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Farming for fiber

Mid-May is harvesting time for one western North Carolina farm.  It’s when the animals on Venezia Dream Alpaca farm are sheared and the shorn hair collected for fiber.

Farming for fiber was new for Starr Cash, who retired from a career in electronics and decided to start farming.  She recalls thinking at the time, “How hard can farming be?" 

“I’ve been running full tilt learning more ever since,” Cash laughed.

Genetics play an important role in fiber production. As she has gained experience, Cash’s goals have evolved into focusing on fiber quality and animals with a pleasant personality.

Not being able to cool off will wear on an alpaca’s health.  Animals are shorn once per year and “if they’re born, they’re shorn,” explained Cash. The fiber needs to be two to four inches long to process.  Young alpacas’ hair can grow six to seven inches in one year, making it more challenging to process into fiber. How fast an alpaca’s hair grows depends on how old the animal is.

Alpacas are sheared inside their barn. Padded mats are laid on the floor and the animal is laid on its side. Once stretched out, their legs are restrained and someone holds their head.  It’s key to have a good shearing team that works the alpacas calmly, because if calm they will submit to the shearing. It takes about 15-20 minutes to shear an animal. When they are done, all that will be left is a poofy tail and top knot. 

During shearing, the hair is separated by the animal’s body zones. Hair on different parts of the body is different quality and staple length, from fine to coarse.  You don’t want to mix those.  All the hair will be used, but it depends on what you want to do with the fiber. Cash attended class to learn how to grade her alpaca’s fibers.

Fleeces can be washed immediately or stored dirty.  When ready for use, the hair will be carded or brushed out and then either used for felting or spun into yarn. It’s a time-consuming process and the reason why hand-made clothes were passed down to the next generation according to Cash.

Her shop is stocked with socks, hats, scarves, dryer balls and yarn made from her alpacas’ fiber.  Each roll of yarn is labeled, so you know which alpaca it came from.  Seeing all that beautiful yarn made me want to learn how to knit, but I settled for buying some dryer balls and petting a few alpacas. 

Venezia Dream alpaca farm yarn

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