The Harvest is In!

The shearer and his team came last week, right in the nick of time before the heat. We harvested bags and bags of fiber from the herd, and the bags are safely stored in our fleece room, also known as Dick’s ‘equipment room’. Dual purpose with the focus on protecting the contents from Ragdoll cats.

Bags of fleece. Ribbons are mostly from cat shows.

The difference in how the alpacas look is always amazing, no matter how many years go by. Those necks are so skinny!! The shearing gang has a very smooth operation where two stations are set up in our big main barn. The young assistants get the alpacas and lay them on the mat, trim toenails and teeth if necessary, so the shearer just moves from one station to the other and just shears. Since I gather the fleece and bag it, I follow him back and forth. It takes him less than ten minutes to shear the whole animal. Dick supervises operations and helps the crew when it comes to fetching the boys who live down in the small barn. Our old boy Phoenix lives down there, and at a month short of twenty years old, he’s quite frail. The whole shearing crew was so careful with him and even offered to carry him back down the driveway when he was done, if needed. But the old boy, once they got him into a cush position after shearing, got right up and tottered off on his own.

Gunny, in full fleece
Gunny, after shearing, showing his little tongue

Shortly after the shearing, the temperatures rocketed up into the nineties, with oppressive humidity. The alpacas were very happy to be shorn and even went out to pasture in the heat.

A few days after shearing, a box of yarn arrived from the mill in Aroostook, Maine. That yarn was from part of the harvest from 2020. Since we hadn’t been able to go to Fairs or have open farm days due to the pandemic, I had been in no hurry to process the fiber for yarn. I finally got around to it in May and the day before I planned on taking it down to my usual mini-mill in Barrington NH, the mill burnt down. We saw it on the morning news and I was horrified. The woman who ran the mill lived in an apartment within the mill building. Fortunately, she woke up and got herself and her dogs out. But the building and all the equipment and her apartment were a total loss. The good news is that she is rebuilding. But I had to find a mill to do the fiber I had sitting, all ready, on our porch. I found the one in northern Maine and off it went. We take our shop vac and suck out all the air in the bags to shrink it all down, and then pack it into big Chewy boxes for mailing. (We love Chewy for a lot of reasons!) Six lots of fiber got to Aroostook in about five days. He sent the yarn back last week and I’m now in the process of washing it all.

Two lots drying after being washed. The dark yarn is actually dark silver grey from Judy Blue Eyes.
The box of yarn. The brown and gray skeins have not been washed while the fawn yarn has been. Washing fluffs it all up and gets out the spinning oils.

When the yarn arrives, it feels quite tacky due to the spinning oils added to the fiber. Alpaca fiber is dry compared to sheep wool, which has natural lanolin, and the static can be an issue with the machinery. The mills add spinning oils to help lubricate it during processing. I wash it with Pantene shampoo, in the washer (no agitating) and then spin out the water, rinse, spin and then hang to dry. Once the skeins are dry, they can be labelled and put into inventory.

Of course, I have bags of fleece upstairs from this year’s harvest that will need to go to the mill, but since I am ‘flush with yarn’ at the moment, I’m not in a rush to skirt and send anything out any time soon.

Meanwhile, the alpacas are probably wishing they had their fleece back this weekend. We’ve not gotten out of the 50’s for three days. But boy did we need the rain!

Alpaca for dinner?

I just read a couple of articles in Alpaca Culture Magazine on using alpacas for meat.  One article contained reasons why it wasn’t a good idea and the other stated reasons why it was a valid course of action.  Both articles had good points.  It made me think, so I decided I’d express myself here on the subject.

The ‘meat’ subject is very controversial in the alpaca industry.  People on both sides of the issue have strong opinions.  My reaction when I first heard about it was horror.  Eat these adorable, soft creatures when you could use their fleece and let them live long, happy lives??  But over time I came to see the reasoning behind using some of them for consumption.  It is, bottom line, a personal decision for each farmer to make.

When I was in my horror stage, Dick did not feel that way.  “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”  But when I asked if he would eat Leroy Brown, one of his favorite fiber boys, he said he really wouldn’t want to.  Ok, so there’s nothing wrong with other people doing it, but he doesn’t really want to do it.  That’s where I am at now.

Bad Bad Leroy Brown

Bad Bad Leroy Brown

Since we started in the alpaca business, I have been breeding for fine fiber that can be worn against the skin.  When I see an alpaca, I see the yarn that can come from it.  We never bred alpacas to show them.  Yes, we do show fleeces and attend one halter show a year, but that was never the goal.  So maybe that is why I had such a first strong reaction to the idea of using them for meat.  I still get a gut reaction when I think of the animals that Cas Cad Nac culls.  I’m sure I’d just love the yarn from those animals!  But there aren’t enough fiber farms to support the breeders’ excess alpacas.  My thought is that it is the lack of the establishment of a good fiber market that has led us to the meat market.  It is a viable option for farms that need to cut expenses and who want to continue to have new crias every year.

Cracklin' Rosie's blue ribbon fleece

Cracklin’ Rosie’s blue ribbon fleece

We aren’t breeding anymore and have morphed into a fiber farm.  We use our fleeces to bring in revenue, but don’t depend on our alpacas to support us.  If we were younger, we would probably continue to breed, especially since we are losing alpacas now to old age and illness.  But we, like many older alpaca farmers, want to downsize.  But not enough to eat them…

We do have fun with the dye pot too

We do have fun with the dye pot too

We lost two alpacas this Spring, and both have fiber out at the mill being processed into yarn.  Caraz was eighteen at her last shearing and her yarn, blended with our fine girl MoonDance, is very nice.  Those import guys knew good alpacas when they screened Caraz.  Gambler, who was only nine when he died, had strong primaries that caused the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool to downgrade his fleece.  But it felt so soft when I skirted it, that I sent his fiber to Sallies Fen Fiber Mill and the bulky yarn was wonderful.  I’m not sure what happened to the primaries, because there was none visible in the yarn.  I knit a cowl from his yarn and was very pleased that it didn’t itch at all!  (I’m so glad I have that cowl, now that he’s gone.)  Are all of our alpacas soft enough for good yarn?  No, of course some of them are coarser than others.  But the Pool has uses for their fleeces, so we send them there.  For us, using the fleece is what we want to do with our alpacas.  Each farmer decides for themselves what they want from their animals.  We all should be accepting of each others’ choices.

Leroy, you can rest easy.  No dinner plate for you…

Why we are alpaca farmers

There’s been some Facebook posts that got me thinking.  They were mainly about the industry’s problems, farms dispersing their herds, and the economic problems with our two main alpaca organizations.  A lot of negative vibes are out there, for sure.  But it got me thinking about what we are doing and what is really important to me, in particular, about alpaca farming.

In 2000, we decided to buy a farm in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire.  We got into it in earnest in 2001, and knew nothing much about alpacas or about their fiber.  I wanted a farm and wanted animals that could, at least, contribute something to the farm.  Initially, we looked at goats, but thank goodness we found alpacas instead.  I caught alpaca fever and it didn’t matter a whit to me if we made money or not.  Since the prices were sky high back then, it should have mattered, but I just considered it the cost of buying the farm.  Fortunately, we were able to make the money back that we invested, but selling was never something we were very good at.  I think we just didn’t care enough to spend the money required for good marketing.  Since the alpacas were not our sole source of income, the pressure was off.  I just wanted to have the FARM!

View of the back field

View of the back fields

Since college days in the hills of western Massachusetts, I’d always dreamed of having a place with rolling green fields and tall trees.  To have a beautiful animal in those fields was icing on the cake.  During those college days, I had crocheted a lot – for me and for gifts for my family.  I remember a purple pair of crocheted hot pants and vest that I wore with purple tights underneath.  Me and my waist-length hair and long legs – I must have been a sight.  Over the years I forgot about crocheting.  But the alpacas brought all that back.  I learned to spin and fell back in love with yarn.  I found out about the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool early on, and fell in love with alpaca socks, as did a lot of my customers who still come back to us every year for them.

Our barn from the road

Our barn from the road

Now when I get the yarn back from the mill (they spin it much faster than I ever could), it is like Christmas.  I open each bag and pull out the skeins and say to Dick, ‘Oh look at this from Caraz and Moondance (or whoever else), isn’t it so soft? Feel it!’  Even skirting the fleeces is a pleasure, once I get going.  It’s like putting your hands in clouds.  Dying the yarn is playtime.  I love figuring out what colors I want to make and which ones will sell the best.  My customers seem to love the colors too, and I have trouble not scarfing some of it into my private stash, when I know it will sell well and will be gone.  I am loving crochet again and am making stuff for both myself and customers.  It is all good!  Well, except for shearing time, but then, that is a necessary trial that we make as easy on ourselves as possible.  And once it is over, the ‘clouds’ are here again to skirt and make into that wonderful yarn!  Okay, so some if it goes to the pool, but the stuff that comes of that is great too.  Fairs, Shows, Open Farm Days, are all fun, even if we do get tired!  Do you get the picture of why we are an alpaca farm?

Alpacas are the perfect livestock for us.  They are so gentle and sweet.  They don’t need a farrier.  They poop in communal piles, which are super easy to clean.  They are gentle on the land.  They keep the fields eaten down.  Their babies are totally adorable.

Our farmland was all open in the 1940’s but many of the fields had grown up into young forest.  We have been able to bring back the fields that were here back then, with the help of the alpacas and the NRCS.  Our neighbors love that it is back, as does the town in general.  We have not made a ton of money on the alpacas, but their luxurious fiber  pays much of their upkeep.

Some people think of alpacas as livestock, which they are, but I think of them a bit like I think of horses.  They are beautiful animals who give me pleasure to be around.  I can’t imagine my life without them in it.

Molly and Spring on the Farm

Molly and Spring on the Farm. (Her cover was always a bit crooked…)



Playing with Yarn

I spent the last two days cooking yarn.  Yes, to dye yarn, you have to cook it.  I either cook it in a stock pot on top of the stove or in the oven in a roaster.  According to YouTube, there are a gazillion ways to dye yarn.  But I stick to the two methods I know.  Plus, using the stove helped to banish the ghost of Beau who spent a lot of time curled up on the stovetop.

I took white skeins from Orion and Gambler blend, and a few skeins from Rocket and did rainbow coloring.  The method I use came from Janet of Starry Night Alpacas, a farm that is no longer an active alpaca breeding farm.  She gave me the ‘recipe’ and it uses a roasting pan that goes in the oven.  I use simple, one-shot chemical dyes called Country Classic Dyes.  They are in powder form.  I lay out the wet skeins, three at a time, in the roasting pan and then sprinkle two or three different colors in rows across the skeins.  The spoon is then used to moosh the colors around to make the stripes.  Into the oven it goes and cooks for thirty minutes.  Three of the Orion/Gambler skeins were made up in Cornflower and Blue Bonnet and Mountain Aqua, and three were made up with Blue Bonnet and China Jade.  Three four oz skeins are all I can fit in one roaster and two roasters won’t fit in the oven.  Later I did three more rainbow skeins using Rocket’s yarn and again used Blue Bonnet, this time with Lilac.  Rocket’s came out more lilac than blue, which is what I wanted.

Orion and Gamblers skeins on the drying rack.

Orion and Gamblers skeins on the drying rack.

Rocket's yarn in the roaster cooling in water.  Dry, it will look lighter.

Rocket’s yarn in the roaster cooling in water. Dry, it will look lighter.

I also wanted to color some fawn yarn, and though I’ve done rainbow on it before, I wanted to do solid colors this time.  The fawn yarn tones down the bright colors, and I’m not always sure what I’ll get.  I took Troubadour’s skeins this time.  Troubie is an appaloosa alpaca whose base coat is beige.  But he has brown spots and freckles which were well blended by Sallie’s Fen Fiber Mill and the resulting yarn looks fawn.  I used Cornflower, which is a bright blue when used on white.  Into the stock pot it went and it came out a nice blue, but not as bright as it would have been on white yarn.

Troubie's blue yarn drying.

Troubie’s blue yarn drying.

The yarn on the rack behind the blue is blended from Caraz (our 18 year old) and MoonDance.  Caraz is light fawn and Moonie is beige.  Troubie’s natural colored yarn is close to that same color.

Today I took more of Troubadour’s yarn and dyed it Raspberry.  I thought it would come out dark, but it seems to be quite bright.  It is drying now, so no picture yet.  I also took a twist yarn, made up of brown from Sammy and light fawn from Susannah and Annie.  I dyed four skeins using Lilac.  The brown doesn’t always take the color much, but the lighter fawn does.  It makes for a nice pattern.

This is a brown and white twist from a previous year.

This is a brown and white twist from a previous year.

I sell some of the twist yarn in its natural state, but the dyed stuff really grabs people’s attention!

Once the yarn is all dried, then comes the winding into pull-balls and labeling it.  I always include a picture of the alpacas who provided the fiber for the yarn.  The skeins are put on a swift and from there go into my ball-winder.  Good exercise for my right arm at least…

Swift is the thing on left, that spins.

Swift is the thing on right, that spins.

The yarn on the swift is from Orion/Gambler blend, washed and starting to be wound.  I call it a blend, but since both are white, it doesn’t mean anything!  Two white fleeces just make a bigger lot for processing.

All this in prep for Sandwich Fair!  Two days of work… and you wonder why alpaca yarn is so expensive…


Today was supposed to be sunny, but again we had clouds.  Grrr.  They, the weather people, are saying that tomorrow will be sunny, so I hope they are right.  We are participating in National Alpaca Farm Day over at the Lucy Farm in North Conway, and will be setting up outside.  Of course, if it is too warm, then people won’t be in the mode to buy alpaca apparel, but we can hope for knitters to at least buy alpaca yarn.

The Lucy Farm is home to Herd of Dreams Alpacas and is in a wonderful location on a main road.  When Mary and her son Randy started out, they bought five alpacas from us, so it is like family there.  Many of the babies come from our herdsires too, so we are as familiar with their animals as we are with ours.  Mary wrote a great article for the Conway Daily Sun, so we are expecting a lot of people.

Susie Q, the lynxpoint Ragdoll, finally came into heat, so was put with Rusty this morning.  I’ve been inundated with Ragdoll kitten requests these past couple of months and had no kittens or pregnancies!  They certainly are some popular!  Now if Susie just takes this time…

Susie looking so contented.

Susie looking so contented.


Rusty, the big man of the cattery.

Rusty, the big man of the cattery.