ASHLAND, Maine — The 17 alpacas at Andy and Roxanne Tardie’s small farmstead stood around expectantly, albeit a tad skeptical, at their fence Wednesday.
“Alpacas are kind of like cats,” Andy Tardie said. “They’re not all that cuddly and will often only come up to you if there’s something in it for them.”
Native to the Andes of South America and resembling a small llama, alpacas are bred specifically for their fiber, which is similar to wool but softer and less greasy in its raw state.
The Tardies run Aroostook Fiber Works, where they practice textile alchemy, spinning alpaca and other natural fibers into roving, yarn and felt.
“We’ve had the alpacas for six years,” Tardie said. “That’s where it all began.”
Tardie, a former auto body repairman, said his wife came home from the Northern Maine Fair in 2012 and announced she was “in love with alpacas” after a baby alpaca fell asleep on her feet.
One year and several farm visits later, the Tardies purchased the two male and two bred female alpacas.
Soon after the couple was looking for mills to spin the animal’s wool.
“We found some mills in Maine, but the turnaround time was very, very long,” he said. “So, me being me, I figured there must be something to this milling business, and we began looking into it.”
Two years later, he was on the road to Wisconsin to pick up a collection of machines to clean, card, twist and spin the fiber into usable yarn.
“I had no idea how any of it worked,” Tardie said with a laugh. “But we hired a gentleman from Belfast Mini Mills to come up to train us. You could not ask for better people.”
By 2015 the milling machines were up and running in Tardie’s former auto body shop on Route 163 and the couple felt confident to open their business. By the end of last year Aroostook Fiber Works had milled hundreds of pounds of fiber, and Tardie said business was booming, with raw alpaca, sheep, goat and rabbit fiber — and even dog fur — arriving daily from around the country.
“Right now I have wool ready to ship out to Alaska,” Tardie said. “It’s from this sheep named Shaun in Cordova [Alaska]. That’s the only pet sheep in that town. I love that story so much, I told them I’d do it for free.”
Tardie does spend a great deal of time on the road and estimates about 90 percent of the fiber he mills comes from within the state, which he picks up raw and delivers as a finished product.
“Our turnaround time is around 10-weeks,” he said. “We normally work on one client’s [fiber] at a time to avoid contaminating their fiber and to stay organized.”
Plastic bags overflowing with raw fiber are stuffed into every nook and cranny in the shop’s entryway where the wool begins the milling process.
“The first thing we have to do is wash it,” Tardie said, pointing to a large, stainless-steel closed vat, where the water temperature reaches 160 degrees. “Then we dry it on racks.”
Once dry, the fiber is placed in a homemade outdoor tumbler to begin separating the fibers.
The area outside Tardie’s mill is littered with little puffs of that fiber that he said make excellent nesting material for the area’s songbirds.
“Of course, they could be doing a better job picking it all up,” he laughed.
Back inside, everything is automated. The next stop is into the picker and blower, which puffs up the fibers, Tardie said.
Some variety of fibers, including alpaca, is next placed on a dehairing machine, which removes longer, course fiber, which he said can make the finished product “picky.”
He holds on to that “waste” fiber and turns it into thick yarn, perfect for making rugs.
Once picked over, the puffy fiber goes into the carding machine, where the individual strands of the fiber are pulled into straight, separate rows.
“This is the heart of the operation,” Tardie said. “This machine really gets me excited. You are taking something out of a bag that was kind of stinky and now turning it into something really nice.”
The wool can end it’s milling there as “roving” — fiber that can be handspun. Tardie can also pass it on through a series of other machines in an automated spinning process to produce skeins of yarn.
“The spinner [machine] can create yarn so thin you can hardly see it on a bobbin to something as thick as your little finger,” Tardie said. “Everything we do is totally custom to what the client wants.”
Tardie spends about 14 hours per day in his mill during the week and about six hours per day on the weekends.
When she can, Roxanne — a full-time librarian — and their teenage daughters all pitch in.
Tardie said the mill can produce 16 pounds of yarn over an eight-hour period.
Early on, the Tardies were warned to not advertise their milling operation, which they financed themselves with guidance from the Northern Maine Development Commission in Caribou, instead relying on word of mouth because of what was described to them as an overwhelming need for small, custom-milling operations in the state.
“Word kind of leaked out that first year,” Tardie said. “By this past Christmas, our business just exploded, and we realized, ‘Hey, we can make it.’”
The mill is wrapping up orders placed by spinners and fiber producers participating in the Maine Fiber Festival in Freeport and is starting to work on fiber destined for the Common Ground Country Fair in September.
Along with the fiber coming in, the Tardies will begin sheering their alpacas at the start of June.
Tardie chalks up much of the mill’s success to his willingness to work with clients to create the exact texture and strength they are looking for in their yarn.
Looking like a cross between a mad scientist and a modern day Rumpelstiltskin, Tardie controls the yarn’s texture and strength through mathematical formulae he programs into the spinning machine to get specific twists per inch and number of strands.
“The learning curve on this was straight up,” he said. “There was really no easy way to start, so it’s been a lot of trial and error.”
But he said his clients appreciate the efforts.
“These are people who want to work with natural fibers,” he said. “If we can turn them into something they really want and enjoy, everyone is happy.”
Tardie laughed when asked whether he has a favorite fiber to work with. He said all varieties have their own challenges and rewards when it comes to milling.
Sheep’s wool, for example, can be greasy because it contains lanolin, also known as “wool grease.”
Alpaca, on the other, hand has no such grease and is, thus, prefered by people with allergies.
“When we wash sheep wool, we lose about 20 percent of it’s weight in lanolin,” he said.
Some mills hold on to that “wool grease” to make soap, something Tardie said is not on Aroostook Fiber Work’s horizon.
“You have got to say no to some things at some point,” he laughed.