A MARKET FOR FIBRE
I have often heard, “Ostriches, llamas, alpacas; it’s all bubbles” and yet If you investigate the emu, ostrich, llama and alpaca feather and fibre industries you'll find that each faces very different challenges.
Alpacas and llamas should be a no-brainer. The world market for their fibre already exists. The concept was to get enough of them here in the UK to create our own sub-market and there's no problem with that concept.
Challenges for us include the economy and the fact that alpacas were initially marketed as investments and "luxury" livestock.
We targeted a specific demographic group with pitches to buy breeding stock, and it worked - but the high prices dictated that new owners were likely to be those with plenty of disposable income, which, mostly, meant the age group that had already put kids through college and were well along in their careers, e.g. baby boomers.
It worked, and the focus was clearly on breeding and the sale of alpacas. That's how we pitched it, and that's how those that bought in pitched it to their clients. That was the market then. Many ignored the fibre aspect, since, if you can sell an alpaca for £10,000 or more, there's little incentive to sell 2 kg fleece at the farmer's market. (I am not saying I agree, just saying that's what happened).
Then the economy tanked. Our favoured demographic group was one of the hardest hit groups, because pension plans and other investments withered away, just as the job market tightened. Try being 55-65+ and looking for a new job, especially one that pays enough, while your investments are suddenly paying nothing. There went the disposable income.
Not only that, but that same group is the sandwich generation - caring for aging parents while still assisting children. Moreover, some have health challenges of their own.
As a result of job insecurity, investments drying up and family needs, many decided it was time to exit the industry. If it was predicted to take ten years to recover from the Big Recession and you were already 60 or 70 years old, what would you do?
So here we are today with a different market. However, it’s not that there's no market, it's just different. Prices are way different. Buyers are tending to be younger, more into alpacas as a family livestock endeavour and definitely looking for sustainable, green options.
Oh, yes - let's add to that, wanting to actually DO something with the fleece.
My opinion is that this is a great group with which to build the camelid fibre market in the UK!
One of my friends has sold ten alpacas so far this year, which, out of a herd of thirty-something, is a lot. Admittedly prices are low compared with just a few years ago, but that's the new market. I still think the very top breeding stock, once we establish which animals they are, will continue to command much higher prices; that's how all other livestock industries work.
Yes, our industry is facing challenges and we need to re-examine our goals and models in light of today's economy, but I am still very excited about the opportunities ahead of us, especially having seen the results of research into the properties of camelid fibre and its application across an astonishing range of industries.
The response of the public to the fibre section at the national show earlier this year demonstrated the enthusiasm that awaits us for anything alpaca and Llama, and this will be amplified a hundred fold when the new multi-million pound International Centre at Telford opens its doors to our national show next year.
Hold on tight for the take off!
(BOARD MEMBER OF BLS)
VISIT THE WEBSITE OF THE BRITISH ALPACA ASSOCIATION FOR MORE INFORMATION
- THEY ARE A NON-PROFIT ORGANISATION BRINGING TOGETHER COMPANIES AND INDIVIDUAL BREEDERS INVOLVED IN THE PRODUCTION AND COMMERCIALIZATION OF FIBRE FROM ALPACAS, LLAMAS AND OTHER SOUTH AMERICAN CAMELIDAE AND THEIR HYDRIDS
There is now a movement towards commercial use of the llama fleece. Click here to read the article by Anthony Turner for further information and contact details.
ALPACA MILL MEETS LLAMA FIBRE !
“We’re happy to try anything! … We can process anything from a single fleece to a hundred kilos, from rabbit to camel …” so runs the possibly foolhardy blurb on our website (although it does go on to add “but we must confess that we haven’t done either of those yet”). So when Amanda Huntley from Golden Valley Llamas asked us if we could process her llama fleece, we felt honour-bound to say: “Yes, of course”.
A short while later, three enormous boxes arrived. It took us a little while to summon up the courage to investigate the contents; and when we did, our initial reaction (we should stress initial reaction – we changed our minds completely later on) was that it was a dusty, smelly, hairy mess. And there was a huge quantity, including one fleece (Avebury) weighing in at a massive 4.5 kg. At that point, we were just grateful that Amanda only wanted it processed to rovings (cleaned, carded fleece, perfect for handspinning) so we weren’t going to have to have to spend the next week struggling to machine spin it.
So how wrong were we? Well, let’s look at those three awfully rude adjectives: dusty, smelly and hairy.
Firstly, dusty. Well, there’s no getting round that – the wet weather over the last couple of years has left a heavy coating of mud on fleece of every description. The first part of our process is tumbling – we put the fleece into a big rotating cage, which slowly tumbles it about, helping to get rid of various bits of vegetable matter (actually not so much of a problem with llama – a major plus point), any “short cuts” from the shearing process, and a surprising amount of dirt. Even what seems to be a pretty clean alpaca fleece will lose about 5% of its weight in the tumbler. Several hours and some enormous clouds of dust later, Amanda’s fleece had lost nearly 10%, but was starting to look a bit less scary.
As for the smell, well, we were getting acclimatised to it and realising that it wasn’t actually unpleasant – just different to the alpaca smell that we were used to. When we discussed it with Amanda and Robert a few months later when they visited the mill, we agreed that llama smells peppery, whereas alpaca is salty.
So we’re left with hairy. There’s no doubt that llama fleece does have a pretty major guard hair component. But a key part of our process is the fibre separator (sometimes called the dehairer), which does exactly as the name suggests – it separates fine fibre from coarser fibre and vegetable matter. It’s basically a series of finely toothed rollers rotating rapidly in opposite directions. Fine, soft fibres will easily follow the path of the rollers, but straighter, coarser fibres don’t bend so easily to follow the change in direction, and so fall out into a collecting chambers underneath the machine. The fine fibre is combed from the end of the machine as a soft “cloud” of fibre.
And that was the moment of revelation – the dusty, smelly, hairy fibre wasn’t any of those any more. OK, it wasn’t as soft as really good alpaca, but it had a lovely smooth, silky feel to it. The nearest comparison we could think of was mohair, but even that wasn’t quite right, as llama had a distinctive dense coolness about it. So complete was our conversion that we ended up feeling really disappointed that we weren’t going to get to spin it, as we would have loved to see how it turned out! (Maybe not a great knitting yarn, as it would probably be quite heavy and not very elastic, but we can imagine it would be wonderful for weaving).
So we’d like to apologise profusely to the llama community for ever having been rude about your amazing beasties (we’re afraid it’s endemic in the alpaca world!). And if anyone would like to help us further along the road to enlightenment about the possibilities of llama fleece, we’d be very happy to hear from you. We should add that, as with alpaca, some animals have much better fibre than others. The dehairer is pretty good at separating out the best fibre, but it will mean a much lower return rate for coarser fleeces. For example, Amanda’s return rates ranged from 82% for her gelding Avebury to 51% for her “brood mare” Maes Howe … but apparently she does produce lovely cria!
Juliet & John Miller
The Border Mill, Haymount, Bridgend, Duns, TD11 3DJ
01361 882426 / 07950 563433 (Juliet) / 07952 264917 (John)
email@example.com / www.thebordermill.co.uk
A FIBRE WORKSHOP STORY Being interested in all things llama, I recently attended the fibre workshop day held at Golden Valley Llamas near Hereford, with hosts Amanda and Robert. I had had no experience of spinning of any sort and can barely remember back to my attempts at knitting. I wanted to write this to let people know what a good thing these sorts of day are, even if you think it's not something you are interested in or you don’t have any prior experience. You may find something you like.
I'm not going to cover details of the fibre qualities and its processing – Fiona Davis has done that far better than I can in previous issues of Llama Link. The day started well, once I had reversed back to the Golden Valley entrance that I had just missed! Robert was there to meet-and-greet and introduced me to the first of the others attending. I think around sixteen were expected and there certainly was a full house quite quickly (well full kitchen at least, as Amanda and Robert's is a large, gorgeous old farmhouse). A lot of people knew each other already - perhaps from other llama days or meeting at one of the more well-attended shows (e.g. Newbury and North Somerset) - but I was soon feeling comfortable while helping bring all sorts of spinning-related equipment into the soon-to-be-industrious basement. With most people present, we kicked-off with some coffee and llama eating. Not real llamas of course; Amanda had been up all night making llama biscuits, complete with little yellow packs on their backs. Part of the plan for the day was to go through the whole process; from shearing to spinning, from making things in various ways to parading the finished products on the catwalk (well perhaps I made up that last bit!) Unfortunately the shearer (the elusive 'Ben') cancelled that morning so we had to skip that bit and use a basket of fibre that had been 'made earlier'. I had really wanted to see the shearing process because we have not done any of our guys so far and we will need to do some next year. As it turned out, not doing the shearing allowed more time in a packed day for other activities. Mary Pryce started with a fantastic introduction to the fibre qualities and the initial processing, and the problems of getting it done commercially, for example at a micro-mill. This included hand-carding and a demonstration of a fantastic roller carding machine (I think a few people will be saving up for one of these) whilst we were being watered with tea and coffee. Mary has a wealth of knowledge and gave loads of tips (such as avoiding heat-shocking the fibre when washing). Others offered their own experience, which made this a fact-packed session, most of which I immediately forgot of course! We soon got our hands dirty (literally as these llamas love to roll) carding the raw fibre and having a go with the roller machine. Then on to spinning; we had a demonstration from a local spinner (sorry, I've forgotten her name). She usually uses sheep’s wool but I'm sure Amanda will persuade her to convert to llama fibre. Phil Davis demonstrated a few different types of machine and Fiona, some hand spinning. Then on to the more important task of lunch, which was fantastic and a real bonus. The sun was out so we de-camped to eat and talk alfresco, overlooking beautiful countryside with the llamas in the field below; it doesn't get much better than that. After lunch we were introduced to the fibre producers! They were quite happy sunning themselves in the field and didn't want to come and see these curious people so some bribing and herding was required to bring them up to the barn. We had a great time meeting and petting them and this provided us with a good time to swap experiences and tips; I picked up some rope haltering advice from Phil. Then back to work. It was at this point that a splinter group was established: Phil was going to teach me to spin and as it was such a nice day we decided to go outside. We snuck out to spend the afternoon spinning in the sun (yes, I got burnt!), later joined by Fiona, with some required liquid lubrication (unfortunately I had to drive). We were at it for hours and managed to produce quite a quantity of two-ply. Unfortunately this meant I had no idea what the others were up to indoors in the workhouse. Judging by the reactions it seemed like they were working hard too and had a good time as there were a lot of smiles, but who knows? The day was too short to do everything. I would have loved to see Amanda's huge loom working - the one on which she makes rugs - but we simply ran out of time. Can I suggest a two-day event next time?! Was it worth it? Of course. You get so much out of days like this, there are always new things to learn, some surprises and it's always good to meet other llama folk. Now all I have to do is make something with the spun fibre... Chris Smith, Shropshire
(Website Administrator's Note : Check out the Calendar of Events for when the next
Fibre workshop is to be held)