Hair’s Looking at You… And don’t be fooled by a lot of hair out of place. Alpacas are brighter than buttons and have wool that’s finer than cashmere.
Words: Jacqui Bräunlich
Pictures: Elke Losskarn
Gypsy Rose gives me a very intelligent look with big brown eyes and fluttering eyelashes. A beautiful rose-grey alpaca, she lives on the farm, Manor House Alpacas outside Paarl, with others just as good-looking as she is.
To show how smart alpacas are, Dietmar Keil, one of the breeders we meet, tells the story of a female alpaca called Ivy Precision. She had visited their farm to be mated the previous year, but when she returned quite some months later to meet one of the males again, the farm setup had changed a bit.
“When she was offloaded she refused to move into the new paddocks,” says Dietmar. “She ran halfway across the farm to where she had stayed the year before and it took quite some effort to get her away from there.”
Members of the camel family, alpacas are exceptionally cute but just as intelligent, and in South Africa and Australia are also used as sheep guards by farmers with predator problems. Because they are so curious and alert, they don’t run from danger, but rather like to check it out, thus scaring off predators like jackal and caracal.
And then, of course, there’s their wool, for which the creatures were domesticated 6 000 years ago by the Incas, who called the produce obtained from alpacas the ‘fibre of the Gods’. A good enough name for something finer than cashmere, smoother than silk and warmer than wool.
Today, the luxurious fibre from alpacas has fuelled a small but thriving industry in South Africa, and from the first pioneering steps in 2000, the industry has grown to more than 5 000 animals in the country. But producing it is no easy task and the 50-odd breeders and farmers in South Africa are supported by various fibre-processing ventures that are key to creating the final product.
We visited Quenti Alpaca Farm and Mill in Wellington, home to 150 alpacas, where their fleece is made into yarn, a lengthy and complex process that requires specialised machines. Owners Linda and Stephen Nessworthy bought Klein Limietrivier, a derelict farm in the Limietberg in 2011, and decided to go into alpaca farming and yarn processing. They built up the mill by sourcing machines from parts of the world like Bosnia, Poland, France and Italy.
“When the machines arrived, we just looked at all the bits and had no clue how to reassemble them,” says Linda, at the start of the steep learning curve that ended up in their innovative and successful business. Today they are the only mill in the country specialising in producing alpaca yarn.
About 1000kg of fibre was processed last year and 650kg currently being processed for their winter range. Mill tours are offered and visitors can browse their product range in their beautiful coffee shop in the barn.
Alpaca wool is unique because it is so fine and light. It is measured in microns, and the lower the micron the higher the comfort factor, as the wool is less itchy to feel or touch. Cashmere must be 14 microns or lower to earn its name, a measurement alpaca wool can also achieve.
Human skin perceives fibre as prickly from 23 microns, so ‘Microns Matter’ is the motto of the serious alpaca wool producer. Also, unlike sheep wool, alpaca wool has no lanolin and as such is hypoallergenic. The wool is butter-soft, but this comes at the end of a 12-step process that includes sorting, washing, carding, drafting and spinning. “Apart from processing alpaca wool, we are building rare skills and keeping an industry alive that has almost died out,” explains Linda. “Twenty years ago there were 53 mills in SA and today there are only three left. The rest have moved to China and Bangladesh.”
Like any farming, breeding alpacas is not without risks. Linda tells the story of a creative solution she found when a baby was born with badly positioned legs, “She couldn’t stand easily to feed so we tried bandages to hold her legs in the correct position. This didn’t work, so in desperation I took my little grandson’s corduroy pants and cut out the crotch seam. I made holes along the side seams and tied the two legs together. The pants were a perfect length and softly held her legs correctly. After five days Jessie’s legs were absolutely fine. So the ‘orthopants’ were washed and put away in case we need them again.”
Not far down the road in Paarl at The Alpaca Loom & Weaving Studio, we met Kerstin Heisterkamp and Dietmar Keil, another couple passionate about farming alpacas. They have more than 300 alpacas on their farm, as well as two llamas and a few dromedaries that are used in film shoots. They decided to start an alpaca stud after farming calves and pigs.
“We fell in love when we saw them at an agricultural show,” says Dietmar. “We liked the fact that they are low impact and gentle on the earth. They eat grass and don’t need a lot of space.”
Since then, alpacas have become part of their own family. Kerstin tells a touching story of what happened when one of the females rejected her daughter Lola, even breaking the daughter’s leg in the process. “The vet put the leg in a cast, we decided not to take any further risks and took Lola into our house. She felt very at home and would make quite a din running around with her peg leg on our wooden floors. A few days later another female lost her baby at birth, and we managed to convince her that Lola was her baby, and she raised her for us.”
Alpacas love children, and The Alpaca Loom offers barn tours and has a petting zoo, where children and adults can interact with these placid and inquisitive creatures. As Kerstin says, “There is always something smallish hopping around, with babies being born right through from spring to autumn.” This autumn (2016) they are expecting 60 babies on the farm.
Another farm, Helderstroom Alpacas in Villiersdorp, specialises in hand-spinning fleece into the finest yarns to make luxurious high-end products. In fact, their spinners have won awards for their spinning skills. Felting has also become a new developing side industry. Stonehill Originals in Hout Bay has the only felt loom in the country and produces soft, silky felt for the fashion and decor industries. Serena Alpacas in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal, has the only custom, alpaca, duvet-manufacturing process in the country.
As we were leaving the barn at The Alpaca Loom, we looked into Gypsy Rose’s pen and watched her gently nuzzling her newborn baby, and humming in that special way alpacas are known for. I don’t know that I’ve ever witnessed such bliss.
Did You Know?
- There are two types of alpacas – the suri and the huacaya. The suri has fibre that grows long and forms silky dreadlocks. The huacaya has a woolly, dense, crimped fleece — like a teddy bear — giving it a very wooly appearance. About 90 percent of all alpacas in South Africa are huacayas.
- Alpacas and llamas can successfully cross-breed. The offspring they create are known as huarizo, which are valued for their longer fleece.
- When in danger, a staccato braying is started by one animal, then followed by the rest of the herd in the direction of the potential threat. During breeding, the male alpaca emits a unique throaty vocalisation called ‘orgling’.
- The fibre is flame- and water-resistant, and comes in 22 tones (and blends) that are recognised by the textile industry, from white to light rose grey to dark fawn.
- Alpacas use a communal dung pile and because of this some alpacas have been successfully house-trained.