Category Archives: alpaca fleece

Chapter 9

Spit Happens!

 

alpacas check out new neighbors
new neighbors Latte, Primrose, Polo and Lindy check each other out

 

While we wait for our first four alpacas to be delivered, we continue to visit alpaca farms and look at their herds. Our goal is to begin with five bred females. One of the largest alpaca farms in the country is fairly close to us. When we visit, I ask about using the fleece and mention that I am a hand spinner. The owner replies, “I think hand crafts are nice, but I’m an alpaca breeder!” This owner, I will call her Breeder B., is physically attractive and clearly smart, but has comically poor people skills. How is she selling anything? Her alpacas are beautiful, but there are so many that they all wear a number around their necks on a plastic chain. Her barn looks brand new, immaculately clean and was obviously built to impress would-be buyers. It’s like something out of “Southern Living.” I try to warm up to her but I can’t get there. I can’t imagine myself calling her for help when I need it. Tom and I decide to go look at some Suri alpaca farms.

 

Huacaya and Suri alpacas are sometimes referred to as separate breeds. They aren’t. Scientifically, they are more like varieties of the same breed of animal. The Huacaya has a fluffy, wooly coat, while the Suri has long, silky locks with a little bit of wave in them. Those who breed only Suri alpacas are constantly pointing out that their alpacas are more valuable than Huacaya alpacas because the Suri type is more rare. They also go on about how Suri fiber sells for a much higher price than does Huacaya fleece. Both of these claims are true, but these breeders were quoting the prices fetched by the Suri alpaca fleeces in Peru, where there is industrial-scale processing of alpaca fleeces for the fashion industry. We weren’t planning to provide alpaca fleece to some huge international market, and none of the Suri breeders we met had ever sold to the huge international market either. The prices they were quoting were not based on the anything that existed in the U.S. Only one Suri breeder showed me a processed Suri fleece, and it wasn’t one of his own but one he’d bought from a Peruvian mill.

 

Unlike Suri fleece, Huacaya fleece has crimp and what knitters call “memory”. It can be used to knit a close-fitting garment. Suri fiber is more like silk; better suited to drapey, dressy garments such as shawls or suit cloth; you’re not going to use it to knit warm socks or a crew neck, raglan sweater, two of my favorite things in life. Suri fleece is quite a bit harder to spin than Huacaya as well. Since I’m not a drapey, dressy kind of gal, and the snob appeal of the rarer alpaca type was not appealing to me, I end up deciding that Suri alpacas were not going to be part of our business. We go back to shopping for Huacayas.

 

In October, we drive up to Alpaca Farms in Pennsylvania. We have come to buy a rose gray female alpaca that we originally saw at the Great Frederick Fair. Her name is Twiggy, and she is the daintiest, most beautifully colored alpaca I have seen so far. Her coat is like soft, smoky lavender. Her owner, Bud Griffith, was one of the first people in the U.S. to own alpacas. He bought his first alpacas from a zoo, and established the enviably named “Alpaca Farms” in 1986. In a business with far more new breeders than old, Bud is an old hand.   In a business full of slick, misleading salesmanship, Bud radiates honesty and common sense. He is fond of children and had been particularly taken with Casey at the fair, due to her old-fashioned braids and shy manner, but he commented that he preferred to see little girls wearing dresses. He mentions his own daughter, Natalie and how proud he is of her. She has grown up very smart and very pretty, but Bud does not approve of her boyfriend. In his gruff honesty, Bud kind of reminds me of my dad.

 

alpaca Twiggy with child
Bud allowed Casey to walk Twiggy at the Fair

 

Alpaca Farms is situated on rolling Pennsylvania hills with huge Autumn-leaved trees and a long gravel driveway leading up to a very old house. The fencing is nice but not fancy. Instead of one large barn, there are many smaller, cross-fenced fields, each with its own run-in shed. Bud welcomes us like old friends and asks us how our kids are doing. He introduces us to his sister, who happens to be a children’s author. The two regale us with fascinating and sometimes frightening stories such as the time one of Bud’s alpacas gave birth in cold weather and no one was home on the farm. The cria, still wet from the amniotic fluid, nearly froze to death outside. It survived, but the frozen tips of the ears broke off. Bud offers this story as a good reason why farms without staffs should not breed for winter. In a few weeks, when we take delivery of the alpacas we bought from Lanark, I will look at the paperwork that accompanies them and realize that Latte is bred for late December. I had not thought to ask her due date; I had assumed that she was bred for spring like Primrose. The frozen ears story will be haunting me until Latte’s cria is safely born and I have dried her off with a towel and blow dryer. Tom and I will never breed for winter.

 

We end up buying Twiggy but, after we agree to pay his price, Bud magnanimously lowers it. He says that he likes us and wants to see us do well. He seems to genuinely mean this. We are very moved by his unexpected generosity. Twiggy will stay at Alpaca Farms until spring, when she will be bred to a silver gray male named Allegheny. When I receive Twiggy’s registration papers, I realize that her mother was named Uhura. The fanatical Trekkie in me realizes that Twiggy was meant to be mine all along. We now own three female alpacas!

 

Finally it’s the first week in November and our agreed upon delivery date comes. Milt drives the livestock trailer up from Virginia to deliver Latte, Primrose, Lindy and Polo. We have alpacas on our farm! Never having imagined our lives beyond the point where the alpacas are actually in the barn, I’m not sure what to do next and I become an over-cautious, neurotic mess. The temperature is predicted to be in the 40s on this night so, fearing that the cold wind here in Mount Airy will be too much for our Virginia-bred alpacas, Tom and I lock the them in the barn with all of the Dutch doors tightly closed. My karmic reward for this silliness will involve some serious spit.

 

When I climb up the hill to the barn the next morning, I am unaware that Lindy and Polo have been rough housing and spitting at each other inside their pen. I happily open the top of their Dutch door, excited to see my precious boys, just in time for Lindy to duck out of the way so that Polo’s can shoot a huge wad of greenish, foul smelling goo directly into my face. My first spit. My God but it smells awful! Imagine an animal that can vomit up a bunch of half-digested grass, mixed with stomach acid and a little bit of fermented grain and turn it into a weaponized puke projectile. That will mitigate the cute and cuddly factor pretty quickly. I am close to losing the contents of my own stomach at this point, and some of this filth has gotten in one of my eyes and it burns, but I hold my breath and quickly let all four alpacas out of the barn. Then I race down the hill to the house stinking, half-blind and desperate for a shower.

 

“Do alpacas spit?” This is a question that I will be asked literally hundreds of times in the next ten years and it’s a very frustrating one. Yes, they spit, and yes, it’s nasty, smelly stuff but, as soon as I try to explain WHY they spit, most people become visibly disinterested. They don’t want to know the reason for the behavior. They want to write off the animals as “bad” and be done with it. Dogs bite, cats spray piss and horses kick, but most people never ask themselves why. Trying to understand the behavior from the animal’s point of view ruins the fantasy of owning a cute, fuzzy pet in the first place. I realize that I sound bitter, but it’s hard think about all the misery and suffering that animals go through because people don’t want to give up their fantasy version of them.

 

Locking up the alpacas inside an unfamiliar barn with new pen mates, little room to move about, and no window to even look through, was a very dumb move on our parts and guaranteed to cause anxiety. Spitting in alpacas is usually caused by anxiety, but it can also be a tactic to express dominance over a herd mate. Herd animals always have dominance issues that must be resolved and re-resolved each time the roster of personalities is shuffled. Every member of the herd must know their status in the dominance order. In addition to feeling anxious, Lindy and Polo needed to work out which one of them would be the top guy in their herd of two. Some spitting was almost a given in this situation. Alpacas should not spit at people, but they will do so if you make them feel anxious and trapped. It is also possible to get in the middle of a dominance fight. I did both of those dumb things.

 

There is a third, more heartbreaking reason that alpacas will sometimes spit at people, accidental imprinting. We humans insist that the key to having a docile, loving animal companion is to cuddle and handle it from the time it is very small so that it “gets used to” people. Alpacas that are over-handled at a very young age will become very friendly with people and thus very attractive to buyers, at least until the alpaca reaches sexual maturity. When these over-handled crias mature, they will exhibit aberrant, overly-familiar behavior toward humans. Females will usually become prone to spitting (a dominance behavior) and difficult to handle. They may invade the personal space of people or refuse to walk on a lead. Over-handled males will usually become aggressive towards humans in the same way that they show aggression to one another. They may spit, bite or ram into humans with their chests. If these males are not gelded before they reach maturity, they will usually have to be destroyed. They are dangerous to people because they no longer see people as something different than alpacas. This used to be called “berserk llama syndrome” but it should have been called stupid owner syndrome.

 

By the time winter arrives, we will have gotten over our ridiculous over-protective behavior, and routinely be welcomed in the early morning by the sight of our entire herd of alpacas happily cushed on the icy ground in temperatures below 20 degrees.  They will only seek out the shelter of the barn in heavy rain or very hot weather. They will come to view the barn as a place to get shade and the relief provided by our huge, industrial fans.

 

Two days after the alpacas arrive, I get freaked out by a greenish discharge from Polo’s nose and call Milt back at Lanark for advice. Milt patiently tells me it’s fine, Polo probably has a cold, but I can take his temperature if I want to make sure he has no fever. Of course Milt doesn’t mean that I should stick a thermometer in Polo’s mouth but … elsewhere. I have the proper thermometer, new, still in its shrink-wrapped box, but I am not ready for this step into livestock owner reality. The under the arm thermometer trick won’t work for this either. I make the cowardly decision to wait and see if Polo recovers on his own.

 

Since I have Milt on the phone, I quiz him about feed. I am sure that I am either feeding the alpacas way too much or way too little. Milt hems and haws a bit on this one until I begin to see that he wants me to understand something without his coming right out and saying it. Large farms usually feed all of their animals the same amount because it takes too much time to figure out an exact amount of feed for each individual member of the herd, but that’s not the best way to feed the alpacas. This is not a critique of large farms, but it is an advantage that small farms have over large ones. Some animals will seem to get fat on air alone; farmers call these “easy keepers”. Others can be fed larger amounts and stay thin. Small farm owners can make adjustments in feed according to which animals have more trouble gaining weight, which are pregnant, are still growing, or just fat. They can also spend more time watching their alpacas eat. It is important to notice if one alpaca is getting bullied and is not allowed to eat its share of hay or grain. It’s also important to know if an alpaca cannot chew well and drops grain out of its mouth as this may indicate a tooth infection or other problem.

 

Another thing that is much easier for small farms to do is to halter train all of their alpacas. I go to the barn every day and halter up each alpaca in turn, and then walk it around the field on a lead rope. Polo is a little bit of a hysteric at first. While he dislikes the halter, he is more worried about some of the stuff that I try to walk him near. He’s terrified of the yellow tape that we use to mark the wire fence at intervals to prevent deer from not seeing the fence and running through it. Later on I will realize that most of the alpacas are afraid of my yellow raincoat as well. Shiny yellow is not a common sight in nature; it’s weird and scary. The alpacas also hate all of my wool sweaters. They sniff them loudly and dramatically and comically shake their heads as though trying to figure out what animal I am wearing. Real wool has a distinctly sheepy smell when wet, but I did not realize that the smell could be detected by animals even when the wool is dry.

Mom leading the alpaca
My Mom & Polo – we call this pic, “The Hair Twins”

 

My caramel-colored Lindy seems resigned to life as a fluffy toy. He obligingly lets me halter him and he walks around on the lead. He allows me to touch his neck, lift his feet and look in his ears for ticks. He is the smallest of the herd but he seems to have taken top spot over his pen mate, Polo. He is less fearful by nature than Polo and he is older by a few months as well. He gazes at me with his huge brown eyes and I feel as though I want to throw my arms around him and hug him but I don’t. I try to respect his adorable, manly little self.

 

Primrose is a delicate, frightened flower. She squeaks when I try to put the halter on her and lifts her head skyward making it hard for me to slip the halter on. She does not walk on the lead as much as hop from here to there skittishly. Having her feet or legs touched is also very frightening for her. She requires a good deal of patience and calm on the part of her handler.

 

Latte is the queen of the herd. The same regal bearing that made her stand out in Lanark’s large herd of females is making her a pain in the butt at our place. She is not afraid of any tape, any halter or any thing. She is large for a female and uses her muscle to resist anything she doesn’t want to do. She will move her head sideways to avoid being haltered and, if that doesn’t work, she will turn her whole body around. She is also willing to kick if you piss her off. An alpaca’s kick doesn’t hurt like a horse’s kick, but it does sting if you get it in the thigh or the knee. The queen bee routine will turn out to be highly heritable. Latte will produce three daughters for us and all will become Queen bees of their herds. Years later other breeders will tell us humorous tales of queen bee behavior from Latte’s granddaughters.

halter training alpaca
halter training Latte -the grain in the large cup  gets her to come over to me

 

While training alpacas to walk on a lead and allow their feet and bodies to be touched sometimes feels like a bad comedy show, it is very important for their health. If you cannot lead your alpaca back into the barn, you cannot worm it or shear it. If you cannot touch its feet, how can you trim the toenails? Like horses, goats and cows, alpacas can become lame if their toenails get overgrown. An un-wormed alpaca can easily become a dead alpaca. If an animal is super difficult to handle, it will be too tempting for the owner to avoid performing routine care for it. Training an alpaca to tolerate handling also makes it far easier to sell. It’s pretty hard to keep a buyer interested after they have seen you run all over your own field like a rodeo clown trying to catch the alpaca they were interested in.

alpaca toenail trimming
Tom, doing some alpaca toenail trimming

 

In a few weeks the alpacas have begun to lose their fear of me. If I stand very still in one of their fields, they will walk near me to see what I’m doing. If they are cushed, I can usually sit down near them and hang out without them jumping to their feet to flee. When I come out holding their grain, they are more than willing to shove their faces in the bowl before I can put it down. I struggle to place their bowls far enough apart so that they cannot steal food from each other. Their dominance issues now settled, the alpacas have begun to act very friendly with each other. They will sometimes walk alongside their pen mates when I am walking them on the halter and lead. They don’t want to be separated. They even get used to my elderly Papillion dog, Sammie. At first the alpacas screeched and fled from him, recognizing him as a predator, but they have begun to understand that he is no threat to them. They will sniff him and then ignore him.

 

Casey and Nick also take part in some of the alpaca feeding and training, and the alpacas treat them very differently than Tom or me. They somehow realize that these two are not adults. They will walk up and sniff the children and try to taste their sneakers or their hair. They will allow them to put their arms around their necks for a hug, something they do not want me to do. They will eat grain out of the kids’ hands but I don’t encourage this as I worry about spilled grain attracting rats to the barn.

alpacas sniff little girl
Lindy and Polo sniffing Casey’s hair

 

Another question I have been asked countless times over the years about alpacas is, “Are they friendly?” and this one is also frustrating. A herd animal is not meant to be friendly to people the way a dog might. They should not beg to be petted by us or want to lie down at our feet. They will learn to trust us if we feed them and spend time with them. They will let us take care of them when they need it. We can love them on their own terms. Isn’t that enough?

Chapter 7

The Stud the Bred and the Cuddly or:

Mother Nature does not do politically correct.

alpaca with fluffy top knot
Latte and the “Don King” hairdo

Despite the “it’s all about the fleece” hype, no one makes enough money on alpaca fleeces to recoup the price of their live alpaca purchases, much less the expense of feeding, worming, vaccinating and paying for vet care for their herd. If you don’t plan to run a petting zoo, the only way to recover your original investment is to sell live alpacas to others. To do this, you must become alpaca breeders, not just alpaca farmers.

 

There are so many aspects of animal breeding that seem strange or even uncomfortable to people who did not grow up on a farm. Most of us have never given much thought as to how animals mate and reproduce. We’ve seen two dogs sharing a candlelit, spaghetti dinner in a Disney movie, or a cartoon skunk in love with a fancy cat. We learned in church about the two by two procession of animals into Noah’s ark. We might know that some animals mate for life, but we rarely remember that the majority of mammals do not, and this is especially true of herd animals. Nature seems to prefer a system in which the strongest male breeds all of the females in the herd, and the remaining males are unlikely to ever pass on their genes. The losers form “bachelor” herds and hang around the periphery watching one lucky guy get all of the action.

 

We may not like this, but it makes sense in a mathematical way. If a female alpaca can produce only one offspring per year, every female is valuable in the numbers game of reproducing and growing the herd, but it only takes one fertile male to breed every adult female in the herd. While the female spends up to 12 months contributing to one birth, the male can reproduce his genetic material hundreds of times per month. In the wild, the top alpaca stud will keep his harem for a few years, passing on his superior genetic material, until a younger, stronger stud can fight him and win. Remember this next time you hear someone trots out the old biology is destiny argument. Yes, Mother Nature does think that female mammals should raise the young, and she’s not big on monogamy, but she also thinks most male mammals are superfluous. Nature does not believe in political correctness for any of us. Thankfully, humans evolved big brains that – theoretically – let us make more nuanced choices.

 

Thus bred females are the most important part of any alpaca breeding business. The ability to gestate, birth, and nurture new life is the most valuable ability there is. Male alpacas are separated into two types, the stud, sometimes called the “herdsire”, and the gelding. The vast majority of male alpacas are geldings. Their job is to produce nice fleeces, be trained and shown by small children in agricultural fairs, participate in parades and petting zoos, or be living lawn ornaments for wealthy people who like to have cute farm animals. In other words, they are cuddly, pets. They are nice to own, but not necessary to the breeding business. Lest you think the female alpacas have the better part of this deal, remember that most are pregnant almost all year, and they are also nursing last year’s cria while pregnant with the current one.   This is their natural state, but we can be forgiven if it makes some of us feel glad to have birth control for our human selves.

pr-guys
Cuddly P.R. alpaca geldings, Lindt, Polo and Comet (a Suri alpaca) doing their job

Many small alpaca farm owners begin their herds by purchasing three or four bred females. Stud fees for very high quality males were often in the tens of thousands when we began shopping for alpacas. A national show-winning herdsire might sell for $200,000 or more. It made more sense to buy a female already bred to such a male than to purchase a male outright.   It is best to buy a female that also has a well-known sire. The first two questions about a bred female alpaca should be, “Who is she out of?” and “Who is she bred to?” Having both her sire and her breeding partner be well known and of good quality is very important. Mr. No Name alpaca might be a great quality male but, unless he wins big in the show ring, his offspring won’t have the brand name appeal of Mr. Show Winner’s offspring.   So buying a pretty, fine-fleeced female alpaca, who is bred to Mr. Show Winner, and whose sire was Mr. Well-known Megastud will ensure that you end up with a great quality, show winning, super salable cria right? Of course not! Nothing is really that simple. We will find that out later.

 

In addition to purchasing good quality breeding stock, any new alpaca farm will want to figure out what their possible niche could be. As we visited more and more Maryland farms and saw that almost all of them had bought from the three largest farms in the region, I wondered if it were not a better idea to buy some alpacas that were not related to the breeding stock of all of the farms around us. Why not travel farther, make that extra effort to get unusual bloodlines and see if that helped the salability of our alpacas’ offspring? We could still buy from one of the nearby farms if they had a female we really wanted, but we would try to have a more diverse herd.

 

Our other niche would be a true interest and involvement with our own alpaca fleeces. Every alpaca breeder tries to produce the finest, softest, most desirable fleece, but they differ on the question what makes a fleece desirable. This brings us to a point of tremendous contention among alpaca breeders. I call it the “Cottage versus Industry” debate. In 1999, as in the present time, there were those in the alpaca business who claimed that we should all be breeding identical, superfine, white alpacas to supply an industry that would require huge amounts of these identical fleeces. In this scenario, a future U.S. alpaca fleece industry is somehow able to compete head to head with the huge Peruvian alpaca fleece industry.

 

Peru has far more alpacas than we do in the U.S., so they have the advantage of economics of scale. Their alpaca processing infrastructure and their buyers are well established and of long duration. The pay scale of their workers is quite a bit lower than ours, but they have a well-trained workforce with multiple generations of experience. Yet there are those who claimed that this imaginary, U.S. alpaca fleece industry would somehow compete with Peru’s and make a good profit. They are still making this claim 15 years later.

 

In order to breed for this U.S. industrial market, breeders would want to buy only superfine, white alpacas. White fleece is preferred by the Peruvian industry because it can be processed in huge quantities and later separated into batches and dyed any color. Some of the recent proponents of the U.S. alpaca fleece industry model would also have us buy only alpacas with Accoyo bloodlines.

 

Accoyo is the name of a ranch in Peru, but also a name that some U.S. breeders have “borrowed” to refer to their own bloodlines, those that – presumably – originated on the Estancia Accoyo in Peru. These alpacas were skillfully line bred by Don Julio Barreda to be almost identical in their fleece characteristics. Accoyos are super dense, crimpy, uniform and very fine. They are also all white, and they are inbred. Line breeding is inbreeding done carefully and deliberately. It is known for fixing traits such as body size and fineness of fleece. It is also known for increasing the likelihood of birth defects and reproductive problems.

 

Since Tom and I never bought into the idea of this thriving U.S. alpaca fleece processing industry, we were free to pick the type of alpacas we wanted to breed. As a hand spinner, I liked unusual, natural colored fleeces, and alpacas come in many beautiful colors, Like sheep, alpacas can be white, black or gray, but they can also have fawn colored fleeces, reddish-brown fleeces, grayish-lavender fleeces and maroon-gray fleeces. Natural-colored fleeces are far subtler in their coloring than dyed fleeces.   The lack of chemical dyes makes them softer as well. Really crimpy alpaca fleeces can be used to make yarns with good elasticity that knit up into garments that fit well, and hold their shape without drooping. If I wanted to spin colored, soft, crimpy fleeces, I was willing to bet other hand spinners did as well. We would look for female alpacas with those characteristics, along with good body structure, proper dental alignment and well-known bloodlines. We would become lowly cottage industry breeders and be proud of it. Armed with the knowledge of what type of alpaca we wanted to buy, we began to shop in earnest.

bred female alpaca

Lanarks Primrose with Lanarks Latte in the background on right

The first alpaca I truly fell in love with was named Chanel. We discovered her at the Mid Atlantic Alpaca Association (MAPACA) show at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in northwest New Jersey. The weather was frigid at this outdoor, agricultural arena.   It would have been perfect weather for selling alpaca fleece products, but none of the alpaca farms present were selling them. There was a couple from Ecuador selling alpaca and llama wool blend products from a truck/booth and I bought from them an “alpaca[9]” wool pullover with llamas dancing across it as a gift for my mother. Tom, the kids and I watched the alpacas being judged in the show ring, and we also visited the pens of alpacas lined up along the aisles of the large, open barn. In one of those pens, we found Chanel.

 

Chanel was fawn-colored. Her face and body seemed perfect, and her fleece was the softest I had yet felt. This was in a time when many alpacas in the U.S. were still imports from Peru and Bolivia. These imports were usually very skittish, if not downright hysterical and spitting with fear. In contrast, Chanel was sweet and calm. She stood still while I reached my hand into her side and rubbed her fleece between my fingers. Just as I did this, her owner said “Just like butter.” It did feel almost moist and slippery to the touch. Chanel was out of a very famous sire, but she had not yet been bred to one. Most breeders will not bring bred females to shows, as the experience is way too stressful. All of the alpacas I had seen that day were pretty, but this girl was gorgeous. I wanted her. She was the first alpaca that really struck me as being superior to all others I had seen. We found out that she was to be auctioned at the 1999 All American Alpaca Futurity. When the auction day came, we bid on her by phone, but dropped out somewhere around $26,000. Chanel would end up commanding the highest price of any female alpaca at that auction. We did not end up with Chanel, but seeing her in New Jersey made us decide to make an appointment to visit the Charlottesville, Virginia farm where she was produced and see the rest of their herd.

 

 

Excerpt from my alpaca breeder diary:

 

Sunday, June 06, 1999

Left the kids at my sister Krissy’s house at 7:00 AM to drive to Lanarks Llamas and Alpacas in Charlottesville, VA. We had met the owner, Antoinette Brewster, at the Eastern Alpaca Jubilee in New Jersey, and really liked the look of her animals. So we made the plan to visit and headed down south.

 

As you approach Lanarks, you can’t help but notice that you’re traveling back in time to the colonial Virginia of yesteryear. First we passed the Historic Michie Tavern where the former presidents went to hang out and drink with the other gentry. Then we passed Monticello itself, home of Thomas Jefferson. Next comes Ashlawn Highlands, the former home of John Adams, then on past the Jefferson Vineyards to the home of John Kluge, once the richest man in America. Just past the hand-built stone fences of the Kluge estate sits Lanark Farm. This is Old Dominion Virginia with a capital D.

 

The long, gravel driveway cuts through fields for miles around. Some have grass, but many are red clay dirt, which blows about and hangs in the air. It is the summer of the worst drought on record in Maryland and Virginia, and almost every farm is covered in dust of one color or another. On the right side of the driveway are several fields full of alpacas. There are about one hundred and fifty in all. Some are black, some gray or dark brown, but most look peach colored because the red clay dust coats their white fur completely. It is just past 10 am, but the temperature is already in the 80s. It will reach the mid 90s by lunchtime.

 

By the barn we meet Milt, the farm manager, and Amanda, the herd manager. Milt is the perfect Hollywood cowboy movie extra, not tall but all wiry muscles with a calm, direct manner. He wears jeans and a white woven cowboy hat. He learned his animal skills on a cattle farm in Vermont back when he was still a Yankee. He’s had his arm inside many a cow’s privates and isn’t afraid to talk about it, but doesn’t brag either. The first time I hear him casually mention “her vagina” (the cow’s) I have to freeze my face so I won’t look shocked. I can’t remember ever hearing any man say that word once, much less over and over the way this guy does.

 

If Amanda were a character in a movie, she would be played by Debra Winger. She is a size 6 at most, but with well-cut little arm muscles. She wears a tight white T-shirt and old jeans. On the back of her neck, under her upswept, wavy black hair is a small blue tattoo of Sagittarius the archer. Her eyes are blue. She talks to the alpacas in a high breathy baby voice and calls the little ones “my peas” but she sure looks tough when she’s slinging a bale of hay around. She knows each one of the many, many alpacas by name! She sneaks a cigarette here and there as she does her farm chores. I like her instantly.

 

Antoinette shows up a fashionable 15 minutes late. All attention rivets on her immediately as she is larger than life. She is very good looking, resembling a slightly older Michelle Pfeiffer. Men must have followed her like pathetic little dogs when she was young, but she does not act “Southern Girl” and coquettish. She stands close to me and her voice is a little loud so that I have to fight the urge to back up, but she also has some serious charisma. That can’t hurt if your job is to sell animals. I’m shocked to realize that Amanda and Milt call her “Mrs. Brewster” instead of her given name. She has on a red and white checked shirt that is some fashion designer’s idea of a farm outfit but you can tell it’s not from Southern States or the tractor store. I appreciate her directness. She is very professional, and she doesn’t tell us any fairytales or offer any heartwarming stories. She assumes we are there to buy. She hands us a list of all of the bred females currently on sale along with their prices, dams, sires and birth dates, and our tour begins.

 

A couple of hours later I am lost in a fog of half remembered animals, the teeth on this one, the color of that one. Which one had the good crimp? Which had the strange legs? I have taken notes furiously, but am not sure they are even correct. It is too much to look at so many animals, and the added strain of trying to remember the sire and dam of each one makes the whole task impossible. I need a scorecard with photos, genealogical trees and pertinent footnotes on it, but no owner is going to remind you that the pretty one whose fleece you love is also the one with the bad bite. I’m panicking!

 

We break for lunch beside the pool next to Antoinette’s house. The pool has male and female bathrooms, a kitchen area with a sink, and a patio with tables on it. There are large statues of animals along the edge of the pool. For a second I forget why I’m there and wish desperately that I had my camera with me and that everyone else would momentarily disappear. I would kill if only my mother, who has never been rich, but is yet a faithful reader of “Town and County”, could see this setup.

 

Antoinette discreetly leaves us to compare notes, and not a moment too soon. I am dying to see what animals Tom has fixated on. I turn to him eagerly, demanding that we trade lists. That is when it hits me. He HAS NO LIST! We have been tramping around in dusty hot fields for hours staring at this animal and that, and trying to decide which animal, if any, we will pay a small fortune for and Tom has NOT TAKEN NOTES! I briefly consider drowning him in the nearby pool but realize it cannot go unnoticed so I refrain. This explains why Antoinette all but ignored Tom and talked at me while we tramped around; She KNEW he would have no list. When I confront him, Tom’s defense consists of the lame comment, “I thought you were doing a really good job of deciding.” Oh my God. Men!

alpaca greeting a small dog
Lanarks Latte greets our dog Sammie

We head back out to the fields after a very good lunch at which Tom pigged out as usual, but Antoinette seems to find this behavior endearing and she starts to like him. She smoothly asks which animals we want to look at again. I am sweating bullets but finally decide on Latte and Primrose. Latte is a lovely maroonish color with a white face and a crazy Don King-style afro. Her sire is Pizarro. I disapprove of this name due to its bad Karma, but Pizarro is a beautiful guy. Latte is bred to 5 Peruvian El Cid, a guy with a spectacular fleece. Latte radiates intelligence and self-confidence and so, sticks out in a herd of merely pretty faces. She is a queen bee. Her mother, Marguerita, is one of the animals I initially liked as well, but she is older than I wanted.

 

Primrose, I pick because I love her face and her perfect, crimpy fleece. Not the fleece on her body, it is summer, and that fleece is pretty short. However, Antoinette has the fleeces of each animal bagged up for prospective buyers to look at, so I was able to see Primrose’s shorn fleece from last year, and it is just what I want. Primrose’s famous sire, Drambuie is now in Australia. I have seen him in an ad in “Alpacas” magazine and he is gorgeous. Her mother, MA Krystal, is still at Lanark. Primrose is bred to Lanarks Peruvian Teddy, who also has a wonderful fleece. I have found my first two alpacas!

 

Having finally picked, I feel I can relax, but Antoinette surprises us. She offers to throw in two pet-quality males, and I must choose again. This is easier, because they are free, so I pick two boys just because I like them. Polo, because he is so friendly and has a crazy white afro, and Lindt because he is cute and little, and the color of a caramel candy.  (We would later change his name to Lindy because people often thought he was named after dryer lint rather than a fancy chocolate!)

male alpaca pets
Polo and Lindt Note the peachy color of white-fleeced Polo

For a big farm like Lanark these not-quite-herd-sire males might be just another mouth to feed. The big money is in selling breeding stock, not pets. But it is a nice touch for Antoinette to offer them AFTER we have made the deal. For us, the boys will be invaluable. They are P.R. machines that can go to fairs and shows, and we don’t have to worry that the stress will make them abort their babies. I am pretty thrilled because I am one of those nuts who can never have enough cute little animals to take care of. Four alpacas feels like a real start to our farm. It is almost 4:30 when we leave and I feel exhausted and anxious but incredibly excited too. We are now alpaca owners!

bred alpaca females
bred females Primrose and Latte

[9] The garment labeling system in Peru allows llama fiber and wool blended with llama or alpaca fiber to be labeled as “alpaca.”

 

Chapter 6

 

The Hand of Fate

alpaca fleece
alpaca fleece for hand spinning

 

“Why breed alpacas?” This is the question that you will have to answer over and over if you own alpacas. In the U.S. the answer will invariably be, “For their valuable fleece.” or “They’re luxury fiber producers.” Every breeder I talked to said this, every alpaca website and magazine I looked at gave this answer, this was, and still is, the only acceptable answer in the U.S. alpaca industry. Since it was all about the fleece, it seemed obvious to me that my next research step should be hand spinning lessons. If we were really going to buy and breed animals whose main value is in their fleeces, I should know how to use my own product. How else could I correctly judge the quality of fleeces we were producing?

 

Turns out, this simple idea of using your own product, to gain experience with it, was not as much of a no-brainer to most other alpaca breeders as I imagined. The majority of them were not interested in learning to shear or spin, knit or weave. I was one of the weirdos in this regard, a position that is comfortably familiar to me.

 

I can admit that it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice for me to get into hand spinning. I’d been dying to try it for years, ever since my first visit to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds. Seeing hundreds of women spinning, in public, on spinning wheels and drop spindles, at an event that was all about wool and other spinnable fibers caused a sudden, sharp revelation from deep within me. I wanted to spin too. I wanted to magically transform an amorphous mass of soft, fleece into a luscious yarn. I wanted to knit from yarn that I had created with my own hands. I would be like one of the Three Fates from Greek mythology. They spin, they measure and they cut the thread of men’s destinies. I would be walking in the footsteps of the goddesses!

 

Meanwhile, the nerd in me was fascinated by the mechanics of the process. A band running around both the large drive wheel and the small, “whorl” wheel on the the flyer mechanism, turns both wheels, and the difference in size between the drive wheel and the whorl, i.e. the ratio between their circumferences, decides how much twist will go into the yarn.   It works something like a 12 speed bicycle with the gear wheel standing in for the whorl. How cool is that?

The oldest spinning wheels had no flyer or bobbin, so the spinner had to stop and wind the spun yarn onto a spindle. Sometimes these were pointy, like the one Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on. But, if you can figure out a way to make the spindle also turn, just a little faster than the wheel and whorl, you can make the yarn wind on to it automatically, as you keep spinning. The first person we know of who figured out how to accomplish this little trick of physics was Leonardo da Vinci. He left us drawings to prove that he too, had an avid interest in the mechanics of the spinning wheel.

flyer and bobbin on castle style spinning wheel
flyer and bobbin on castle style spinning wheel

 

It is impossible to measure how ancient the art of spinning really is. We have probably been rolling plant fibers along our thighs to make string since humans first appeared on our planet. Eventually, many of us realized that a stick with a weight on the end would spin fiber much more efficiently. You tie a piece of rolled fiber onto the stick, twirl the stick with a round weight on it and keep adding more fiber as your yarn or thread appears. From time to time, you wind the spun yarn or thread onto the shaft of the stick. Thus was the first drop spindle invented. It may have been a stick with a roundish fruit on the end.

drop spindle
hand spinning alpaca on a drop spindle

 

In her brilliant book, Women’s Work, author Elizabeth Wayland Barber places the invention of the drop spindle at 20-30 thousand years ago, and notes that, while spun, stone age threads and fibers would not be sufficiently hardy to survive to be found archaeologically, the presence of rows of evenly spaced beads encasing the bodies and heads of people found in archeological digs from this time period, indicates that these beads were sewn onto a garment with thread. It would be impossible to spin a fine thread without some type of spindle, as the rubbing on your leg method is just too imprecise.[5]

Without that finely spun thread and the spinner who created it, there is no biblical coat of many colors, no tapestry woven by Helen of Troy in the Iliad, no goddess Athena jealously turning a rival weaver into the spider Arachne, no linen death shroud for King Tut, no sails on the ships of Christopher Columbus, no Bayeaux Tapestry and no Fates that spin our lives into a thread to be measured and cut. Remarkably, that metaphor is still meaningful today. Referring to the twisted pair of the DNA strand, Matt Ridley, author of Genome writes, “The secret of life is indeed a thread.”[6]

We think of hand spinning as a quaint craft from the past but it has been an integral part of our lives throughout most of human history. The diversity of spinning fibers, spindles and wheels is astonishing. Imagine the person who first thought up the idea of unwinding a moth’s cocoon and spinning it into silk yarn, or the person who first gathered pieces of sheep wool stuck on a bush and realized it could be spun into yarn. Yak undercoat, alpaca, cashmere, rabbit fur, buffalo undercoat, camel undercoat, cotton, flax, hemp, sisal and jute are just a few of the animals and plants whose fibers humans have learned to spin. The more I learned about hand spinning, the more fascinating it became.

antique saxony style spinning wheel
Saxony style spinning wheel antique

 

My spinning teacher was named Dalis. Her “farm” was one of those farm-ish businesses that depend more on artistic style and ambience than, say, manure and muddy boots. The setting is breathtaking, a classic, white country house, charmingly decorated, and surrounded by lovely, green fields, with an unobstructed view of the blue ridge mountains as a backdrop. She had a small “spinners flock” of sheep, and a few chickens, just enough animals to make it cute, not enough to produce much of the aforementioned mud or manure.   A small barn-shaped yarn shop in her backyard provided the setting for the spinning lessons.

Dalis had a talent for arranging and displaying her wares. The shop was full of whimsical touches like the skeins of yarn nestled in Chinese food containers with handmade, glass knitting needles poked into the yarn like chopsticks. This “farm store” setup is perfect for day trippers from the city to drive out to the beautiful countryside, see some adorable animals, try their hand at spinning or knitting lessons, and buy hand-spun and hand-dyed yarn right from the farm artist, but you have to have a certain charisma and sensibility to pull off this type of artsy farm business. I couldn’t imagine myself doing it.

The spinning wheels used in our group lesson were “castle-style” Majacraft Rose wheels, as opposed to the more sideways layout, “Saxony” wheel that most of us have seen in a Sleeping Beauty or Rumpelstiltskin story book. They are made in New Zealand from the lovely, soft, Rimu wood, and have a delicate rose carved on them. We each sat at one and tried treadling it.

At first it is hard to keep the flywheel going in only one direction. It sputters and reverses direction, seemingly at random. If you treadle harder, generating more momentum, the flywheel goes way faster than your hands can move. As your feet treadle, your hands must gently pull apart a continuous roving of fleece and allow just enough of that fleece to be twisted by the wheel and drawn into the “orifice” of the flyer mechanism. From there it should wind on the bobbin inside of the flyer.

Allow too much of the fleece to be twisted and the twist may move up the entire length of the roving, past your hands. Now you will be unable to pull apart the fiber at all, and it is too thick to fit through the orifice anyway. You will end up with a gigantic, spun yarn bigger than 10 or 20 strands of bulky yarn put together, and will have to unravel the entire thing and start over. Allow too little of the yarn to be twisted and you end up with a thread that breaks. Or, you can alternate between fat pieces and thin pieces. This is called “slubby” yarn and spinners sometimes make it on purpose to create designer yarn.

castle spinning wheel with alpacas
My castle style spinning wheel with painted alpacas

 

Knowing how badly I wanted to learn to spin, I was certain that I would be one of the first of our small group of students to get the hang of it. I wasn’t. In fact, I think I was the only one who did not manage it at all during the three-hour lesson.   I knew what I was supposed to do. My brain got it, but my hands were out to lunch. Every one of my “yarns” was either way over-spun resembling a curly piggy tail, or under spun and broken before it could wind on. Several times I let the twist move up through the entire roving and had to stop and unwind the whole mess. It reminded the time I tried to learn to bowl. The harder I tried, the more comical my efforts became. My confidence crushed, I left my spinning lesson a bitter woman.

Despite this utter disgrace, the desire to spin stayed with me. Inexplicably, I began to shop around for a spinning wheel. I eventually bought a small Kiwi model wheel made by Ashford. This was not the elegant Rose wheel of my lesson. The flywheel was pressed wood that begged to be painted something cheery, and the whole contraption had a blocky, unfinished look to it. Nor was it as fast as the Rose wheel I’d tried to learn on, but it turned out to be the perfect wheel for me. As soon as I sat down to spin on it, I felt the rightness of it. Yarn began appearing and winding on the bobbin where before I had only produced a twisted mess. And so I learned an important lesson. The fit between wheel and spinner matters.

Years later when I, myself, taught hand spinning, I would use five different wheels and make my students try each one. Invariably a student who was a complete train wreck with one style of wheel would suddenly triumph with another wheel. Each wheel is unique in size, speed, stability, height and configuration just as each person is. Some spinners hate the single treadle, sideways layout Saxony wheel while an equal number despise the double treadle castle wheel.   My observation of spinning students has convinced me that hyper people with good posture often like double treadle, castle wheels, while laid back, slouchers often prefer single treadle Saxony wheels.

drum carder with alpaca fleece
drum carder with alpaca fleece

 

I amateurishly painted my Kiwi wheel with some alpacas and a sunny face and sealed it all with Minwax. Then I spun the rest of my first roving. Next, I bought a sheep fleece from a neighbor, washed it in a tub outside with a ton of soap and some salt, carded it with hand cards and spun that up too.[7] The hand cards were rustic and looked like authentic antiques, but they were also painful for my small hands. I invested in a drum carder before processing my next fleece. Once my hands got the hang of it and I managed to stop over-thinking it, spinning was very pleasurable. It was also kind of addictive. I wanted to try different styles of preparation and spinning as well as all different types of fiber. I needed to learn to ply two spun yarns together if I was going to make a more usable yarn. I read books on spinning and fiber preparation. I subscribed to “Spin Off” magazine. I was well and truly caught in the web of my new obsession.

hand carders
hand carders for fleece preparation photo:  Linda Spashett Storye_book

 

Having the excuse of doing research for our alpaca business was what allowed me to give myself permission to learn the art of hand spinning. It would have seemed a pretentious extravagance to me if I had taken it up just for my own pleasure. Isn’t that sad? We are taught that it is OK to experience the joy of creating art with our hands as children, but as “grown ups” it seems silly or not worth the expense to many of us. I wonder what our great, great grandparents would think of this. Would they, who worked so much harder, had to fear so many more illnesses, lived with so many less luxuries, had no films, televisions, jet planes or Internet, pity us because we did not have the simple joy of creating things with our own hands as part of our daily lives? It’s hard to imagine how much richer creating things makes your life if you don’t do it regularly.

Once again, Elizabeth Wayland Barber:

“In truth, cloth for thousands of years was the notebook that recorded the woes and joys, hopes, visions, and aspirations of women.”[8]

 

hand spun skein wound on niddy noddyhand spun skein wound on niddy noddy

 

[5] Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years,

Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Elizabeth Wayland Barber 1994

W. Norton and Company, New York, London

[6] P13, Genome

The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

Matt Ridley Harper, Perennial 2006.

[7] Never allow sheep lanolin to go down your drain as it will clog the drain and ruin your septic field!

[8] p256, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Elizabeth Wayland Barber 1994

W. Norton and Company, New York, London