any low viscosity casting resin that is suitable for slightly deeper pours would work.


This is the point in the video where I begin to pour the epoxy resin.

Stir the two parts of the epoxy resin slowly with a plastic or silicone stir-stick for at least 3 minutes.  After 3 minutes, look closely to make sure that there are no lines or striations in the resin and that the resin is water clear.  If there are still lines in the resin, stir for at least another minute.

Once the two-part epoxy resin is fully mixed, add some opaque pigment and stir for another minute.  I added some metallic blue pigment from Resin8 so that the coloured handles of the onion holders were hidden underneath the opaque resin.


Once you are satisfied that everything has been thoroughly mixed, pour a little of the blue resin into a smaller silicone container to give you more control when you are pouring it.  I used a 10ml silicone pouring cup to create a tight point to pour from, and carefully poured it into the side of the rectangular hollow, allowing it to self-level before adding more.

I then left them overnight for the epoxy resin to cure completely.


They're now finished and ready to comb my raw alpaca fleece!

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While I was learning the best technique for using the mini wool combs, I experimented with blending some coloured wool tops to see if it was quicker than blending on my hackle (it definitely was).  It was when I was blending coloured tops on my mini combs, (and desperately trying to get as much fibre on them as I could without the merino coming off the top of the spikes), that I had an idea... 


I wondered, if I cut down the plastic covers that came with the onion holders...


...like this - whether I could use the closed ends as spike covers to hold the fibre on the loaded comb, while it was being combed off with the working comb.


I only needed two spike covers, but I found that I could get 50% more fibre on there with the covers on and it also allowed me to comb the fibres in many more directions than without the covers on.  (I later learned a much more efficient method of filling my comb.)


I've made a video showing how the mini wool combs work really well for blending colours together to make my own blends using CMYK values.  This video shows much more clearly how having the covers on the spikes makes them a lot more versatile.


In this next video, I demonstrate the technique, that I later learned, for combing unwashed alpaca, which resulted in a lot less waste, than when I was packing my combs, as in the picture above.  You'll see me loading up my hackle with combed alpaca, and dizzing off a large amount of combed top from the hackle.


Here's just over a kilometre of unwashed, laceweight alpaca that I spun on my Hansencrafts Minispinner.  Thankfully, I managed to remove virtually all of the grit and vegetable matter by combing it several times.  However, it is still quite grey and dirty.  (If you look carefully at the left of the mound of yarn, you can actually see a small section of yarn spun from alpaca locks that I washed initially before spinning.  The effort involved in maintaining the lock structure during several rinses was enough for me to learn that I'd rather spin it unwashed.)


Here’s an indication of how dirty the yarn was as it ran through my hand off the bobbin and onto my skein winder.


After soaking and rinsing at least 6 times, it came out much softer and whiter.


It's so amazingly soft! I'm thinking about dyeing it a deep, dark blue and knitting myself an oversized cowl or shawl.

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If you’ve found this post useful, please consider pinning it to Pinterest.  It really makes a big difference to me and helps others find it too.


Copyright - I have provided the free mini wool comb handles stl files for personal use.  Make them for yourself or give them as gifts to your spinning friends, but please do not sell them for profit.  
If you post images of your own versions on the internet, please link back to this page. 
Thank you, Kathryn

Hackle Blending a Long Gradient

Linear Blending a Gradient

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