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South Africa

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An Alpaca Encounter

Text and photos: Alison Notley. Article from the Experience Overberg Issue 2.

Alpaca is the world’s most luxurious fibre: warmer and softer than lambs’ wool, more hard-wearing and more exclusive than cashmere. Welcome to the world of alpaca – the most eco-friendly animal fibre on the planet.

Welcome to the world of alpaca - the most eco-friendly animal fibre on the planet

Harare was starting to become chaotic in 2002. We were showing our beautiful cocker spaniels at a championship show when my mentor and springer spaniel breeder friend commented on a brief conversation she had had with christopher my husband. Iona and Jon were making plans to leave for pastures new in South Africa. Christopher’s ten years of work in Mozambique had been extended to 13 and had then stopped, abruptly when private sector funding ran out. What to do with a bored husband? I worked as a freelance conference organising consultant and providing the South African authorities would grant us entry, I could continue to do the same work from the Western Cape.

Almost by accident during a househunting trip later that same year we stumbled upon Helderstroom. Built by the Dutch, circa 1730, and our architect suggested, ‘bastardised’ by the British (from which background we both are), the house stood a sorry sight with broken and cracked walls, knee high grass and neglect etched into its very soul. We had set out to find a property with sufficient grazing for two horses, one of which came with us from Zimbabwe. It would appear we had found it!

The property has British history and this is what endeared us to it. In Simon van der Stel’s day it had been a remount station for his horses and later, one of Lord Charles Somerset’s hunting lodges, Somerset having been British governor of the Cape from 1814 to 1826.

The deal was sealed, we purchased Helderstroom and days before Christmas 2002 with heavy hearts we left Zimbabwe and began our epic drive south towing a horsebox, and four cocker spaniels and an oriental cat as additional passengers.

It was early in 2003 on a flight to Botswana that an article in a magazine caught my eye. It outlined the beginnings of a new agri-industry in South Africa – that of breeding alpaca’s. I read how soft and fine the alpaca’s fibre is; how valuable and how amenable the animals themselves are; and how the first pallet load of these camelids which had arrived from South America were quarantined in Milnerton, Cape Town. For camelids they indeed are, closely related to the llama and again in turn to the camel.

It was not long before Christopher was researching alpacas and soon after that we had selected five pregnant alpacas which would leave Chile for a new life in South Africa. What were we getting ourselves into?

The alpaca has a fascinating history. Considered to have one of the finest animal fibres on the planet, it has been domesticated for over 8 000 years. The Inca people who bred them in the high Altiplano of the Andes mountains considered them noble creatures, aristocratic even. The alpacas sustain the people and the people sustain the alpacas. The alpaca is the most colour-diversified fibre- bearing animal in the world giving us 22 natural colours and shades of fibre. We would work only in the colours we were given – no dyeing.

I had been jumping on and off aeroplanes and flying around the SADC countries organising conferences for nearly 30 years. Nothing ever stays the same and it was time to call that a day and take life in a new direction. We purchased an Ashford traditional spinning wheel and I set out to teach myself to spin. I did need my new found skill fine-tuned however, and here I turned to wonderful Barbara Schotel who then lived in Robertson, just 45 minutes drive away. Barbara put me right and got me out of the beginners rut of overspinning and then I just needed practice, practice, practice.

We produce a wide range women's wear and gentlemen's knitwear and our babywear is marketed in Johannesburg where a colleague manages sales for us. The rest we sell from home and from the website.The following year five alpacas became ten and our little herd grew and grew as our spinning skills improved. Now in 2014 we have trained two full time hand spinners and are shortly taking on a new lady to teach. We have over 20 hand knitters and weavers who all work in the comfort of their own homes. We spin the yarn and then take it to their homes, discuss the work and these creative ladies do the rest. We produce a wide range women’s wear and gentlemen’s knitwear and our babywear is marketed in Johannesburg where a colleague manages sales for us. The rest we sell from home and from the website.

Last year we sent Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge a beautifully soft hooded pure alpaca knitted cape to celebrate the birth of their first baby due several months hence. The cape together with a pair of our felted baby booties travelled via friends to the UK and were hand delivered to Kensington Palace on our behalf. A most gracious letter of thanks from the Royals is now proudly displayed in our workshop!

The gestation for an alpaca is long, between 11 and 12 months. Babies, or cria, are almost always born singly and twins are very rare. Five years ago when Christopher and I knew even less about alpacas than we know now, Taki, a maiden mum took us by surprise and gave birth to twins. Tiny Salt and Pepper were born at 3.7kgs and 2.4kgs respectively (the normal birth weight for an alpaca is between seven and 10kgs). Pepper was rejected by her mum and we had to think on our feet in order to bring up and bottle feed this tiny little baby ourselves. The story of Pepper is a long one but suffice to say both twin girls survived and have gone on to have their own cria – Salt always one baby ahead of her little sister.

Our herd is not large but will increase to around 45 after next birthing season. We buy in fibre from other breeders since what we harvest from our own animals is not enough to keep us spinning and knitting all year round.

Fibre of the Inca Gods is how alpaca fibre was revered, being exceptionally fine and with a partly hollow core and non-allergenic properties making it beautifully soft against the skin.

We make unique exclusive garments and take on commissions for customers. We have even spun and made garments from a St Bernard dog and we are currently working on hair lovingly combed from a Canadian Timber Wolf.

Don’t they say variety is the spice of life?

Alison Notley Helderstroom Alpacas Villiersdorp, Western Cape alpacas@helderstroom.co.za www.helderstroomalpacas.co.za


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