Alpaca on the Brink

If you don’t already have an alpaca sweater in your closet, that soon may change.

The alpaca, a cousin of both the camel and the llama, was brought to the United States in significant numbers in the early 1980s, and the current U.S. alpaca herd is estimated in the range of 125,000 to 250,000. Animals are shorn about once a year for their small fiber, which is considered in the same luxury category as mohair or cashmere. Until a few years ago, the economic foundation of the U.S. alpaca industry was based on buying and selling the animals for breeding and entry into show events, with very little attention given to the potential of U.S.-produced alpaca fiber.

Promoting alpaca fiber
That all changed when the global economy went sour near the end of 2008, and the industry and breeders began seeking alternate ways to turn a profit. In March of that year, a group of alpaca producers and processors launched Alpaca United, an organization focused on promoting alpaca as a textile fiber in the United States. The group brought Nick Hahn, the former head of Cotton Incorporated, out of retirement to serve as its leader. The organization now boasts about 550 members.

“Alpaca United’s purpose is to brand and market the North American alpaca fiber industry, which is not unlike the work I did for the cotton industry some years ago, albeit on a much smaller scale than for the massive cotton industry,” Hahn says.

Hahn says the commercial end of the alpaca textile industry traditionally has looked to Peru for its fiber, and that the key to putting the U.S. alpaca fiber in the limelight is organizing as a national industry with the infrastructure to collect, bale, classify, grade and sell the fiber — none of which, he says, has been in place. Until recently, the majority of alpaca fiber production was targeted toward the “cottage industry” of the craft-yarns market, Hahn explains.

But recently, the mindset has shifted, with those in the industry realizing that the true value in alpacas is their fiber.

Scaling up
Many alpaca farmers entered the textile business by having their fiber processed into yarn at mini mills around the country and then having the yarn hand-knitted into products such as socks and hats and sold at farm stores. Hahn was hired by a coalition of alpaca farmers to do what he did for the cotton industry: to organize farmers into a cohesive organization so the industry could speak as one voice on issues.

“A lot of people don’t know there is an alpaca industry in the U.S. and a lot of people think it’s a llama, which it isn’t,” Hahn says. “One of the things I realized early on is that this industry has operated in a bubble, so to speak. Breeders do business among themselves, but it’s a very insular industry and not too many outside of the bubble know about it.”

Alpaca United is moving forward on several fronts to promote the fiber on both the supply and demand side, including exhibiting at the natural fiber pavilion at the International Textile Market Association’s International Exhibition of Textile Machinery trade show in Barcelona and working with N.C. State University’s College of Textiles to create a research and development center.

“On the supply side, we need to build a viable infrastructure for the industry to collect fiber in an efficient way,” Hahn says. “It sounds simple, but it’s a challenge. There are about 10,000 alpaca breeders in this country. That’s a lot of folks to get your arms around. The average alpaca breeder knows very little about textiles. Most of them are professional people.”

Meet the breeders
Two of those professional people are Claudia Raessler, an attorney, and her husband, Ken, an anesthesiologist. They started raising alpacas on their farm in Yarmouth, Maine, in 2000. Today, their farm, SuriPaco, is one of the most active in the alpaca textile industry. The Raesslers, who helped found Alpaca United, are among a small group of alpaca breeders who have already developed a small niche textile business.

Figuring out the production process
“We became very focused on the textile production side and that’s how I got where I am now,” Claudia Raessler says. “We started like most farms do, taking their clip each year to a small yarn mill that typically can handle 30 pounds a day on a good day. The problem is that most of the yarn produced in the mini-mill process isn’t taken to the next step because it is labor intensive and very costly.”

The Raesslers started buying fiber from other farms and looked for mills to do small-volume runs. They have been working with mills in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Maine.

“We have a whole production process and we coordinate the supply process. We buy raw fiber from other farms for cash, a model that didn’t exist in this country six or seven years ago. We produce and buy raw fiber and we produce three collections of yarn and from each of those yarns we make a variety of hats, scarves, rugs and baby blankets. All are made in small volume. We use machine and hand knitters and some weavers. It’s still very much small-volume production, but what we have been able to figure out is what kind of alpaca yarns we can use in a machine process. We have a much better understanding of the properties of alpaca fiber.”

A different route
Head west, and you’ll find James Budd and his wife Sarah, owners of Alpacas of Montana, who have been raising alpacas for nearly a decade and currently have 160 of the animals on their farm near Bozeman, Mont. Their passion for all things alpaca has grown through the years as they gradually have ramped up their textile and apparel efforts with the luxury fiber.

The Budds’ first efforts took them to the boutique market, where they sold socks, hats and baby booties made from their own fiber, spun at small mills in Montana and knitted by hand into the final product. “We had 25 to 30 knitters working for us full time, going through about 2,000 pounds of fiber a year,” says Budd. It wasn’t long before the business “really took off,” he says.

As the business has grown, the Budds have delved deeper into exploring the capabilities of the fiber. Budd says alpaca has attributes that offer advantages over merino wool — such as its  natural wicking properties, resulting from fibers that are more hollow than wool fibers — but notes that there have been few scientific studies of the fiber, and the superior properties attributed to it are largely anecdotal. His company is working with U.S. government labs to test and gather scientific evidence of the fiber’s favorable qualities.

The Budds and their company, Alpacas of Montana, which is not currently a member of Alpaca United, are poised to take their venture to a much higher level. Because they can’t produce enough fiber to produce textiles on an industrial basis, they are working with growers in Peru, where the alpaca herd is estimated at 7 million.

One issue that alpaca garments face in the United States, says Budd, is that American consumers are not accustomed to laying their woolen garments flat to dry. As such, the Budds have developed a process to allow alpaca garments to be washed and dried without shrinkage. They expect a patent to be approved soon. Budd says this process is what sets his products apart from those of other alpaca farmers.

“We have developed a way to manufacture without shrinking,” Budd says. “We can produce a fine fiber textile which we can wash and dry. We have overcome the biggest hurdle.”

Alpacas of Montana is moving forward with an industrial-scale operation of apparel textiles and the Budds’ initial plan is to work with mills that have alpaca expertise in Peru.

“Because there is currently not enough fiber here in the U.S., we are launching our product line with products we have developed with mills in Peru,” Budd says. “We are also talking with mills in the U.S. for when our product line does get moving. That will be phase two. Our development started with socks because it was a quick market to hit,” Budd says. “SmartWool is the leader in that right now, but I really feel our socks outperform SmartWool in every way.”

Other products will include sweaters, hats, gloves and scarves. Later products may include a blended fabric with synthetic fibers for lining outdoor apparel.
“Our product line is developed, our inline shipping is in place and our sales are absolutely through the roof,” Budd says. “Without mentioning names — we are working with some very large department store players and outdoor textile retailers.”

The next step is to build an investment group. “We are looking for someone who understands textiles and can become part of our team,” Budd says.

John W. McCurry is a freelance writer focusing on fibers and textiles.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds