Have Ewe Any Wool?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Furnace Mountain Alpacas

At our last Purls of Distinction meeting, we had Sharon of Furnace Mountain Alpacas as our guest. What a fabulous time we had! We all learned a lot about Alpacas....and fondled tons of lovely yarns and projects. You can see Sharon just peeking over the patterns on the far left. Oh...did you notice the fabulous fabric she has as a table drape? Double click on the photo for a closer look - it's PERFECT! The fabric was custom made for her.

Sharon does NOT dye any of her yarn - it's all naturally colored. Her main reason for leaving the color in its pure form is to maintain the hypo-allergenic nature of the Alpaca fiber. This makes Alpaca the perfect choice for those that want warm, woolly sweaters, but need to avoid sheep's wool and/or goat's wool due to allergies. I feel very fortunate as I can snuggle up to any of the animal fibers - wool, mohair, cashmere, angora, and alpaca.

On with the educational portion of Sharon's presentation - all about the alpacas and their wool.

About the animals: Alpacas primarily came from Peru and were imported in the 80's. The importing of alpacas stopped in the late 80's as the focus shifted from importing to breeding and developing US herds. They can't be artificially inseminated.

Alpacas can't be alone - they need a buddy. They also like to "play". Sharon has an obstacle course set up so her animals can "entertain" themselves. They are also very heat sensitive, so their barns need to be kept cool. They can also be sprayed with water on their bellies and tails to keep them cool.

Pregnant alpacas tend to have hormone issues. I'm sure many of us can identify with those "pregnancy hormones"! They have an 11 1/2 month gestation period - ugh! Can you imagine? During pregnancy, alpacas need to be kept away from pasture fescue as it's not good for a pregnant alpaca.

Generally, the alpaca will produce about 5 lbs. of "wool" per year. It can be as much as 8 lbs. if you count all of the fiber - including that from the head, legs, etc. Most of the guard hairs tend to be on the stomach. The leg and neck wool is perfect for rugs and bags - basically non-apparel.

The alpaca is part of the camelid family - camels, llamas, alpacas, vicuna. There are two basic types of alpacas.
  1. Huacaya - the fluffy "teddy bear" alpaca with a very lofty fiber. There are approximately 150,000 of these in the US. Yarns made with this fiber are a bit warmer and loftier than the Suri. It's perfect for scarves, hats, and sweaters. Due to the loft and crimp, it has memory.
  2. Suri - these tend to be a bit stringier and are harder to get fiber from. There are about 20,000 of these in the US. Yarns made with Suri fiber lack memory. However, the sheen of yarns made from this fiber is fabulous and makes it perfect for lace projects.
TIDBIT OF THE DAY - Did you know that "Baby Alpaca yarn is NOT from baby alpacas? It's actually based on the micron rating of the fiber, not on the age of the alpaca the fiber is from.

Fiber and yarn quality: The yarns that Sharon markets are incredibly soft. There are two important "ratings" for Alpaca fiber used to make the yarns:
  1. Royal - less than 20 microns
  2. Baby - less than 23 microns
Anything else is just not as soft. ALL of Sharons yarn has a max of 23 or less microns....and that's a max for unblended fibers! (Other purveyors of fine alpaca may blend to obtain an "average" of 23 microns, but she's very careful to make sure all the fibers in hers have a MAX of 23 microns.)

More about the fiber and yarn: The crimp in the fiber gives it the loft. Also, the scales are parallel to the fiber, making it much less scratchy to the skin. (I still remember the very scratchy woolens that I grew up with! Thankfully, we have a lot more choices now!) When processing the fiber, you need to watch for guard hairs - the older alpacas have more guard hairs than the younger ones.

Approximately 50% of the softness of the yarn is due to the fiber itself and the remaining 50% is a result of the spinning process. Her yarns are spun commercially, but it's definitely an art, not a science to produce wonderfully soft, lofty yarn. One of the places she uses for processing is Georgia Mountain Fiber. She's especially keen on them because they have a dehairer - this removes a lot of hair and debris in the process.

There were many weights and natural colors her Alpaca yarns - and an unbelievable number of patterns to go with each of them! The patterns are very basic and straight forward - perfect for both beginners and more experienced knitters. I was definitely inspired and purchased some yarn for three projects - fingerless mitts, a scarf and a shawl. I also bought 2 cria fleeces - the fiber is sooooo incredibly soft! A cria fleece is the first clip from a baby alpaca. I purchased both Shelby and Morgan). Wish me luck - I've never spun pure Alpaca before, so this could be quite a challenge!

In addition to the fiber and the incredible yarns,
Sharon had a number of finished products for sale as well. Check out the "ultimate knitter's tote" - lots of room for many projects! And....the gorgeous woven rug. I just love the pattern - and best of all, it's all done in NATURAL colors! No worries about chemicals from dyes! The rug was quite a popular item with our group and had no problem finding a new home. (No, it didn't come home with me - I stuck to the yarn and fiber.)

Of course, anytime anyone wants to get "up close and personal" with Sharon's fiber flock, they just need to give her a call and she can set up a visit. I believe my guild will be planning a trip out to Furnace Mountain Alpacas for an "animal and fiber visit" in the not-to-distant future. It should be a lot of fun!

During the meeting, I couldn't help but notice that my friend and avid lace knitter, Catherine, had an absolutely awesome knitting bag - it's a "NantucketBagg". It totally unzips and lies flat, or zips up with the pockets on the outside or the inside. How cool is that? I swear I must have been living under a rock because everyone else seemed to be familiar with this bag. I'm posting about it just in case there are others like me out there that were totally unaware that a bag like this even existed! I've added this bag to my birthday wish list.....


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