Cute, soft and serious business: The truth behind raising alpacas

The Denver Post
By: Haley Sanchez and Amy Brothers
Photo: By RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Photo Caption: Karen Kinyon has a studio in her home, in Wellington, where she creates handmade alpaca garments and teaches classes on the art of alpacas and their fibers, March 13, 2017. Kinyon will join others at the Alpaca Owners Association National Show later this week in Denver.

Alpaca lovers can expect show rings, pronking (trot-hopping) and selfies with the fluffy and gentle animals at the Alpaca Owners Association National Alpaca Show this weekend. But for fans of ultra-soft socks, sweaters and scarves, the delicate alpaca fiber itself is the real showstopper.

“It’s a particularly nice fiber that’s warmer than sheep wool,” said Judy Stevens, co-owner of Stevens Llama Tique and Suri Alpacas in Cañon City. “It’s not itchy. Most people who can’t wear sheep wool can wear alpaca without any problems.”

Stevens is one of about 22 vendors nationwide slated to attend the national alpaca show March 17-19 at the National Western Complex in Denver, where vendors can sell a variety of textiles made from their alpacas’ luxe fiber.

However, buyers of the silky merchandise should anticipate steep prices. One pair of socks generally sells for upward of $20; sweaters and shawls can cost as much as $350.

What makes alpaca textiles so expensive? It’s a combination of things, said farmers, from the limited number of animals to the time it takes to raise them. But the fiber’s durability, warmth and soft texture has a lot to do with the value as well, said Mike McDermott, owner of 54 alpacas at SunCrest Orchard Alpacas in Palisade.

“You’ll never go wrong with alpaca,” he said. “It lasts a long time — eight times longer than wool. Alpaca is superior in the sense of durability and warmth, but we still have the feel of cashmere.”

McDermott shears his own alpacas once a year — the standard for alpacas — and then processes the fiber to create finished alpaca products. He said it’s a lengthy process compared to that of other animals, such as sheep and goats, which are generally sheared twice a year and produce a heavier, and sometimes itchier, material.

“We don’t have the industrial part of it set up yet to get into retail outlets,” he said, adding that alpaca spinning equipment can only handle so much fiber per day. “We consider ourselves still in the cottage industry.”

Alpacas hail from the Andes Mountains in Peru and were only imported to the United States in 1984. Today there are more than 250,000 registered alpacas in North America, according to AOA’s website, compared to 5.2 million sheep and lamb. Even the gestation cycle of alpacas is longer than sheep — 11 to 12 months, compared to just 152 days.

With fewer animals and no production industry, alpaca doesn’t enjoy the recognition of, say, merino wool, and more work still falls on alpaca farmers. For sheep farmers, the work traditionally ends after they raise their animals and sell the fiber to a third party responsible for processing and creating merchandise, McDermott said.

“The farmer is done with the fiber, and all they do is worry about caring for the animal,” he said. “We don’t have a middle man. We don’t have wholesalers to give out to retailers. It is a challenging industry, mainly because we’re still in the infancy stage on the textile end.”

McDermott does it all at his farm — raising alpaca, processing the naturally hypoallergenic fiber, creating garments. SunCrest even mills for other alpaca farmers — unlike Stevens Llama Tique and Suri Alpacas. Judy Stevens said she and her husband care for the alpacas and send the fibers off to a mill for processing and then to Peru for product creation.

Stevens said she has about 30 different color blends of yarn that will be on sale for $7.50 per ounce at the show, along with socks, sweaters, mittens, yarn and more. Stevens Llama Tique has owned Suri alpaca — a breed with long, shiny locks — since the early ’90s.

“Suri alpacas generally get better luster,” she said. “They’re a little silkier fiber, so with Suri, when you’re knitting a shawl or scarf, you would get a drapey effect rather than a fluffier look.”

Double K Diamond Llamas and Fibers, north of Wellington, will also be selling handmade shawls, hats and scarves at the national show, said owner Karen Kinyon.

“It’s definitely a full-time job,” she said. “I have 29 animals and I have to take care of them every day. I usually do some knitting in my at-home studio in the evening hours.”

Kinyon owns Huacaya alpacas, a fluffier looking breed, and also teaches dyeing, weaving, spinning and knitting classes out of her home. She said she will do spinning demonstrations during the show.

McDermott said that the alpaca fiber industry is at a challenging stage right now, but needs to progress.

“My goal is to develop that end where farmers can be done with the fiber as soon as it’s off the animal,” he said. “It’s not a get-rich game.”

The Alpaca Owners Association National Alpaca Show is free and open to the public. National Western Complex, 4655 Humboldt St. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 17-18; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 19.

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