The Reluctant Alpaca Breeder

I may not have made money but I’ve made something far better…

Suri babies Pinot and Asti

“What a lovely day to become an alpaca farmer,” Hilary said as she got ready to unload her trailer in the March sunshine, five years ago. She’d driven to my house in Tuscany, Italy from neighbouring Umbria where she has a substantial herd of alpacas. To fulfill a long-held dream, I had bought four females from her, two suris and two huacayas. Through the slats I glimpsed soft whiskery noses with long diagonal nostrils, a pale violet halter, a shimmer of black hair. That was when it hit me.

I didn’t want to be an alpaca farmer.

This was going to be problematic as breeding alpacas was my new business idea and three of my four were pregnant. The garden had been expensively fenced in. I had made a manger from plans downloaded from the Internet and the lean-to next to the garage was now stacked with hay. I had a website. I had made a mind map of the business. I was a member of the British and Italian alpaca societies. There was no going back and I couldn’t ever admit (especially to my long-suffering husband) that this wasn’t what I wanted to do after all.

I had decorated the paddock gate with a woven twig heart and put a sunflower above their shelter having read that in Peru they throw flowers on alpacas at times of celebration. The alpacas loped rocking-horse style to the grass and began grazing. They at least were happy, even if I felt a growing sense of unease as I waved Hilary off and went to inspect my new responsibilities.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love them. What’s not to love about huge black eyes, padded feet and cloud-like fleece? But something was scratching away at my insides. What is it? What is it? Why am I feeling like this?

There aren’t very many alpacas in Italy, estimates put it about a thousand or so sprinkled around the country. They were certainly a novelty in our neck of the woods and soon there was a steady stream of babes-in-arms, burly farmers and wizened elderly people at the gate. The Carabinieri (local police) pulled into the drive and my fears about breaching God-knows-which local regulation melted away as they removed their dark glasses and shyly asked if they could see the “llamas,” then got out their phones to take photos.

My vet was also enchanted. He had spent his hard-earned and only holiday of the year on the beach reading alpaca magazines which he had asked to borrow from me. One night he stayed up until one o’clock researching them online. His kids had done a project at school on alpacas. He was almost in tears when he saw them for the first time.

A month after I got the alpacas it was shearing time. I wanted to get this done locally, but there is no-one near me who knows how, so Hilary organised a father and son team from the UK to come and shear the herds of a small group of owners who have bought animals from her. It was a blur of first and second quality, bags and ropes. I was anxious for the alpacas, stretched out with their back legs tied to one tree and their front ones to another, but they survived and seemed happy to be a couple of kilos lighter. A YouTube video helped me prep my fleece which took forever and was done on the bathroom floor accompanied by a lot of swearing. We have a mill near here, but they didn’t do alpaca fleece and so, reluctantly, I sent it all to England to be processed.

Brown huacaya fleece washed and ready to spin

As the months went on, we got into a routine of carrots and apples, hay and dung clearing. (They are prolific poopers but it can go straight onto the garden — hoorah!) I bought them a doggie paddling pool for the hot summer months and hosed their undersides as they stood with eyes half closed. The expectant mothers grew rounder and I watched videos on what to do before, during and after an alpaca birth. I am calm and competent around animals particularly in emergencies, so I was fairly confident I would cope. What I wasn’t so sure about was what I was going to do with seven alpacas.

My first ever alpaca birth came exactly on the eleven-and-a-half month due date. Huacaya mother Emilia delivered a little white boy cria in textbook fashion at 9 am on August 28th as I stood by with rubber gloves and my birthing kit. I fretted and fussed in case it didn’t suckle within the important first six hours. It did, of course. The whole experience was profound and magical but reinforced my feeling that I did not want to be a breeder. Apart from the unexpected feeling of extreme stress, how could I possibly sell something I had seen develop from a small bump to a wobbly-legged doe-eyed baby determined to stand within ten minutes of being in the world? We called the cria Brunello and he stole my heart.

Huacaya Diana’s birth was slightly less traumatic (for me that is, she was magnificent) and the herd was joined by another male cria, Dolcetto, who was the colour of an autumn leaf and so exhausted from the birth he kept falling asleep on the warm grass. Two males. This is not good in alpaca breeding terms as the females are the valuable ones. But then as I wasn’t really an alpaca farmer, I didn’t care.

The third alpaca baby didn’t appear. I checked world records for alpaca gestation — which is an astonishing 472 days. We passed that. She didn’t look pregnant any more either. It turned out that Champagne, the big suri mamma with her high maintenance attitude and superior long-eyelashed stare, had reabsorbed the foetus. So then we were six.

Dream Weaving

It was during the autumn months that I rediscovered the plastic bag of suri rovings I was given when I first bought the alpacas. Oh yes, yarn has its own language. I tipped them onto the table, admired the silky smooth waves of gleaming fleece. How could these become yarn? It seemed impossible. Clearly spinning was involved. Maybe there would be someone local who could spin this for me? My vet knew a South American lady and gave me her number. Fortunately, as it turned out, I didn’t call her. Instead I ordered a drop spindle from the Internet.

My spindle arrived in a cardboard box with a couple of handfuls of sheep’s wool rovings, one cream, one brown. I didn’t hold out much hope of being either interested in or capable of spinning the alpaca rovings, but spurred on by the thought of at least doing something productive with my herd, I watched another YouTube video and then had a go.

When I spun for the first time it was as if someone had plugged me straight into ancestral DNA. I could almost see double helixes dancing before my eyes. Knots of fear and uncertainty unravelled like dropped stitches and reshaped themselves into a skein of shimmering possibilities. I felt an inexplicable sense of deep peace. My hovering hummingbird brain stopped its feeding frenzy and was now in a state of profound relaxation.

I spun and spun. I washed skeins of cream and black suri fibre and rolled them into fat balls of glowing yarn. I knitted them into a strange cushion cover with wooden buttons. Early one morning I lined up a handful of rovings, a spindle of yarn and the cushion cover and just stared at this visual reminder of the process that generations of women before me had spent hours and hours over. It was quite thrilling.

And then the rovings ran out. I was an addict with no fix, scrabbling around to find alternatives. I knitted some bought wool I had in the cupboard but it felt flimsy, insubstantial and fake. I had to get more. I had to spin my own. I had to learn to process a fleece from start to finish.

I had done some writing work for Hilary and so I asked her to pay me in fleece. While waiting for it to arrive I ordered a carder from a British company and sat and admired its woody handcrafted splendour. I loved that a porcupine quill is involved in the process because I collect those in the woods behind my house. Fifteen kilos of raw fleece arrived in a cardboard box and I began to sort and wash, card and spin. It was hard at first but I persevered, although my yarn was still the thickness of Godzilla’s eyelashes.

My eBay spinning wheel

I bought an ancient and extremely primitive spinning wheel from a second hand shop for 20 euros because it was minus its fat bobbin. It sat in the corner of the landing looking authentically rustic but useless. While on Italian eBay I spotted someone selling some spinning wheel parts for 25 euros. Perhaps I could find a part for my bobbinless wheel? I bid and won. (Truth be told I was the only bidder as spinning is not that popular here in Italy). A couple of shoeboxes of intriguing pieces arrived. The bobbin was too sophisticated for my rustic wheel. But out of curiosity I tried putting the bits together, although it was clear there was a lot missing. I emailed the lady to thank her and asked if by any chance she knew what the original had looked like. No, she replied, she had been clearing out her grandfather’s loft, he used to buy interesting objects from old houses, and she had found the bits up there. A couple of days later she emailed me again. She had found more parts of the spinning wheel, was I interested? And so another box of pieces arrived, larger than the first.

Now, I had no clue how spinning wheels ancient or modern fit together and what the various bits did. I had a lot of pieces of an antique wheel. Too many pieces, I felt. Back to the Internet and hours of research. Painstakingly I unlocked my wheel’s secrets, aided by the revelation that it had two “mother-of-alls” (or is that “mothers- of- all”?) It was a gossip wheel, a love wheel, an arcolaio d’amore. I spent the weekend assembling it and trying to work out how on earth to thread the drive cord (a window sash cord from the DIY shop) around the wheel. There is precious little on the Internet about that so I printed out freeze frames of people using gossip wheels and worked from those. I finally managed it, but only after I relented and only used one of the mothers.

And then I sat in front of the wheel for the first time and the kitchen was filled with the sound, probably not heard for many, many years, of rhythmic treadling, which made my dogs gather round with ears pricked staring at this strange contraption.

The shearers have just been again this year, but now I am going to spin fleece from my own alpacas. It’s been quite a journey. I never imagined that one day would be sitting, witch-like, at a spinning wheel, but it all has a kind of predestined feel to it. I understand my feelings of discomfort now too. Getting the alpacas felt right but the whole breeding thing didn’t. And that is because I’m not an alpaca farmer at all. I am an alpaca yarn maker.