Five years ago, Deborah Knickerbocker was given three alpacas from someone leaving town. Today, she runs Busy Bobbin Alpaca Ranch in Marana and has 29 alpacas roaming the property.
When Knickerbocker first took in the alpacas, she knew very little about the animals. Today she not only raises them, but is a professional spinner, who makes a number of goods and crafts from their fiber.
“I found out I have a real aptitude for spinning,” Knickerbocker said.
Knickerbocker spins the yarn using an old fashioned wooden spinning wheel after first being carded by hand as well. It is a very hands-on process, but one that Knickerbocker finds both rewarding and relaxing.
Alpacas are South American camelids that resemble small llamas. They are related to camels, and will spit if they feel threatened. Knickerbocker’s husky puppy found out the hard way that these animals will take aim if scared or annoyed.
They produce fiber that is very similar to wool, but actually has several advantages.
“You don’t have to wash it before you use the fiber,” Knickerbocker said. “Wool has lanolin. With wool you have to wash or boil it. With alpaca fiber in Arizona you can kind of shake it out and go ahead and spin with it.”
Another advantage is that alpaca fiber is warmer than wool.
After inheriting the alpacas, Knickerbocker learned to spin the fiber and makes yarn and felt. She is now a professional spinner who also teaches other how to spin. She does the bulk of her spinning at a small workshop on the farm, but she will also spin at the Marana Farm Co-op’s Farmers Market and at the Arizona Renaissance Festival. She also works with the ACME Art Studio, a non-profit that provides art experiences for a variety of people in the Marana area. Part of it is therapeutic and adaptive arts and crafts and the farm helps provide yarn and felt that is used to make goods that people in the program sell at a variety of venues. Some in the program also help care for the alpacas.
The farm has both Hucaya and Suri alpacas. The Suris have longer fiber that can resemble dreadlocks before they are sheared, while the Hucaya have spongier, shorter fibers.
Alpacas are social animals and when they realize that people are not a threat they can be very friendly. They are not just friendly with people, they are also very social with each other. In fact they form cliques, usually by age, and hate being alone.
“They do not do well without more of their own kind,” Knickerbocker explained. In fact she will only sell someone two or more alpacas at one time.
Another advantage of the alpacas is that they do not give off a lot of odor. Although she has 29 on the property, you’d be hard pressed to smell them, even after a rainfall.
“They do not smell, even when it is wet there is no smell,” Knickerbocker explained.
“The neighbors actually love them,” Knickerbocker added.
Knickerbocker takes great pride in being as responsible as possible with the care of the animals. She recently rescued 14 alpacas from a ranch that closed due to foreclosure. She is careful to keep the males and females separated so that there are no unwanted pregnancies. She also shears the animals just once a year. Each alpaca can yield 5-6 pounds of fiber and alpaca yarn generally sells for $6-10 an ounce.
One of the challenges is keeping the alpacas safe. They must be kept in an enclosed area that can keep predators out. A single coyote or aggressive dog can kill several of the animals.
When they were first brought over to America in the 1980s there was a high demand. Animals sold for several thousand dollars and clothing made from the fiber was in high demand. The animals were also shown, much like horses are, which still goes on today. Today alpacas sell for just a few hundred dollars, though they are still quite popular to show. Knickerbocker does not show them, which means she does not have to be choosy when taking new animals in.
It is quite obvious that Knickerbocker has great affection for the animals. Each one has a name and she can identify them quite easily, though they have nametags for the rest of us. Although she confesses that they are not the brightest animals, she is quite taken by their docile and friendly nature.
“They are a joy to watch,” Knickerbocker said.