It’s been almost a year since we visited an alpaca breeder for the first time. We were complete novices at the start of 2018, not knowing a Huacaya from a Suri, or a Hembra from a Macho. It felt like a visit to Newmarket Races for the first time; picking the horses with the best names and the jockeys in the brightest coloured jerseys! Fast forward only one year and our knowledge for these exotic, fascinating creatures has grown considerably. Not only do we assess conformation, but we also have a much better appreciation for the luxurious natural fibre that an alpaca produces.
This month, I was very fortunate to attend a workshop held at the East Anglia Alpaca Mill in Norfolk. The owners, Emma and Chris, established their bespoke mill when they realised early on in their alpaca ownership, that there were limited options available for processing their fleeces. Most mills specialised in sheep’s wool, and those that did accept alpaca fleece, would have a minimum requirement of several kilos of fibre (of the same colour and quality) which just wasn’t viable for small scale alpaca farms. So the East Anglia Alpaca Mill was created, with machinery designed solely for alpaca fibre, and a dedication to only processing huacaya and suri fibre. Emma was also instrumental in the introduction of a recognised fibre marque for the alpaca industry. The BAS Pure Fibre Marque and the BAS Blended Fibre Marque not only provide an endorsement of the fibre but also show that the producer and shearer are following the British Alpaca Society Codes of Welfare.
During my visit to the mill, we spent time in a classroom setting, learning all about alpaca fibre; its amazing qualities, how it can be processed and how to breed for better fibre.
Emma and Chris have a quote which states that “Every alpaca produces a fleece which can be used for something – it is knowing what to do with it that is key.” The evidence of this was clear to see when we had a tour of their impressive mill. Yarns in balls, cones and in skeins, felt sheets for crafters, and rovings for hand spinners. Even the bits that are swept off of the floor at the end of the day are given to the birds to line their nests. Not a single strand is wasted. The mill is committed to providing ethically and environmentally friendly natural fibre. Rain water is collected and used in the production process and is then recycled. The mill also choose not to use dye, preferring instead to keep the yarns in the natural colours produced by the animals themselves.
In the same week that I visited the mill, the fibre industry took a knock when fashion retailer Boohoo announced that they would be banning all wool from their clothing, a move that was praised by animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). PETA have been campaigning since 2014 for retailers and consumers to boycott wool, claiming that shearing is “cruel to sheep” and that the wool industry “wreaks havoc on the environment.” After a huge backlash from The National Sheep Association, and even comments from Prince Charles, calling the move “absurd”, Boohoo issued a revised statement saying that they would “continue to use wool as a sustainable material.” In a time when our oceans are becoming increasingly polluted with plastic, PETA could perhaps promote ethical, sustainable and degradable natural fibres, which would pressure clothing retailers, such as Boohoo, to decrease their use of plastics and synthetic fibres that are used to make cheap ‘throwaway’ fashion items.
Shearing a wool producing animal is not cruel, in fact it is essential for the welfare of the animal, as it ensures that it won’t overheat in the summer months. Shearing also prevents fly strike, a horrible condition which is when flies lay their eggs in the animal’s fleece, which then turn to maggots which will then eat off of the animal’s flesh. I’ve unfortunately assisted with the treatment of a sheep with fly strike and it is not a pretty sight.
Catherine Price, founder of British alpaca brand, Ted & Bessie, strives to create simple, yet beautiful designs, using only alpaca fibre to produce both ethical and sustainable knitwear. Speaking of Boohoo’s decision to ban wool, Catherine said, “Here at Ted & Bessie we were saddened to hear of the wool ban, though it provided an excellent opportunity to tell people exactly what we do here to ensure we create ethical and sustainable products. For people to stop selling all wool products is simply taking a massive step back from what we are trying to achieve here at Ted & Bessie, and that’s education into the benefits of natural fibre; there can be a natural alternative to all the plastic-based synthetic fibres, and just because it’s natural and sustainable does not mean it’s cruel. Ban the poor practice, not the beautiful fibre we can produce to ensure a future of natural alternatives to plastic. Our products (and our packaging) are 100% plastic free, and made from alpaca fibre we source from our own herd or trusted herds around the UK.”
I have yet to meet a livestock owner who doesn’t care for their animals. The majority, like us, would take care of their animal’s needs before their own.
Here at Queenholme, we are passionate about alpacas, we are passionate about natural fibre and we are passionate about the environment. We believe that natural fibres, such as alpaca and wool should be celebrated, not banned. Fast, cheap fashion is slowly killing our planet, and the fashion industry has now become the second biggest polluter of our environment.
However you choose to clothe yourself, be it in natural fibres or man-made synthetics, or a mixture of the two, take responsibility for knowing the processes of production, and the welfare of the workers or animals behind the garments. Our planet really does depend on it.