Fleece is the word
Jan./Feb. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee and Matt Salvo
Alpacas find favor among farmers and fiber artists.
Kim-Xuan Nguyen, a Yolo County spinner, weaver and knitter, gets her alpaca fleece from local farms.
With the resurgence of knitting and other fiber arts in recent years, natural fiber enthusiasts are discovering—and seeking out—the lustrous and cashmere-like qualities of alpaca fleece.
"I went through a huge alpaca phase," said Kim-Xuan Nguyen, an expert spinner, weaver and knitter in Davis who works with a variety of fibers. "Alpaca is nice because if you get the soft stuff, it really doesn't itch.... It's a different fiber."
Nguyen started working with alpaca fleece several years ago after buying some online. Now she gets her fiber from local farms.
Nguyen uses a hand-carved spinning wheel to spin alpaca fleece into yarn.
Dale Davis, who breeds and raises the animals on her ranch in nearby Esparto, calls her alpacas "the most adorable lawnmowers in the world," referring to their grazing efficiency. She became immersed in the alpaca business about 12 years ago after an injury left her mother, Jan, unable to run the ranch by herself. Her mother, who also owned angora goats and llamas at the time and was actively involved in spinning, knitting and dying natural fibers, first saw the long-necked creatures at a neighbor's farm and became instantly enamored.
"The big eyes and the soft fiber—she fell in love and just had to have them," Davis said. "So she brought her first alpacas home and that was it—she had to have more."
Native to the Andes Mountains in Peru, alpacas are a member of the camelid family, closely related to llamas, vicunas, guanacos and camels. They have long been used for their fine fibers and were an integral part of the ancient Incan civilization for centuries, but they were not introduced to the United States until the 1980s. Outside of South America, where there are some 3 million alpacas, the animals are still quite rare, with only about 200,000 registered alpacas in the United States, according to the Alpaca Registry Inc. That's compared to nearly 93 million U.S. cattle.
There are two types of alpacas: huacaya (pronounced wah-KI-ya) and suri. The main difference is their fleece. Huacaya fleece is much like wool—short, dense and crimpy—and yarn made from this fiber has memory and elasticity and is used to make knitted products such as sweaters, socks, scarves and shawls.
By contrast, suri fiber is long and silky, resembling pencil-like locks, with not much stretchiness. Although the fiber can be knitted, it is generally woven into fabric to make garments such as high-end suits.
Fiber from the alpaca's belly and chest, which is typically coarser to provide protection when the animal is walking through brush or lying down, also is used to make upholstery, rugs and carpet.
Nguyen said she likes how the alpaca's raw fleece can be used without much processing. Unlike wool, which has a great deal of grease in it and requires washing, combing and carding, alpaca fleece can be fluffed up by hand and spun, she added. The fiber also comes in 22 natural colors and can be dyed easily.
Alpacas are shorn annually in the spring, with each animal yielding some 6 to 10 pounds of fiber, of which 2 to 4 pounds are the prime stuff, Davis said.
Even though Davis' main business is raising alpacas for breeding, she also markets her fleece via the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America, one of several national co-ops that accepts fleece from its members and makes different alpaca products from the material. The proceeds are then distributed back to producers. Davis' ranch serves as a collection point for other local farms that are also shipping fleece to the cooperative.
In addition to the co-ops, there are also a number of mini-mills around the country that process small lots of fiber for producers who want to sell their animals' fleece that has been made into yarn, roving and felt bearing their own labels, Davis said.
Yolo County rancher Dale Davis with one of her alpacas and yarn made from the animals' fleece.
With about 100 alpacas on her ranch—60 of which she owns and 40 of which she boards for other owners—Davis has one of the state's larger alpaca ranches. Fewer than 10 California ranches currently raise 100 or more alpacas, she noted, and most in the U.S. have fewer than 30 animals.
Alpaca ranchers are a unique breed among livestock owners and come from many walks of life, she said. Because the animals are gentle, easy to handle and not very big, they don't require a lot of land and can be raised on small ranches, she added.
"If you look at the majority of people who own alpacas right now, they're not traditional farmers," Davis said. "They're retired doctors. They're retired lawyers. They're retired dentists. They're folks who want to have a more rural lifestyle and have chosen to step out of their existing profession."
Huacaya alpacas have short, dense and crimpy fleece.
Suri alpacas have long, pencil-like locks.
With growing interest in alpaca fiber—and in raising the animals—Davis said there is now much more emphasis on developing a commercial fiber market.
"And we actually finally have enough alpacas in the nation that could be shorn and have that fiber sorted and put into a commercial pipeline," she said.
Raw fleece from a suri alpaca, left, is shown next to fleece from a huacaya alpaca.
With such a good network of alpaca owners in the state, Nguyen said it is relatively easy these days to find alpaca fiber and farms that are selling it. She often does spinning demonstrations during National Alpaca Farm Days, in which alpaca farms from across the nation open their doors and invite visitors to meet the animals.
"It's a great event for spinners who are interested to go out and see the animals and feel the fiber," Nguyen said.
Alpacas come in different natural colors and provide fiber that is prized for its softness and versatility.
Although alpaca is not currently recognized as a meat animal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is new interest in creating a market for the lean, high-protein meat—a common item on menus in Peru but available only on a limited basis in the U.S. For example, Peruvian restaurants such as Mo-Chica in Los Angeles serve alpaca, Davis noted.
"I don't believe there are sufficient numbers of alpacas today in the U.S. to support a large meat market," she said, but added that as their population continues to grow, so will demand for different alpaca products.
Meet the alpacas
If you want to see these unique animals up close, mark your calendar for the 2013 National Alpaca Farm Days. Farms across the U.S., such as the one owned by Dale Davis, shown here, will be open to visitors on Sept. 28 and 29. If you don't want to wait until the fall, you can search for local alpaca farms, products and services near you by going to www.calpaca.org.