When they run, they begin with a little hop that ripples through the herd. When content, they hum softly, spreading their bliss in cascading sighs.
Alpacas are sweet.
“I felt like I was surrounded by a bunch of big bunnies,” noted photographer Sarah Kuschells, after a doe-eyed baby and curious adults greeted her at the Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm in Frankfort.
Fluffy huacaya (wauk-eye-yah) alpacas are often described as big teddy bears, though they are part of the camel family. You can easily lose sight of your fingers in their dense, crimpy fibers. Suri (sir-ee) alpacas, a rarer breed, boast longer, straighter locks that dangle in silken cords.
Devotees are drawn to the animal’s gentle disposition, as well as luxurious fiber qualities: soft, strong, warm, water-resistent, fine (low micron count), lanolin-free and hypoallergenic.
“It’s just next to cashmere, it’s almost that soft,” explained Bobbie Stevens, a Traverse City spinner and knitter who helps shear alpacas each spring at Aral Peak Farms in Honor. “Alpaca is so dense, before you know it you could knit a sweater that weighs 500 pounds and melt in it, it’s so warm.”
Stevens spins the best of the fleece (“firsts”) to make yarn she sells at fiber shows or knits into hats, scarves, mittens and vests. She loves that alpaca fleece comes in 22 natural colors ranging from white to true black, with shades of fawn, brown and gray (rosy-hued to silver). “Alpaca takes dye beautifully,” she added.
Felters and spinners buy carded fleece (“rovings”) from “seconds,” while knitters and weavers seek finished yarn to make clothing, blankets or rugs. Especially coveted: fleece from baby alpacas that Stevens says makes “fabulous” socks from triple-ply yarn.
At Circle R Ranch in Caledonia, owners Rita and Roger Johr watch their herd of 29 “very pampered” alpacas from the deck of their home on 27 acres. Rita says her desire to knit sprang from owning alpacas. She supplements the ranch’s income with sales from her yarns and knitted items, as well as Peruvian products, through on-site and on-line stores. To help her customers make that local connection, tags bearing her animals’ photos and names appear on ranch-raised fiber products.
Some owners of Michigan’s 90 alpaca farms recently expressed interest in forming a state fiber cooperative. Jandy Sprouse of Great Lakes Ranch in Maple City shared their vision.
“The slow fiber movement started in Europe,” she said. “People want to buy things that are grown locally. It’s really wonderful now for knitters, who have access to local fiber and can support local farmers. The whole evolution is in line with what’s happening with food.”
To learn more, visit the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (alpacainfo.com); Great Lakes Alpaca Association (glaa-alpaca.com) and Michigan Alpaca Livestock and Commerce Association (mialpaca.com).
— Pat Stinson, Michigan BLUE Magazine.
Michigan’s soft spots
For 100 years, Zeilinger Wool Company in Frankenmuth has processed animal fleeces with as much care as animal owners give their flocks. While owner Kathy Zeilinger maintains tradition in her grandfather’s business processing customers’ fleeces into yarn, updated services include processing fiber products, too, including wool comforters, mattress pads and socks. Fiber products made courtesy of local animals are also sold in her retail shop (zwool.com).
From the softest Merino sheep’s wool, Stonehedge Fiber Mill and Yarn Shop in East Jordan creates Shepherd’s Wool; owner Deb McDermott has accrued a loyal client base of knitting pattern designers and customers who will only use this natural or vibrantly-hued yarn. The farm’s mill also processes raw fibers for customers on machinery invented by husband Chuck (stonehedgefibermill.com).
Autumn is prime time in Michigan to meet your fiber quota: Everything from spun products for purchase to classes in shearing and spinning can be found at the Northern Michigan Lamb and Wool Festival Sept. 29-30 in West Branch, and the Fiber Expo in Ann Arbor Oct. 27-28. For details, go to lambandwoolfestival.com and fiberexpo.com.
— Cindy Crain Newman, Michigan BLUE Magazine.