Alpacas may look like a fun farm pet, but for Geri Wayslow, they’re a true labour of love — one that requires a whole lot of hard work and a little bit of luck to turn a profit.
“It’s fun as a breeder to see what I’ve created, but more importantly, it’s about what I want to produce,” said Wayslow, who owns Ault Alpacas near Ranfurly (120 kilometres east of Edmonton).
She started breeding alpacas about 15 years ago when her 10-year-old son decided he wanted to show them. And while the family has produced some award-winning alpacas in the years since then, the animals’ real value lies in their silky soft fibre.
Alpaca fibre isn’t as common as sheep’s wool in Canada, but it has some unique characteristics that set it apart. The fibre is as soft as cashmere but seven times warmer than wool, with a density that allows water to just run right off. And unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fibre isn’t itchy, and doesn’t have lanolin in it, making it ideal for people who can’t wear wool.
Generally, alpacas are sheared once a year in the spring, producing on average between five to 10 pounds of fibre a year (or two big garbage bags apiece.) The main yield is sheared from the blanket, or the part of the alpaca’s coat that comes from the barrel of its body.
“When we shear, I try and separate the fibre so that I have the blanket — the best part from the barrel — in the bag,” said Wayslow.
“If I’m going to have it washed, cleaned, carded, and made into product, I want it to be the best of the animal.”
All of this sorting is done manually.
“It’s a labour-intensive process, but the more you touch it — the more hands on you are — the better you get.”
Wayslow sells her high-quality fibre to local mills for about $6 a pound. Typically, mills look for some key characteristics. First is the staple length, or the length of the fibre. Mills typically want the fibre to be uniform and no longer than five inches long.
“If you were putting a bag together to send it to the mill, you would take your five inches and try to keep it uniform in length,” she said.
They also look at the fineness of the fibre, which is determined by its micron count — the lower, the better. Colour may also come into play. Alpacas come in 22 colours, and the lighter fibre can be dyed, potentially adding more value to the milled product.
Once Wayslow has set aside her top-shelf fibre, she picks through the seconds (“the crappy stuff”) and bags them separately for things such as rug yarn or reusable dryer balls (which reduce drying time).
“A lot of people make yarn, and a lot of people are also into felting,” she said. “There’s a market for the seconds, but it’s not as good.”
Ultimately, though, diversification has been key to Ault Alpacas’ success.
In addition to selling breeding stock and fibre, Wayslow has hosted alpaca-assisted therapy sessions, children’s camps, and other programs to build additional revenue streams into her operation, making her alpaca passion project more sustainable in the long run.
“You have to add value to whatever you produce,” said Wayslow. “The more you’re willing to invest, the more sustainable it is.”