January Speakers Report: Teesdale Alpacas with Doug Steen

Our January speaker, Doug Steen from Teesdale Alpacas, showed us some beautiful pictures of alpacas and was very informative. His unassuming manner, undeniable enthusiasm and care for his animals made for a hugely enjoyable and entertaining talk.

Alpacas (1)

Doug and his wife Samantha bought their first alpacas in 2008. Doug explained the British Alpaca Society was an organisation that is dedicated to supporting anyone who keeps alpaca, either existing owners or those new to the animals, and developing guidelines for good practice, for example although alpaca are not regulated for movement of stock, the Alpaca Society require owners registration for disease control and bio-security, etc.

Originally Doug and Samantha thought they would buy three alpacas. When they visited to look at them, they saw two others and bought them too. When they went to collect their now five ‘boys’ they saw two more and bought those as well, bringing their initial herd to seven boys. They now have fifty boys and girls, as Doug calls them. The oldest, Atacama or “Atty”, is nearly seventeen and the youngest “Eddy” is just five months old. He explained the alpaca names were originally decided by a theme, although this didn’t always work as inspiration. He told us the RAF flew low over their fields, and showed us picture of Lightening, Tornado, Hercules, and told us they had a girl called Chinook. They are expecting four babies this year which will all need names too.

Alpaca facts are fascinating. Doug gave us a list regarding everything from lifespan to the time they give birth. There are two types of alpaca, the Huacaya, the “cuddly teddy bear” looking animal, and the rarer Suri, which looks like it has long dread locks. Doug and Samantha have Huacaya. Alpacas have a life span of about twenty to twenty-five years. Baby alpacas are called crias. They are born after a gestation period of eleven and a half months, usually between ten o’clock and two o’clock on a nice day. Doug told us they keep a ‘birthing bucket’ with all the equipment they may need. Though usually the birth is trouble free, they occasionally have to call a vet. Females become sexually active at about twelve to fourteen months, and males at about eighteen to thirty-six months. The females ovulate every twelve to fourteen days, and can be mated again twelve days after the Cria is born. They also have the ability to suspend their pregnancy if conditions are not conducive to producing babies.

Alpacas are herd animals and don’t like to be kept singly. They are sometimes kept with sheep to protect them from foxes, as the alpaca will make an alarm call or chase down the fox. Individual alpaca fleeces can come in one or more of sixteen colours, varying from white to fawn to grey to dark brown and everything in between. However, breeding for a specific colour is not always successful. Coloured fleece was originally frowned upon by breeders, who wanted their alpaca to be white, but now different colours are encouraged. In their native high mountains, the air is thinner and alpaca can synthesise their own vitamin D. In our lower light levels they can be subject to a deficiency, which is solved with giving a supplement. Alpaca fibre is stronger and warmer than merino, softer and lighter than cashmere, very hard wearing and, if well spun, doesn’t readily ‘pill’. Alpacas have a number of ways to vocalise. They can ‘hum’, scream and have a very loud alarm call. Doug explained that they were quite intelligent and curious animals, and would come when he called, but not by individual name and, unlike sheep, had a great desire to stay alive! Alpaca are now beginning to be used as therapy animals.

Alpacas (4).JPG

Alpacas are Camelids, originating in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, having been domesticated for thousands of years. They were originally kept for food and clothing. When the Spanish invaded South America in the seventeenth century, they killed the alpaca and replaced them with sheep. This drove what remained of the alpaca herds high up into the mountains, and destroyed centuries of breeding for high quality fine fibre achieved by the Inca, who regarded it as the ‘fibre of the gods’. Modern breeders are still trying to perfect the standard of fibre possessed by the Incas. Doug suggested modern breeders bred for weight rather than fineness, although things are now changing as the luxury market for fine alpaca fabric has grown.

In 1800 Titus Salt worked out a way to spin and weave alpaca, and at Saltaire he made a fortune from his discovery. In the 1980’s alpaca began to be imported to UK, Europe and Australia where the herds are now: UK 45,000, Europe 25,000 and Australia 300,000. Moving up to date, Italy is producing high quality yarn. Japan combines alpaca yarn with silk in weaving. UK mills are currently increasing production for the domestic and international markets.

Doug told us how difficult it has proved to have small amounts of fibre processed at large mills. Alpaca yarn does not have the same cachet with the public as mohair or cashmere, hence it makes appropriate pricing more difficult. Not many commercial weavers will weave alpaca, and those that do require 100 kilos minimum weight. Spinning mills want the fibre to be scoured and a minimum weight of 250 kilos. He went on to explain when you are a small business, it is a gamble to have fibre spun and woven if you cannot guarantee a market for your product. Having said that, the sample scarves, wraps, hats etc., Doug brought with him were extremely high quality and beautifully made. One difficulty he has experienced is most commercial mills spin worsted or semi-worsted. He sends Teesdale yarn to a tweed weaver in the Scottish Borders who will only process woollen spun, but he has found a mill in Lincolnshire that will spin it for him.

It is very important to Doug and Samantha to keep their production local if possible and within the UK. Making a success, Doug told us, is about identifying a niche market, e.g. Merrythorpe Bears, est. 1930, who have produced some short runs of beautiful teddies in alpaca fabric. They have a friend who does ‘Textiledermy’ (producing soft toys). Nothing is wasted. The weavers and other makers send back any off cuts to Doug, who turns them into scarves for the bears or covered buttons, etc. Doug purchased a sample carding machine, the “Amelia” circa 1900, to work on processing some of the fleece at home. The name Doug and Samantha trade under, myAmelia, is named after this machine. At twelve inches wide, it was originally made to produce samples of blends for large mills, before a full run was made. Doug hopes to produce carded batts for sale on it. He has also looking into felting and Nuno felting in the future. The couple have also developed trekking with alpacas that are trained to walk in a head collar.

Shearing alpaca is an annual event. Doug said the alpaca don’t enjoy the process of being tied to restrain them so they cannot injure themselves, and being shorn. Whist they are tied he also checks their feet. They have large soft pads with two toe nails, which are then clipped, if necessary. Their teeth are also checked to ensure they are healthy and do not need any attention. Doug was quite definite that he would not shear an alpaca that was near to producing a baby. He would call the shearer back rather than risk any problems.

The poorer quality fibre is used for pillow and duvet stuffing, whilst the top quality fibre is sorted and assessed for processing. Cria are shorn for the first time at about nine months. This fibre will be exceptionally soft and sought after. Sometimes, Doug explained, they take the tips off the babies fleece early to stop them picking up excess vegetable matter. This can increase the quality of the full fleece when the cria is shorn. When asked if you could brush the alpaca to help with getting rid of unwanted debris, Doug told us it was not practical, and destroys the structure of the fleece. The judges particularly dislike if the alpacas are shown.

Speaking to Doug after the meeting, he suggested when he can produce batts, using his Amelia, if any of the guild would like some samples to play with and give him feedback, he would be grateful. He would also be willing to post us some batts for sale if there is any interest. Perhaps we can discuss this at the next guild meeting.

Note: all alpaca photos courtesy of Doug Steen of Teesdale Alpacas.