Karen Kelly & Arapaho Rose Alpacas
By Sue Ralston
Spun With LoveMarch 2015
By Sue Ralston
Photos: Michelle Hickok
With their large eyes, long, soft lashes and fuzzy coats, alpacas can steal anyone's heart at a glance. But look beyond the sweet faces and you'll find animals that are not only beguiling, but fun to raise, breed and shear for their luxurious fiber.
Karen Kelly, owner of Arapaho Rose Alpacas in Redding, has been raising the gentle and inquisitive animals since 2001 and considers herself part of a friendly community of alpaca lovers. “Most everyone knows everyone and we all try to support each other. It’s not competitive. For the most part, it’s a young industry and since alpacas are new to the US, we try to learn from each other,” she says.
Kelly keeps a herd of about 70 alpacas and is also a breeder. The animals can be carefully bred to improve the quality of their fiber, which comes naturally in about 20 different colors, ranging from the inkiest black to warm grays and rich browns. It’s considered one of the finest and most luxurious natural fibers — as soft as cashmere and warmer than sheep’s wool. Alpaca wool lacks the lanolin of sheep’s wool, so it’s considered hypoallergenic, a plus for those who are allergic to it.
Knitters and those who prefer wearing natural fibers seek out alpaca fiber. “I love knitting with alpaca yarn. It’s beautiful, soft and drapes well,” says Irene Tiedeman, a long-time knitter who shops at Ewe-Baa Street Yarns in Redding. “I use it for sweaters and scarves; it’s amazingly warm and soft . I’ve woven with it, too, and the fabric you get when you weave it looks great.”
Because of its softness, it’s oft en used to create garments in close contact with the body, such as scarves, baby hats, and sweaters, as it lacks the “itch” of some sheep’s wool.
Alpacas originate in the heights of the Andes of Ecuador, southern Peru, northern Bolivia, and northern Chile. There are no wild alpacas; they’re domesticated even in South America and began to be imported to the US in the mid-1980s. They are part of the camelid family, which includes llamas, but they’re smaller. Unlike llamas, they’re not used as pack animals. Rather, they’re prized for their fleece.
All yarn is made from fibers, whether synthetic (acrylic), or natural (sheep’s wool, cashmere, angora). The fibers used to create yarn are measured in microns, and the smaller the diameter, the soft er the yarn feels against the skin. Near the top of the list for softness and lightness in weight is alpaca fiber. Sheep’s wool can range up to 70 microns. Hard core alpaca yarn lovers swear by baby alpaca wool, which weighs in at about 22 microns. It’s also warmer than sheep’s wool.
Kelly enjoys sharing her animals with the public and looks forward to the open house days she holds, along with Lin Murray of Lassen View Alpacas in Cottonwood, each year. “We do the National Alpaca Farm Days at the end of September and it’s always a popular event,” she notes. Springtime is shearing season for the animals and she welcomes guests to the farm during one weekend in March with shearing demonstrations, spinners and weavers showing their skills and the chance for visitors to mingle with the alpacas in the pastures. “We love it when people come out for a visit and get the chance to see them up close. Most people fall in love right away,” she says. Th e farm includes a boutique with such goods for sale as yarn, roving (unspun wool), gloves, hats, and other garments and kits for felting. Ranch visits are also available by appointment.