How does a city girl with a PhD in chemistry end up with an alpaca ranch and textile mill in the Satsop River Valley?
Good question. Perhaps a thread, rather than a river, runs through this story.
Lynn Lipski learned to knit for fun and charity when she was a 7-year old in a very urban part of the San Fernando Valley in California. She followed her passion into adulthood, knitting and creating her own patterns. After working in laboratory research in Wisconsin for 10 years, she turned her skills to fleece, wool, and all kinds of fiber not far from the university where she and husband Tim Lipski had studied chemistry.
They were looking at farms when “life brought us here instead.”
She says her mother “thinks I’m crazy,” but she likes the country life.
So does her husband, who was raised in rural environs in Maryland. They found a “good fit” in Schafer Meadows on a 20-acre spread that is also home to 25 alpacas, two barn cats, three indoor cats and 22 chickens.
Lipski displays her patterns and hand knit creations in alpaca on www.alpacayarnshop.etsy.com. Etsy is an online community of artists and collectors where handmade and vintage goods are bought and sold. Alpaca yarn is free of lanolin, hypoallergenic and prized for its softness. Customers liked her creations so much she decided to build a textile mill.
Olympia Yarn and Fiber LLC was born. “Now I work with chemistry in the textile industry.”
Last Tuesday was the annual harvest when the alpacas are shorn. It is a busy time when all hands are ready to do what needs to be done. Shearing is an all day affair. As Lynn Lipski gives a tour of the barns and introduces visitors to the business of alpaca raising, she frequently changes gear to put a halter on the next alpaca to be sheared.
As Lynn rounds up the next alpaca, Tim, wearing a red bandana, works side by side with hired hand Jim Meeks and the crew from First Cut Shearing, owner Franc Winkley and Luke Roth. Volunteers from local fiber arts guilds, Susan Anderson and Joan Niemann, pitch in by sorting and labeling fleece, helping to prepare food for the team.
The alpaca names are often clever and colorful: Dante and Inferno are two of the males. Merlot, Malbec, Rose, Glimmer, and Pearl are some of the females. Working from light to dark, 18 females and seven males are shorn. After each alpaca is shorn, a green mat is swept and vacuumed to keep colors separate.
There are 16 natural fiber colors of U.S. alpacas, according to the Alpaca Registry, Inc. They range from whites to beiges, to fawns to browns, bay blacks to true blacks. There is also a range of silver grays and rose grays. The chart notes that “there are many variations of the colors, which can amount to more than 22 natural shades.” Twenty shades are represented in the Olympic herd, Lynn said.
The alpacas are sheared one at a time in a stall. Penny is flipped on her side on the mat, her hooves placed and tightened in stirrups attached to triangular tackle for front legs and tackle for back legs tied off on a diagonal so the maximum amount of fleece can be reached without too much stress to her.
Winkley is quick and gentle. His First Cut Shearing website touts their “maximum harvest” technique. He and the team wield clippers and scissors to trim every ounce of fiber from the alpaca possible. All with encouraging and soothing words for the alpacas, who “speak” too. From humming (mild distress) to clicking to snorting to making a noise that sounds like a growling moan to an outright shriek (greater distress), alpacas are a festival of sounds.
Most of the alpacas sound off; not much fury is evident. One female who pulls the tackle out of its knot is quickly subdued by Tim who dives onto her midsection, holding her while a bowline knot, known for not slipping, is secured. When her shearing is done she seems reluctant to leave. The crew laughs at her about face and shoos her out the door.
Though not as aggressive as and smaller than a llama, an alpaca kick can leave toe mark bruises, says Lynn. Stay clear of kicking range, or stick close to their flank and hindquarters, she says. They weigh from 120 to 180 lbs. as an adult.
Winkley makes quick work of the “blanket,” the fleece on the midsection above the belly and around the back in an area known as the barrel. Unlike sheep, an alpaca’s blanket can be sheared off intact. A reporter asks and is allowed to pitch in, carefully coaxing the soft fleece onto a plastic sheet that will be folded, rolled up, taped and labeled precisely by name of animal and area shorn.
Fleece from their long necks is also kept separate and considered prime fiber. Nothing is wasted. Shorter and coarser fiber from the leg and belly can be used to make rugs among other items. This fiber is packed together. Fiber unsuitable for textile art makes good compost, Lynn said.
Luke Roth, who sports a gray ponytail, trims their hooves, then uses scissors to trim their bangs avoiding their eyelashes with such precision the team teases that he is more of a groomer than a shearer. A dremel tool saws down the teeth on the alpaca’s prominent under bite to prevent them from harming their palettes or, in the case of the males, castrating one another.
A white board is used to trach which alpaca is shorn, who gets their toes trimmed and who gets their teeth cut.
Alpacas use those teeth to graze and to scoop up orchard hay, the main source of their food. The alpaca is a camelid that has been domesticated for thousands of years as a source of fiber and meat, not as a beast of burden. They are not descended from the llama as previously assumed. In 2001, with the advent of DNA testing, it was discovered that alpacas are descended from Vicunas. They were given their own genus, vicugna pacos. Alpacas are often registered and microchipped.
The shortest and oldest member of the herd is Anna, 18, born in Bolivia. All of the others, who include three rescue alpacas, are of North American stock. The Lipskis lost one alpaca, in January, to pneumonia. Alpacas live up to 20 years.
As they age, their fertility decreases. Tim tells a story about Remington, a 20-year-old male deemed safe to put with the females. The result was a new alpaca named Remington’s Last Charge.
A baby alpaca is called a cria, the Spanish word for cry. Moonshadow and Ember are a little older and called weanlings because they are under one year. Newly shorn Ember shivers in the chilled, damp air. Lynn uses safety pins in her back pocket to secure a quilted coat on her.
Summer plans for the herd include mating, a process where sound also plays a key role.
Alpacas in the male barn demonstrate the point. A gelding is being mounted by a male, who makes an orgling sound, which signals the desire to mate. Female alpacas are induced to ovulate by orgling, the presence of semen, and action of “sitting.” She cushes, or sits, the male then mates with her; conception often takes place right away. Gestation is usually around 345 days, give or take two weeks.
Alpacas cush, or sit with legs tucked underneath them to rest, too, and develop a callous on their chest area called a cush pad. If they don’t want or like something, they may “spit.” Alpacas spit mostly on each other. The “spit” can be mostly air, sometimes coupled with fermented grass which can be rather smelly.
There is a “spit” test for pregnancy, Lynn said. When a female is pregnant, she will reject further suitors by spitting and kicking at them. (She will also do this to a male she doesn’t like). “It’s how an alpaca says ‘no’,” she said. They are protective of their young. Once in the middle of the night, a cria got out of the stalls. The mother let out a fierce cry. Lynn let the mother out and followed her shining eyes with a flashlight; she quickly found her wandering offspring.
An alpaca grows one of two types of fleece: Moonshadow is huacaya so her fleece, about to be shorn for the first time, is fluffy and warm; Ember is a suri and sports glossy, silky, lustrous fleece that is cool and resembles dreadlocks. Huacaya fleece is good for everything: hats, mittens, scarves; suri fiber makes good shawls, Lipski said.
Alpacas have three-chambered stomachs “which can absorb every bit of nutrition,” said Lynn. They like softer leaves, such as blackberry leaves, but have been known to chomp on pine needles, she said. They herd themselves.
Although alpacas are considered kosher because they have cloven hooves, and are ruminants, or chew their cud, Lynn, who is vegetarian, doubts they will ever slaughter one for meat.
Next to the barn is a converted garage is the textile mill. Fleece from the harvest will soon be washed in big sinks, dried, and carded. An array of machines that spin, rove and wind await it. (A roving is slightly twisted roll or bundle of fiber.)
Carding, or combing the fleece, is currently done by hand. A carding machine is due to arrive soon as Olympic Yarn and Fiber grows. And that is another strand of the story to unravel.