A few weeks ago, I wrote about participating in the One Year, One Outfit challenge to create one entirely regionally sourced outfit this year. I’d already been planning to research local fibers, mills, and dyes in order to make my fiber crafts as local as possible, but this challenge was the kick in the butt that I needed to get more serious about it. With this post, I launch a new series, “Local Fiber,” in which I’ll be reporting about this process.
This past weekend, I went to visit an alpaca farm just 40 miles outside Columbia to get some fiber from them. Ed and Vicki Hinshaw, the owners at Sea Ayre Suris, raise Suri alpacas known for the fineness, density and luster of their fleece. Ed kindly showed me around the farm and took me to meet the animals — the 44 alpacas, ranging in color from white to brown and black, and the one lone llama, Little Mister.
It’s endlessly entertaining to watch these animals — somehow a little awkward and at the same time so graceful, with their long necks, like giraffes. Don’t you just love their faces with those enormous, alert eyes?
It was while we walked and greeted the alpaca that Ed explained to me how alpaca fleece is evaluated and ranked. I’m a spinner, not an alpaca connoisseur, and I was frankly quite stunned to hear about the intricate process of determining the quality of the fleece: among other things, it involves sending samples to a lab to get a histogram, a fiber analysis report that calculates the average fiber diameter, and therefore the fineness of the fiber. I’ve only learned to judge fiber by my fingertips, by my words — “soft” or “fuzzy” or “shiny” — and I’m happy to stick to those imprecise methods, but I realize that professionals must resort to qualitative measures. Ed’s own herd is carefully chosen based on fleece characteristics and health, and he is proud of the bloodlines that go back to some of the finest Suri alpaca sires in this country.
I came home with bags and bags of some of the most exquisite fiber I’ve ever seen. Each bag came tagged with a name tag, bearing the name of an animal. Many of the names I recognized from the same afternoon, as Ed had been introducing his alpacas to me by name. Now, as I embark on the task of cleaning, sorting, washing, carding, and spinning, I feel that this is a good beginning for my “local outfit” creation process: bags of fleece from animals whose furtive, warm bodies I’ve petted, from pastures where I too have walked, with name tags still on.