Illinois Alpaca Farms Give a Feel for Fiber
Across Illinois, farmers raise alpacas and use their soft, durable fiber to create one-of-a-kind, handcrafted products like hats, scarves and other winter wear.
In addition, many of those farmers sell their fiber creations on site and offer tours of their farms, furthering the state’s agritourism industry and giving visitors the unique opportunity to get an up close and personal look at the furry creatures.
Five Miles East
Located just outside of Bloomington in Ellsworth, husband-and-wife team Stan and Janetta Bauer operate Five Miles East. The couple’s journey into raising alpacas began in the fall of 2002 with just two of the animals, and the following year they purchased their first breeding alpacas. The rest, as they say, is history, and Stan and Janetta’s herd now includes 17 alpacas.
“We always planned on raising alpacas for their fiber, which is unique,” Stan says.
The animals are shorn during the third week of April, and Janetta hand-separates the fiber so that only the first and finest grade of fiber – known as American royal baby – is used to create their products. If they need additional fiber, they acquire it from an alpaca farm in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which specializes in producing American royal baby fiber as well.
“One of our most important goals is to ensure every piece we make is made with the highest grade of fiber that exists,” Janetta says.
After it’s cleaned, the fiber is either spun into yarn or roving (a thick, bulky yarn), and it’s used to create clothing, scarves, hats, jewelry and other fine wearables. Although Janetta initially made each product, the demand for Five Miles East’s garments and accessories has grown so much that the couple has hired five knitters and two crocheters in their community to assist with production. Additionally, Stan makes each piece of jewelry, and when time allows, serves as the operation’s primary weaver.
“We didn’t realize when we started this that we would also grow a community,” Janetta says. “That has been a lot of fun and very gratifying, and we are honored to work with so many talented people who want to be part of our story. Along with knitters and crocheters, we have a fashion designer, and we work with a local photographer and a graphic artist for our website.”
When it comes to selling their alpaca fiber creations, Stan and Janetta host an annual trunk show at their farm in the fall that draws as many as 500 people. Their products are also available during the National Alpaca Farm Days event, held on the last weekend of September at their farm, and in high-end boutiques.
“Our products are warm, durable and long-lasting, and they’re very easy on the environment because there’s no lanolin in their fiber, which means there are no harsh chemicals required in their production,” Stan says. “Plus, we don’t have to use dyes because alpaca fiber has 22 natural shades, and they’re all beautiful. Our products are perfect for people who are conscious of their environmental footprint.”
Timberview Alpaca Farm
In Clinton, Timberview Alpaca Farm began in December 2010 when Elizabeth Lord and her husband, Rick, searched for livestock for their farm. At first, they only intended to breed and sell the alpacas, but after Elizabeth fell in love with felting, plans changed.
“I was admiring a woman’s scarf, and she told me she could teach me how to make one like it,” Elizabeth says. “I’ve been felting ever since, and it’s amazing to be able to create beautiful products without having a great deal of technical knowledge like knitting requires.”
The couple currently has 12 alpacas on their farm, and after they shear the animals, and clean and process the fiber, Elizabeth handcrafts products such as scarves, wraps and old-fashioned, bell-shaped cloche hats.
Elizabeth primarily practices wet felting, which she says is the oldest form of textile known to man. The process involves placing the alpaca fiber on bubble wrap, then layering it with another piece of fiber with the grain going the opposite direction. Next, Elizabeth applies hot water along with an additional layer of bubble wrap, and using her hand, she gently rubs hot water and soap in a circular motion on top of the stack. As the fiber cools, it becomes felted.
“There are endless possibilities with felting, as far as what you can make the products look like,” Elizabeth says. “Every product is unique.”
She shares the wet-felting technique during felting classes in her home studio, which she says are “very soothing and enjoyable.” In addition, Elizabeth sells her products out of her farm store and yoga studio called the Yopaca Studio. She offers meditation and yoga classes that involve the alpacas. Visitors can schedule farm tours by appointment, too.
“My customers can’t believe how comfortable and soft the alpaca fiber is,” Elizabeth says. “Plus, it’s hypoallergenic, so a lot of people who cannot wear wool can wear alpaca. It’s wonderful to share these products I love so much.”