Last year I met a man who told me that he and his wife were on a mission to eradicate synthetic fiber. He stood under the shade of a farmers market easy-up tent with a couple of display tables and stands full of alpaca yarn, dryer balls, felted crafts, and knitted hats. It was a beautiful presentation of color, and talent, to be sure. Yet, I suspected, based on the fact that he was selling his wares at our tiny, local farmer’s market, that his operation wasn’t quite large enough to make a dent in the world’s fiber needs.
I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but it was something about his goal being noble, though probably unattainable for a lone alpaca farming couple in rural North Carolina. So, that’s when he told me that he and his wife weren’t just alpaca farmers. They were educators, active encouragers of new alpaca farmers, and part of a broader community of alpaca people.
It turns out that every spring, John and Vivian Thompson offer interested parties an opportunity to come to their farm, Alpacadabra, hang out with the alpacas, learn how to shear, class and sort fiber, and even handle routine herd maintenance tasks like nail clipping and teeth grinding. They feed you lunch and happily share all their tricks and secrets. And the best part is that they don’t charge for this “field to barn” (or, technically, field to fleece) experience. In addition, they also offer really affordable courses on what to do with the fiber after you have it and tricks and techniques for building a successful alpaca fiber business.
Over the years, they’ve helped other farmers make their alpaca dreams a reality. I was really impressed by John’s and Vivian’s dedication. So, I bought some awesome dryer balls and promised to show up on a shearing day the next year. Due to weather challenges and other obligations, I wasn’t able to make their official farm dates. Luckily, some of their former students, turned alpaca owners, were bringing alpacas for shearing last Monday and were willing to let me join the fun. I picked up my friend Mary, who is also fairly new to farming and loves to learn new things, and we headed out to Alpacadabra farm.
When we arrived, the first alpaca of the day was already on the shearing table. They had removed the “blanket” which is the best part of the fleece located on the top sides and back of the alpaca. They were starting on their second round of cuts in the neck, belly and leg areas. The fleece in these areas is a step down from the blanket but still has utility for crafts like felting and dryer balls. Some alpacas may also grow long and fine hair in the neck area that can be used for spinning into yarn, but not always.
As soon as I got oriented, John handed me a set of shears and put me to work cleaning up the legs. He pointed out the angle on the safety guard on the shear head and demonstrated that you need to hold the clippers so that the safety head is flat against the alpacas body. For me, this felt like holding a hand-sized pencil. The angle was awkward and I had a tendency to lay the shears over too much which meant I only got part of the fur in each pass. It took me a few minutes to trust the guard and follow the angle. I kept repositioning the shears in my hand to find a comfortable way of holding them.
After I accidentally overheated the clippers, John also explained that you need to release the “on” switch whenever you are not shearing (e.g. while finding a comfortable hand position – oops). The clippers don’t heat up as quickly when they are in contact with the fleece since the fleece absorbs some of the heat. However, if you let them run without contact to the fleece, they get hot fast. And hot clippers and a half-naked alpaca are not a happy combination!
Luckily, John keeps a can of coolant around, so we sprayed the clipper head and got back to work. From that point on, I periodically stopped and touched the shearing head to make sure it wasn’t getting too hot for the alpaca’s skin.
Shearing in order of quality makes sorting and processing the fleece easier. Shearing the high quality parts seems easy. The fur literal comes off like a blanket. But the clean-up shaving of all the compostable stuff, like around the ankles and tail, tends to be slower going as the hair is often matted and dirty. Small motions with the shears and getting the cut clumps of hair out of the way, as you go, helps.
The second alpaca was the most difficult personality-wise and largest of the batch. She was a spitter named Barb who had been sheared before and wasn’t looking forward to a hair cut. The process starts by getting the alpaca on the scale for a weight check. The scale is on the floor of an alpaca-sized stall with bumpered levers designed to hold an alpacas head. After getting the weight, the leaf blower comes out…
Yep…I said leaf blower. The reason for the head lock is to keep the animal still while you blow all the pasture debris off the alpaca’s coat so that you have less work to get the blanket and other usable parts clean for fiber-making. Barb, the spitter, actually took this pretty well. She fussed a bit while the group forced her from the scale through a fence panel shoot to the shearing table. But, she seemed fairly resolved to get with the program once we got her there.
We stood Barb up against the table, strapped her to it using repurposed seat belts for her body area, and a leather belt for her neck. Once the alpaca is locked in place, the table is laid over, so that the previously standing alpaca is now laying flat on a table top.
Then leg restraints, connected to self-locking pulleys, are used to stretch out the alpaca for easy and safe shearing. It sounds a bit like medieval torture. But in fact, other than the show of not wanting to cooperate in getting to the table, from this point on, they were docile and accepting of the process. And I could tell that John had put a lot of though into how to do this with minimal stress to the alpacas.
Once the leg straps are tensioned, then the seat belts are unbuckled and shearing commences. A bag is placed on the table to collect the blanket as it comes off the animal. One side is sheared, and then the neck strap comes off, the alpaca is gently rolled to the other side (leg straps still on) and a second neck strap, on the other side of the table, is buckled.
With the other side blanket removed, the neck is freed and held up so the best parts of the neck fleece can be sheared off.
While you have the animal on the table, you also take care of hoof nail trimming and teeth grinding. The nail trimming is pretty straight forward. John uses a pair of something that look like tin snips to cut the overgrown nail back into line with the hoof. You just have to be careful not to cut the “quick” (sensitive pointed tip protected by the hoof).
Teeth grinding…well, luckily not all alpacas need it. But our third girl on the table had some overgrown buck teeth that made it challenging for her to eat. John put a piece of about 1″ PVC pipe in her mouth. Two people held her head, and he used a Dremel-looking thing to grind her teeth back into line. John said she was a “grower” as in an alpaca with a tendency to grow large teeth and needed to have her teeth ground down each year.
I read up on teeth grinding for alpacas and apparently it isn’t painful to the animal. But, when I go to the dentist, even when numbed to the hilt, the sound of that drill gives me nightmares for days afterwards. The alpaca on the table didn’t seem to like the drill much either. The process was quick and the alpaca seemed fine and even friendly right after the procedure. So, it must not have been too bad.
With all that hair gone, nails cut, and teeth trimmed (if necessary), the seat belt straps go back on, leg restraints come off, and the table is flipped so the alpaca is standing again. Seat belts come off and the animals are returned to the herd.
The half-naked Alpacas look like farm-sized giraffes next to their still fluffy friends. But with our upcoming heat streak, these gals will be happier for the hair cut.
In between animals, Vivian made everyone drink water to stay hydrated and mid-day she gave us a tour of her fiber making barn and served us up a nice lunch. I had to get back the reLuxe Ranch after that.
Despite having such a wonderful experience, I don’t think Alacas are on my radar. Yet, I walked away with a new appreciation for John and Vivian and for why they made a mission out of encouraging others to use natural, rather than synthetic, fibers. Each of us have our callings, and from my perspective, it seems like the Thompsons have alpaca rearing, shearing, and fiber-making in the very fibers of their being. For me, that’s the real magic of Alpacadabra – the pure love they have for the animals and what they are doing.
And in case you are thinking about alpacas…they also make a lot of great poop for compost which is another bonus if you want to grow not only your own fiber, but also your own food!