Coming Out of the Cottage

by Kate Perez

The article below was first published in International Camelid Quarterly Magazine – Volume 7, Number 1 from March of 2008.

When my husband, Tom and I, were doing our two plus years of research on whether or not to start an alpaca farm, I took hand spinning lessons. Knowing how the end product of the alpaca was processed and used seemed like something we would need in order to make an informed decision.  Little did I realize then, that hand spinning and knitting would become something of an obsession for me.

I quickly figured out that I would need my own spinning wheel.  So, I went to the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival and bought an Ashford Kiwi wheel.  I also signed up as a festival volunteer and was promptly offered the job of creating a database program to run the festival’s annual fleece show and brokered fleece sale.  That part of the festival, alone, involves roughly 500 fleeces per year.  I took the job.  Tom, meanwhile, signed up as a student at the Maryland Sheep Breeders’ sheep shearing school.

a few of my hand spun, hand knit alpaca hats

 Soon we felt confident enough to start looking for alpacas to purchase.   At the very first alpaca farm we visited, I was anxious to talk about my new passion for hand spinning.  As soon as I mentioned it, the owner of this farm looked me straight in the eye and said, “I think that handcrafts are nice, but I’m a breeder!”   At the time, I thought this behavior was unusual but, in the 9 years since, I have been forced to conclude that this disinterested attitude toward the end product of their own animals is all too common among alpaca “breeders.”

Tom and I went on to build up a herd of alpacas as well as two small, but successful, side businesses.   He sheared for other alpaca farms, and I taught hand spinning lessons.  We also sold raw fleeces, hand-spun yarn and hand-knit alpaca products.  My experience as a hand spinner gave me some strong opinions about how I wanted my alpacas cleaned and sheared.  Tom absorbed this information and sheared accordingly.  He charged more than the going rate of some shearers but, because our customers were so happy with the way their fleeces turned out, he had to turn down far more business than he could accept each year.  Our fleece buyers, too, were happy to find their fleeces clean, properly skirted, and almost completely free of second cuts.

Kate Perez’s hand spun skein drying method

Eventually, Tom and I began to give lectures on fleece-related topics.  One lecture, which I have given at many alpaca events, covers how to price alpaca fleeces per oz. and how to market alpaca fleeces and products.  More often than not, there will be one person present during this lecture who wants to inform me that my “cottage industry” sales ideas are not needed because there is a “real” industry for processing alpaca fleeces right around the corner.  Often this person is also of the opinion that we should all breed only white alpacas because that is what the fiber industry really wants, and fiber of any other color can be produced through dyeing. 

Kate Perez giving fleece lecture at an alpaca event

Unfortunately, this persistent disdain for the so-called “cottage industry” market is not limited to alpaca breeders or would-be alpaca breeders.  I have read many articles written by agricultural experts who claim that the cottage industry prices for alpaca fiber should not be considered when deciding if breeding alpacas is a viable business because there is no room for expansion in this portion of the fiber market. 

For example, in their article, Alpaca Lies?  Do Alpacas Represent the Latest Speculative Bubble in Agriculture?authors Tina L. Saitone & Richard J. Sexton repeatedly assure their readers that the cottage industry is not important in deciding if the alpaca fleece business can be profitable.  Here is one of their statements to that effect:

“However, it is worth reiterating that cottage industry textile producers represent an extremely limited niche market and do not collectively demand a large portion of the industry’s fiber even at its current size. 11”

The footnote number above is theirs and it refers to the following footnote:

“11 Clearly the reported prices for sales to the cottage milling industry must be viewed with some circumspection.  Given that a large share of U.S. production is apparently selling for a small fraction of these prices, and fiber can be imported from Peru at a considerably lower cost, it is not clear why rational millers would pay these premium prices.1”

Upon reading the above paragraphs, I was struck by three things.

  1. The fact that the authors seem to consider the cottage market to be comprised of mini mills that buy alpaca fiber from the alpaca fleece producing farms.
  2. The fact that the authors seem to think there can be no noticeable difference in the alpaca fiber produced in the U.S. and imported alpaca fiber from Peru.
  3. That the authors make a pronouncement about the “extremely limited niche market” nature of the cottage fiber industry. 

In my personal experience, none of these ideas is correct. 

I know many alpaca breeders who pay to have their fiber processed at mini mills but none who have had their fiber bought by a mini mill. As for the question of imported versus U.S.-grown alpaca fleece, I once had the owner of a hand spinning shop in New England tell me that, after she bought a certain rose-gray fleece from me, she didn’t feel inclined to spin up any of the many imported alpaca rovings sitting on her own shop shelves. She asked me to save that same fleece for her to buy year after year. The fineness and unique, natural color of that fleece were a big part of its allure.

Tom Perez shearing – photo by Sue Ives of Alpacas of Nottingham Hollow

If the authors of the above-mentioned article know so little about the facts involved in the cottage fiber industry, how are they so certain that they know the potential size of it?

So, are individual alpaca breeders, lecture hecklers, and agricultural experts the only ones who seem a little condescending towards the idea of selling alpaca fiber in anything other than a large industry?   Sadly, the answer is no.  A quick perusal of the website of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) will yield a great deal of information about alpaca marketing and showing, tax breaks for alpaca farms, and glowing descriptions of the alpaca “lifestyle” but only two pieces of information about alpaca fleece or product sales.  One is a short paragraph about the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America, and the other is the following paragraph, under their linked web page marked “Lifestyle,”

“Some breeders also choose to get involved in selling products made from alpaca fiber as a hobby or an additional home-based business venture. The spinning and weaving of fiber is a skill that can lead to profits.”

The meaning of the first sentence in the paragraph above is not clear to me.  Does “selling products made from alpaca fiber” mean re-selling alpaca products imported from Peru or making products from the fleeces of one’s own alpacas and selling those?  Why would selling the end product of the animals you breed be called a “hobby?” 

Also curious is the way the “spinning and weaving of fiber” is presented as part of the same “skill.”  It seems to imply that all spinners must weave and also that weaving is the next logical step after spinning but, while there are many weavers who are also hand spinners, there are many more knitters than weavers.  There are also many weavers and knitters who do not spin, and felting is not mentioned at all.  The person making this statement seems to have little understanding of the topic upon which he or she is commenting.  I understand that this website is for alpaca breeders but, if breeders have so little interest in the end product of the animals they breed, on what criteria do they base their breeding decisions?

Too many alpaca breeders would answer that the only valid opinions are those of the experts in the large-scale, industrial, alpaca fiber market of Peru.  I have news for those people.  There is a large-scale business in this country that would like to buy your alpaca fleeces, rovings, and yarn.  It’s called the fiber-arts market and it pays a great deal more per oz. than the “real,” industrial market in Peru. 

Remember the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival that I mentioned earlier? Wikipedia calls it: “America’s largest, (fiber festival) with over 60,000 people in attendance each year.” There is no official count of visitors to this event, but every estimate that I have heard or read falls somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000. This past year, it had 264 vendors, and there were many more vendors on the waiting list. Customers who cannot attend the festival still buy from its vendors either by subscribing to the festival’s catalog or looking up the vendors on the festival website, which generates well over 1 million hits per year.

Only some of the Jr. Handspinners competing at MD Sheep & Wool Festival 2007

For many years, Tom and I shared a booth at this festival with two other alpaca breeders.  We routinely got from $1.50 to $3.00 per oz. for our alpaca fleeces there.  Our hand-spun yarns and hand-knit alpaca garments sold for top dollar as well.  Maryland’s is only one of the fiber festivals across the U.S. that continue to grow in size and attendance levels.  I guess the sheep fleece producers have not realized that there is no point in pursuing the cottage industry market.  What if alpaca breeders began to create their own, huge, fiber festivals?

Want more numbers?  Pick up a copy of “Spin-Off” magazine sometime and count the number of spinning wheel dealers advertised in it.  I did that last year and found out that there were 153 Ashford dealers in the U.S. and Canada listed in the 6 page, full-color ad for Ashford spinning wheels.  They were not the only spinning wheel dealers who had advertised, of course.  Louet listed 109 dealers in their 2 page ad, Schacht listed 92 dealers of their pricey wheels and Majacraft listed 59 dealers in their 2 page ad.  Lendrum listed 38 of their wheel dealers in their ad and Winsome Timbers listed 15 dealers who carry their Lennox Castle Wheel.  The current list price of that wheel is $1,125 dollars. These are only a handful of the dozens of spinning wheel dealers in business today.

If this is surprising to you, think about how many more knitters than spinners there are, how many of them love to knit with alpaca, and how many more have yet to try alpaca.  My experience with my knitting and hand spinning customers has been that they do care about the quality of the fiber supplies they buy, and they are willing to pay more for good quality, quite a bit more.  The trouble is, that they often need guidance in knowing how to choose alpaca fleeces and yarns, how alpaca yarn knits up differently than sheep wool yarn or acrylic yarn, and also where to find alpaca fleeces and yarns that possesses the qualities they want.  If alpaca breeders don’t want to take an interest in the needs and wants of these customers, others are more than willing to do so.

One of the most reprinted articles on alpaca fiber is knitting author Charlotte Quiggle’s, Alpaca an Ancient Luxury.  I have seen this article in several magazines, on many websites and, recently, it was reprinted in the popular yarn catalog, Knit Picks®.  It offers many good, practical tips regarding the use of alpaca yarns and alpaca blend yarns.  One tip that I especially liked was this one, “The best way to get to know a fiber is to knit with it.”  There’s revolutionary idea.  Learn about a product by using it yourself. 

Here’s another idea: Those who are looking for the peaceful, family farm that we so often see marketed as the coveted, stress-busting lifestyle of the alpaca breeder are probably not going to want to own hundreds or thousands of alpacas.  They will find it much easier to make good money for the fleeces and products of their small farms in the cottage industry market than they would when trying to compete in a larger fiber industry. 

There will always be those alpaca breeders who cling to the idea that nothing short of a huge alpaca fiber processing industry on the scale of Peru’s will be worth their time and attention, but we don’t all have to agree with them.  Some of us could be breeding for the kind of alpaca fleeces that we want to use and sell, doing our part to grow the market for unique, fiber-art-quality fleeces and yarns, communicating with our potential customers and making good money in the process.  And, we shouldn’t accept the idea that our opinions about how to produce and sell alpaca fleeces and products don’t count.   Let’s come out of the cottage!

  1. When a shearer shears the same spot twice, a short piece of fleece called a “second cut” is produced.  These mix in with the longer pieces of fleece and cause itchiness. 

Kate Perez is a certified hand spinning judge for Maryland Association of Agricultural Fairs and an alpaca fleece show superintendent. She helps to run the Jr. Hand Spinners Contest at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival and is also their webmaster. She and her husband, Tom, own the Mount Airy Alpaca Company. They recently shut down their alpaca breeding business due to Tom’s illness from Sarcoidosis, but they continue to be involved in lecturing, writing articles and selling the Alpaca Care DVD they made in conjunction with their friends at Alpacas of Sunset Fields, Alpaca Care for Beginners – We Walk You Through It. She does not live in a cottage.

Kate Perez, visiting with friends and doing a handspinning demo at Great Frederick Fair 2007