Flattening the Curve: The Realities of Spinning Yarn (part 2)

Last week we began this three part series on the realities of spinning yarn. In that post we started off by defining terms: TPI, WPI, and YPP. By the end we had highlighted four realities that any mill is faced with when deciding what yarns they are going to make and how that relates to design, diameter, and density. We also gave a shout out to art yarn designers and their recent insurgence into the marketplace. This week we’re going to focus on flattening the curve.

This post will be focused on the complexity of the mechanical production of yarns and how that relates to our experience with the current pandemic of COVID-19. But I also want to highlight those doing breed studies and their quest to grow the discerning taste of artist for making things. You may remember the work of Carol EkariusDeborah Robson back in 2011 when they came out with their book called “The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. It contained more than 200 fibers, from animal to spun yarn, and has fueled many fiber enthusiasts to practically engage a wide variety of breeds.

In many ways this book mirrored what was happening in niche textile mini mills the world over. Small scale farmers, who were raising select fiber breeds, had found a viable partner in their fiber economy. Together they who would give kindly use to their fibers and sought to convert them into products considered more valuable in the marketplace – roving, yarn, felt, woven rugs, and the like. The “shear” fact that there are 100’s of breeds adds to the complexity of the mechanical production of yarns. Therefore, we must understand the practical ways we can reduce variables and improve our effectiveness and efficiency – and ultimately produce more favorable outcomes that are repeatable.

COVID-19 & Facing the Facts of Factorials.

You might be asking how in the world the COVID-19 pandemic has anything to do with the realities of spinning yarn. Not to mention the idea of factorials. What does that word even men? According to Study.com, a “factorial is the operation of multiplying any natural number with all the natural numbers that are smaller than it.” While this might sound super nerdy, it has a very real impact on spinning yarns no matter what level of mastery you are at in the art of spinning. “Factorials are used for questions that ask you to find how many ways you can arrange or order a set number of things.” In custom niche textiles this mathematical reality is very sobering! But there are ways to mitigate or flatten the learning curve.

In the case of COVID-19, there were certain variables that we could reduce/eliminate which would result in different, better outcomes. We were given guidelines to slow the spread. Models were created that showed the potential outcome if they were practiced, or what could potentially happen if they were not. As stated in this study, “Estimates that emerge from modeling studies are only as good as the validity of the epidemiological or statistical model used; the extent and accuracy of the assumptions made; and, perhaps most importantly, the quality of the data to which models are calibrated”

The same holds true in the manufacturing of spun yarns, yet in a different way. How does one flatten the curve and come up with a more predictable outcome that is favorable, when dealing with the vast number of fibers, equipment, skills, product types, and market needs?

How do we flattening the learning curve?

In order to best represent this impact, I want to share with you a few scenarios to illustrate the effect. By doing this it will help to explain why the potential for a large margin of error is possible, and how it can be mitigated. It will also highlight how much skill is required to run one of these niche textile mills with any amount of precision and competency. Mills face these facts every day, and when they can even achieve some semblance of standardization and timely repeatability it is actually very impressive.

The Wooden Box Maker

Imagine you are a fine woodworking craftsman who only makes one item. Let’s say it’s something simple like a wooden box. You have two different types of wood you work with – oak and maple. [Now for sake of discussion let’s just say that by some strange fantasy you have an unlimited supply of these two woods, and the boards all have the exact same characteristics.] But to complicate things only “slightly” lets say that you offer three different styles of box. And as a nice finishing touch let’s say you offer to your customer four different finishes. How many factors are present in this business venture? You can make 3 different boxes, out of 2 different types of wood, with 4 different finishes. So how many options are there to offer to the customer?

This isn’t too complicated to figure out. You can just multiply 3 (styles) x 2 (types) x 4 (finishes) = 24 different boxes. Because there is only 1 craftsman with one set of tools there are 24 options. Even in this simple workshop the craftsman has a very robust production process that he will have to follow to be successful. What seems straightforward and simple to the consumer is very nuanced and complex for the craftsman.

flattening the curve

The Niche Textile Yarn Maker

Like in the workshop scenario mentioned above the niche textile craftsman can work alone on simply two types of fiber (and let’s continue to assume that they are magically the same characteristics every time), provide four different sizes of yarn, and in the finishing work can provide them as singles, two ply, or three ply yarns. However, what happens if we consider the following factors or what ifs in their workshop:

  • There are multiple craftsmen working together?
  • They allow for an unlimited array of fiber types and combinations of blends?
  • The process requires 12 unique steps in creating the product?
  • There are varying degrees of failure at each step, but no measurement is made
  • Each of the craftsmen cross train and work in all 12 steps?
  • From day to day they randomly keep working on each other’s “work in progress“?

If just one of these factors are present in the workshop the complexity of the work expands. The curve is not flattened. In the worst case scenario where all of these factors are present the curve is so massive that it takes a degree of mastery that very few craftsman possess. Not to mention the clear and simple communication that is now essential. Within this environment, attention to detail and the trust in others paying attention to those same details is vital. Anything less will result in outcomes that are less than favorable – not to mention much slower and more costly. In these situations rework is commonplace.

How Permutations Effect the Curve

When there is a series of steps that must be followed to produce a particular product this is called a permutation. Consider a simple “combination” lock. It gives you three numbers often from 0 to 39. If the “combination” is 12-21-2, these numbers in that order are the only way the lock will open. Really a “combination” lock would be more accurately named a “permutation” lock.

Permutation requires strict guidelines that must be followed at each step in order for the outcome to remain the same. To the degree that these guidelines are not followed the curve creeps higher than necessary, increasing costs, and lengthening the time to complete the process. Therefore “critical to quality” measurements must be taken to verify that the steps are carried out correctly. In good business it’s important to learn how to do something right the first time every time in the simplest way possible. When this process of engaging what is critical to quality is not followed variables are introduced that can greatly disrupt the outcomes – potentially even making it impossible. This is exponentially true when it happens at steps that happen earlier in the process, such as degradation in harvesting, or improper washing.

Guidelines for flattening the curve in spinning

This list will not be exhaustive. However, I do want to highlight some of the keys that should be practiced in the niche textile economy to help mitigate the complexity. By practicing these guidelines we will be able to ramp up the fiber economy when it comes to throughput and the costs associated with doing so. To the degree that these guidelines are not followed fiber processing will continue to be restrictive, costly, and slow.

  1. Fiber breed associations should set strict criteria for fiber characteristics and promote a program across the collective herd that encourages its application. These programs should focus on areas like the following:
    • micron count
    • staple length
    • crimp structure
    • color
  2. Code of practice for husbandry, harvesting, and skirting/sorting preperation developed and implemented
  3. Mill owners need to restrict their services to what they can do best
    • Give yourself to only what is essential: a need doesn’t necessarily justify a cause
    • Resist being all things, to all people, all the time
    • Provide high quality, great turnaround, and unique services for a select market
  4. The steps in fiber processing should be well designed and critical to quality measurements must be made objective, not subjective.
    • Ex. – washing = only fiber when completed; percentage of loss verified by weight
  5. Consult with your manufacturer on the proper scope, use and maintenance of the equipment and design your services around those limitations
  6. Clear lines of communication must be developed so that expectations of both parties are understood. This must include before sending to the mill, during the process, and after processing is completed.
  7. Create awareness through your marketing to educate and empower your customers
    • be the guide that makes them the hero

Thanks for hanging in their to the end of yet another long post. I hope that you find these posts helpful. Please comment and let me know any specific questions you might have. And as always if you’d like to schedule a time to talk about your particular business and how we might be able to help you in a more specific way, please don’t hesitate.

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