Make Your Fleece Fly!

After 4 years we might just have this figured out.

We have been raising alpacas for just over 4 years. And in those first few years we fell victim to the same dilemma that I am sure many of you do. What do I do with all this fleece? Where do I begin? And where do I find the time?

We are in the business of raising livestock with an elegant end product that deserves much better than to languish in a barn, garage or basement. Though it may be hidden away in clear plastic bags, it peers out at us year round, summoning our guilt to the fore and challenging us to get at it and make it disappear.

Alpacas on the Run low resIt always seemed to me that the mentor farms we were dealing with had this well in hand. We were reluctant to even ask the question, “What do you do with your fleece?” It seemed like such a rookie question. We didn’t want to waste their time, or steal their trade secrets for getting the most out of their fleece.

One thing has become clear over these 4 short years. Not all alpaca farms are alike. We all have unique farm models, determined by a number of things: size of herd, volume of production, available time to market end products, interest in retailing … and the list goes on.

Our model is becoming crystal clear to us. When we stick to that model, and recognize our capacity for production and sales, we don’t burn ourselves out, we get the fleece out the door quickly, and we make a nice profit after a gratifying year of hard work on the farm. Both my husband and I work off-farm so we have to be very realistic about the limited time we have to farm.

Freshly shorn fleece requires skirting, sorting and grading to be ready for sale.

Freshly shorn fleece requires skirting, sorting and grading to be ready for sale.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, so were we. Or should I say, so was I. It was clear that on our farm, fleece was going to be my problem … or opportunity! My husband shears our herd, and once that fleece is off the animal his part is done. My kids are busy with their lives and not nearly as fascinated with fleece as I am. So it’s up to me to get that product moving.

It seemed to me as we were learning the ropes that almost everyone talked about “getting their fleece off to the mill” and were waiting for product (socks, yarn, etc) to arrive back on the farm. Each farm was running their own scale of retail operation, from selling socks at their kitchen table, right through to farm gate shops that did a bustling business.

As I looked at our situation though, any level of retail operation just did not seem realistic. So I began to research the market for raw fleece. It turns out many farms were marketing their fleece directly to spinners and weavers and crafters of all kinds. This was appealing. Minimal inputs of time, and maximum returns. This lured me to the skirting table.

Now, skirting warrants an entire article of its own. There is much to learn about skirting and it became clear that the only way to learn it was to get at it. Several years of both digging into those bags and working around a skirting table, along with a few fibre workshops with the experts, and I have become quite proficient at taking our fleece from the raw to skirted state. Along the way I have discovered how therapeutic the process can be, and how much I can learn about the animal and our nutritional results. It’s time well spent. And this year I learned more again upon visiting a mill and reviewing what fleeces I brought along with the masters at the mill.

While skirting my fleece, I keep a record that becomes my sales inventory and master sheet from which to sell fleeces. Each fleece (1st, 2nd, 3rd) from each alpaca has the following information recorded:

  • Customers respond to seeing the animal, seeing and feeling their spun fibre, and touching the raw fleece.

    Customers respond to seeing the animal, seeing and feeling their spun fibre, and touching the raw fleece.

    Alpaca Name

  • Fleece Colour
  • Grade (1-6)
  • Micron
  • Staple Length
  • Comments (crimp, handle, strength, colour uniformity, structure)
  • Shorn Weight
  • Skirted Weight
  • Price / Pound
  • Total Value

Now you have something to market. But where do you find those customers?

It’s so important to talk about your farm and what you do. When you do, customers will find you. We have spinners and weavers contacting us quite regularly to find out when our fleece will become available. Two years ago, we even sold a fleece “on the hoof” before the animal was even shorn!

We advertise raw fleece on our website. Etsy and other websites are great places to market your raw fleece accompanied by a photograph of the animal or the fleece, a description and the price. We have had customers drive hundreds of kilometres to tour the farm and purchase fleece. Often, the ability to see the animal that produced the fleece creates an even greater interest in the end product.

And over the past few years we have seen a great surge in purchasing of raw fleece by some of the micro mills here in Ontario. Earlier this year the call was put out for fleece by a mill and we fully intended to participate in this, liquidating our fleece quickly and in a single batch, but before we had that opportunity, it was purchased outright by a very innovative entrepreneur that is making raw fleece her business.

I am inspired by the growing fascination with fibre that is happening all around us. It has made fleece sales a breeze and driven prices upward. More than that, it is bringing local fibre, and our very unique fibre-producing alpacas a hot commodity. It is exactly this trend that inspired a new on-line and on-site business, Fibre & Fleece (www.fibreandfleece.ca). A unique entrepreneur, Monica Stary Stein founded this business that connects those passionate about fibre to the farms that produce it.

Monica has been addicted to knitting since the age of 5. She is the product of an immigrant family where you are taught to take care of yourself and work hard. Later in life, in 1985 she learned to spin and fell in love with that too. Over six summer vacations (1 week of “mom time”) she completed her Master Spinners Certificate, culminating in six years worth of homework, projects, countless binders of samples of spinning, knitting and dying of every imaginable fibre.

With that passion ignited, along came opportunity when she retired. She had the opportunity to take a fast track business course and wrote the business plan.  As she watched the “Handmade Revolution” take hold in the early 21st century, interest grew in natural fibres like alpaca. Celebrities popularized knitting once again and an online and social networking community for knitters, spinners and fibre artists developed.

Monica was not taking a trend for granted though, she did her research, and it revealed some interesting things about the market for natural fibre in Eastern Ontario:

  • My consumer profile will be well read, environmentally conscious general public and fibre artists from several lifestyle segments; protective providers, up and comers, les “petite Vie”, joiner activists and the tie-dyed greys.
  • My target market will be primarily Baby Boomers who are looking for a little fun, flair and the new look. Many have grown up familiar with the crafts of knitting and spinning as a way of life.
  • The Youth Millennial, is my Target B market; many whose interest and taste include a vintage style.
  • The International Online Ravelry website has 32,356 members belonging to 350 knitting groups in Ontario. Around the Kingston area there are currently 497 members belonging to three local online Ravelry groups.
  • 25 % of respondents specifically indicated that they were interested in alpaca fibre.

Fleece low resMonica’s market research revealed that customers were equally interested in online and storefront sales. With zoning limitations preventing her from opening a home-based store, necessity dictated an on-line store was the way to go. She now boasts a website, Facebook, Twitter and Ravelry online presence.

So how does Fibre & Fleece work? Sales are made through online shopping, at guild meetings, knitting groups, craft seminars, trade/fibre shows and in-home consultations. A retail store may be in its future, but for now, all you need to do is click your mouse to see profiles of the alpacas who have produced the fleece she sells, or follow your passion to a show or guild meetings.

But what makes this business model even more unique is her dedication to connecting with local farms and telling their story as a means to educate people even further about the fleece product they are buying. Monica credits her background in social work for her passion for educating people about the farms and the centuries old techniques of working with fibre.

“The minute someone looks at the of alpaca fleece, I ask them to feel, look at the colours, see the cleanliness, see the crimp and the length of the staple. For those who are familiar with alpaca fibres, the cleanliness of the freshly sheared fibre, the softness and length are something they always comment on. For those who are not so familiar with alpaca fibre, I go straight to the photos of the animals, the names of the alpaca it came from and then invite them to feel and look at the fabulous colors of each. I then go on to introduce them to the farm, website and the story of Oak Hills Alpaca Farms and invite them to visit the website to see for themselves, as I give them the Oak Hills Alpaca Business card.   It really all just speaks for itself. Just showing the cowl I made from the mixture of alpacas, while I name each animal, and now the spinning of Charlie’s fibre with a vision to knit a lace cowl, is all they need to oooohh and awwww!”

Well, as an alpaca farmer, it is businesses like these and people like Monica that make the connection where and when we cannot. I cannot be the retailer, but I can support a retailer like Monica by providing a high quality fleece, the story of the animal, and the passion we have for our farm. For the person working with that fleece, it brings them full circle to the source of the fleece and our farm.

Alpacas on the Run 3 low resOriginally published in the December 2013 issue of Camelid Quarterly.  A special thanks to the editors for their permission to reprint.