Even if you're familiar with sheep shearing or have had a chance to be there for the big event, alpaca shearing is a bit different. So I recently spent an afternoon at Windsong Acres in Spofford, NH to see the process for myself.
Alpacas are tall animals related to llamas and camels. This demands different shearing techniques than closer-to-the-ground sheep. (If you haven't seen a sheep shearing, check out my previous blog about visiting a local farm in Roxbury during spring sheep shearing.)
Like sheep, alpacas are herd animals, running for cover and trying to live another day rather than attacking predators. Aggression in males is seen but typically for access to the ladies or for limited resources such as their favorite food. Overall, with adequate resources, space and fiber farmers working to keep kerfuffles to a minimum through best practices, alpacas are not aggressive animals, not even the guys. But shearing still certainly requires a certain level of finesse.
How to set up an Alpaca for Shearing?
Unlike turning a sheep on its rump and holding it between the shearer's legs, an alpaca has to be restrained in a way that protects him or her and the shearer from injury during the shearing process. This is done with rope and soft slings that wrap around the alpacas legs. The rope is then cinched to stretch the legs and keep the alpaca from large, sudden movements.
Their head is typically monitored by an assistant and held if needed. Most of the alpacas that got sheared at the farm just lay there waiting to be able to get up again. The shearer started by removing the top back fleece or blanket, typically the prized part of the Alpaca fleece, just like on a sheep. Then, he worked down the legs, up the neck, and ended with the head.
Like sheep, different parts of the wool are graded for softness. For both alpaca and sheep, the top blanket is the softest wool and used for spinning. The rear, head, legs, and tummy wool are typically skirted during the prep phase for sending wool to the mill to be spun or separated and used for other purposes like dryer balls.
During the shearing, Leslie, the fiber farmer, marked the alpaca blankets and placed them in bags. This method ensures monitoring of the fleece quality from year to year. The leg, neck, and rear wool is inspected for cleanliness and placed in various bags accordingly. You can see the large trash cans with liners that Leslie used to separate out the wool into clean, quite clean, and it's a bit of a mess levels. This way, she can use all the fiber in the best way possible.
I wondered what happened in the wild to alpacas and Leslie told me that even wild ones have been bred to be sheared. Typically in their native home that happens every two years and not yearly. Traditionally shears are use. I am sure that Leslie's alpacas preferred the electric shearers that are quicker and safer.
I admit that at first, the vision of the cuties on the ground was a bit unsettling. But after I watched a few and saw that most took it in stride, I realized that the rope was best for them, as well as humans. I also got to see the beautiful staple length of Leslie's top alpacas and how soft the wool is. Without any lanolin, it was so clean and seemed ready to spin up.
I want to end my adventure with a reminder that the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool sells socks, gloves, hats and more made from New England alpaca wool. I love the socks I purchased last year at a fiber fair. Although their socks are made with some nylon and Lycra they are still mainly alpaca wool. And, you are supporting New England fiber farmers with every purchase!
Big thanks to Leslie for letting me be part of this year's shearing and supporting my journey to be locally dressed!
Finally, as a bonus, I'm adding an image of kids and a baby alpaca recently born on the farm. Can it get any cuter?