Alpaca Fibre - setting up a new industry

Article by Ian Jamieson, Novello Farm, Montagu

Venturing into the Alpaca Fibre World- the beginning It all began 25 years ago when I bought a spinning wheel and set about teaching myself to spin, never thinking that the path would lead to the amazing experiences of processing alpaca fibre! I have been involved with natural fibres and materials ever since…

In early 2004 we bought our first alpacas and moved to our farm in Montagu. We decided to embark on a journey to make a successful business processing the wonderful fibre these beautiful creatures grow. At first I employed one of the local farm girls who was keen to learn to clean and spin the fibre and soon realized we would need another girl if production was going to be worth while. While the girls were learning to clean, spin, knit and crochet, I was experimenting with alpaca fibre for felting.

Felting was relatively unknown then, but is now seeing a revival. I had felted sheeps wool and made products many years before and thought the beauty of the natural alpaca colours would lend themselves to the art of felting. “ALPACAFelt Handmade” was born…

In the beginning it was a rocky road, not many people in South Africa knew what an alpaca was, and our mission then was to show as many people as we could the beauty of the end product in the form of fashion and interior design items, the aim being to contribute to the growth of the alpaca breeding industry We opened our farm to the public who ooh'd and ahh'd over how gorgeous and cute the alpacas were, but were not too keen on paying the price for the products. So it was a slow start, but steadily the interest grew, and we became known in our village for being “the alpaca people” and Novello Alpaca Farm is a 'must' when visiting Montagu. We also exhibited (and still do) at the local country market which has been hugely successful - many a person has been educated with photos and have been able to feel and see the beauty of alpaca fleece.

The first overseas orders came in during 2006 mainly scarves, but also interest for items for the interior design industry. In 2007 , I was warded Top Female Farmer by the Department of Agriculture for taking a farming venture to an end product being sold overseas. Our farm was featured in Country Life Magazine in May 2008, which brought in many visitors and orders, and is keeping us very busy! I am happy to say we now also supply several top South African boutiques with products made with “the Fibre of the Gods”! I knew nothing of processing an alpaca fleece, so it was a journey of learning. I find that the most important first step is to get the fibre completely free of any vegetable matter - a challenge to say the least with some animals, especially the ones who love their dust baths! It is a mistake to think that the contamination will be thrown out in the carding process. It just gets chopped up to finer bits which stick like glue in the now carded fleece. Some vegetation may be lost in the spinning process, but most of it will stubbornly stay to the end and effectively spoil the end product. Once the fleece has been cleaned of all contamination, we card the fibre using a drum carder in preparation for hand spinning. We spin balanced, fine singles and mostly do not ply. Once the yarn is spun and skeined, it is then washed in warm water and allowed to dry thoroughly - the yarn is then ready for knitting, weaving or crocheting. We specialize in making felted fabrics and felt products for the fashion and interior design industries. Making felt is an intriguing process of transforming fleece into a unique fabric which has no warp or weft like woven fabrics, does not fray and is infinitely versatile. It requires no special equipment, only heat, friction moisture and soap.

There are many basic techniques for making felt and no hard and fast rules so one can adapt the basics to ones own liking. The following is a simple method of making a square piece of felt A tray lined with clean cloth is used as a base for the first layer of carded fleece. The fleece must be laid down so that the fibres all run in the same direction and distributed evenly. A second layer is placed on top of the first with the fibres running at right angles to the first layer. At least three or four layers are made in this way, the more layers, the thicker the felt will be.
Place a rolling pin at one end of the tray and roll up the fleece with the cloth and tie the roll with string at intervals to prevent it all moving. Roll the bundle backwards and forwards keeping an even pressure along the length of the roll. When the string comes loose, unroll the bundle - you will probably find that some of the fibres are stuck to the cloth, but they can be gently pulled away. Turn the felt 90 degrees and repeat the process of rolling.. The felt will shrink and become a firm piece of fabric.

It has been, and will continue to be, an amazing path to follow, the satisfaction one gets when you ‘deliver’ a cria, watch it grow, shear it, and make something special out of its fleece - life with Alpacas is so rewarding.