Alpacas a shear delight
BY VERONICA GORLEY CHUFO
The South American Creatures give up their coats so others can wear nice sweaters.
Isle of Wight - Loretta didn't want to get her hair cut. The big, white alpaca whinnied like a pony, bucked and kicked and put up a fuss when it was time for her annual shearing.
"That's my girl," joked Cindy Graham, who helps out at Alpacas at Courthouse Pastures, where Loretta lives.
At least she didn't spit at Graham. That happened once before.
"She hit me right in the temple with a big old loogie," Graham said.
Loretta and dozens of other alpacas were subjected to the buzz of clipping shears over the weekend when a barn outside Windsor became an alpaca barbershop. The shears transformed the alpacas from big and fuzzy to skinny and bare - all while a crowd of spectators watched.
It was the Isle of Wight County Alpaca Shearing Day and Open House, organized by three of the county's alpaca farms - Cornerstone Farm Alpacas, Woodland Trail Farm and Alpacas of Courthouse Pastures - which are home to more than 40 alpacas.
"We want people to know about alpacas and the benefits of their fiber," said Chris Wingard of Cornerstone Farm Alpcas, where the open house was held. "It's softer, stronger and warmer than wool."
Originally from South America, alpacas are a cousin of the camel and llama and were first imported to the United States in 1984. Since then, the alpaca population has grown to 100,000 in the United States and has grown about 20 percent every year for the past five years, according to the Alpaca Registry.
There are more than 150 alpaca farms in Virginia.
Alpacas come in 22 basic colors, ranging from white to brown to gray to black.
When they're sheared, their legs are tied to the ground, their legs stretched behind them and above their head.
It was an uncomfortable experience for Loretta and some of her kind.
"Some react to it differently," said Kathy D'Andria of Woodland Trail Farm. "It's a scary experience."
Meanwhile, an auburn-colored alpaca getting sheared looked around at the commotion Loretta made, not seeming to mind the buzz of the clippers taking off its warm, winter covering.
The open house also featured a spinner and a weaver, who used their feet to operate tools that looked like they were from the 18th century.
Bob Hecker of Newport News picked up weaving as a hobby just before retiring from the Newport News shipyard as a systems analyst. It takes up to 20 hours just to thread his loom, depending on the size he wants to weave. He can weave a thin, dainty lace or a thick, wool blanket, he said.
Next to him, Rosemary Gadsby spun alpaca fiber into thread.
"A lot of people don't realize that years ago, this is how you got your stuff," said Gadsby, who's from Boykins in neighboring Southampton County.
At the open house, the alpacas would not be upstaged. Children reached out tiny fistfuls of hay, trying to get the alpacas to eat out of their hands.
A baby alpaca stole the hearts of 9-year-old Alexis Wilkey and her 8-year-old friend, Savannah Kirkbride.
"I think they're really cool," Savannah said.
"Cuz they're fuzzy," Alexis added.
"The baby ones are the cutest," Savahhan said.
Savannah's mother, Tina Kirkbride from Suffolk, said it wasn't the first time she'd brought her children, whom she home-schools, to the Wingards' farm, and she'll bring them back again.
"The kids love the animals," she said. "You see llamas all the time, but you never hear about alpacas."
Al Dillon of Courthouse Pastures didn't know what they were until he saw a TV show about them. It sounded like a good way to spend his time after he retired.
"I didn't want to go home and look at the the television all day," said Dillon, who lives in Newport News, "and there's only so much traveling and fishing you can do."
The D'Andrias, who raise alpacas at Woodland Trail Farm, started doing it about four years ago after reading in Money magazine about their investment potential.
Joe D'Andria can shear them himself, and Kathy D'Andria can spin the fiber into thread, dye it and knit it.
"They all have their own personality," Kathy D'Andria said.
They Wingard's alpacas produce an average of 4 pounds of fiber each.
They pay for the fiber to be spun into yarn, which they sell. That basically pays for the alpacas' upkeep, Wingard said.
Alpaca owners hope to increase the population so there are enough animals to support a textile industry, said Wingard. Currently, most of the alpaca products consumers can buy are imported from Peru, Chile or Bolivia, Wingard said.
"Now they're very high-end," she said. "If you want an alpaca sweater, you're going to pay several hundred dollars. We want it to be available to everyone."