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Lifelong Knitter Spins Alpaca Farm Into Successful Business

Louise Nuttle can’t recall a time when she didn’t knit.

“My grandmother taught me at a very young age,” she says.

Her love of knitting and working with fibers has spun off into a farm, a fiber studio and a key spot at the Jonesborough Farmers Market, where all the products are handmade and locally grown.

Originally from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Nuttle moved to Johnson City in 2005 from Jackson, Miss.

“When we moved to Tennessee, we bought acreage for the horses we brought with us,” Nuttle says. “We had some extra space so we started looking into other livestock breeds to graze on the established pastures.”

She also wanted animals that didn’t damage the land, ones that would not cause erosion.

Her interest in knitting led her to consider fiber animals as a livestock option.

“I figured that with my background in knitting and crocheting, it would be fun to raise the animals that produce the fiber,” she says.

Raising alpacas has led to a range of new crafts in addition to knitting.

Nuttle learned how to spin the fibers from her alpacas so that she could make her own yarn and has learned to weave and felt with the alpaca fibers, too.

“I learned how to spin because I wanted to make sure that I could take the fiber off of my animals and create yarn,” she says. “At that point, I already knew what to do with it. So I took some spinning lessons from another alpaca breeder and was instantly hooked. While we let the mill make the majority of the yarns we sell, I still like to make my own novelty yarns for weaving.”

Nuttle has created a fiber studio in the basement of her home in the historic Tree Streets neighborhood of Johnson City.

After bringing the fiber home from her farm, Nuttle sorts, spins, dyes and weaves the fiber to create hats, scarves and a number of other products.

“We’re coming up with new end-products all the time, thanks to our customers at the market. Felted soap, felted flower pins and the felted bead earrings are some of our most popular items,” she says. “We’ve also developed several kits for the would-be fiber artists who want to try their own hands at felting. We even commissioned our market neighbor, Bear Anderson, to make us some wooden drop spindles to pair up with our spinning fibers.”

After raising her own alpacas for three years under the farm name Dry Creek Alpacas, Nuttle entered into a partnership with two other alpaca farms – Appalachian Journey Farm and Appalachian Alpacas – to cooperatively raise the animals and process and market the fiber. Sisters Diane and Joan DuPont co-own Appalachian Journey Farm, and Appalachian Alpacas is co-owned by their younger sister, Lara, and Mike Durham.

“We were already traveling together with our animals to alpaca shows,” Nuttle says. “When I was looking for a place to move my animals, they were looking for other outlets for their fiber. It was a natural fit.”

Nuttle, the DuPonts and Durhams collectively own and raise more than 50 alpacas.

When it comes time to harvest the fiber in the spring, they carefully select the best fiber for processing ­— hence the name of their fiber brand, “Only the Finest.”

Nuttle began selling at the Jonesborough Farmers Market in 2008, very early in her alpaca fiber career.

“I was small-scale back then and spinning all of my own yarn,” she says. “Being at the market helped me connect with other fiber enthusiasts and also gave me a platform for talking about the animals and their exceptional fiber to anyone who would stop long enough.”

She is now joined by other members of the “Only the Finest” consortium.

In addition to the farmers market, “Only the Finest” sells its homegrown fibers, yarns and finished products at regional fiber and art shows.

“We’re working on our website,” she says, “but honestly, you have to feel alpaca to really appreciate it.”

And alpacas, Nuttle says, are not just for crafters.

“Between our three farms, we always have a variety of animals for sale, ranging from what we call ‘pet-quality’ or ‘fiber males’ to entry-level breeding stock to show-quality herd sires and breeding females,” she says.

The 50-plus alpacas on the farm produce another renewable product that is prized by gardeners.

The farm offers what it likes to call “Paca-Poo” — composted alpaca manure, which makes excellent garden fertilizer — by the bag or by the truckload.

The farm is open to visitors by calling ahead at 257-8110. You can also follow “Only the Finest” on Facebook where you can find pictures of their latest yarns, cute cria videos, event announcements and more.