Our lovely worsted weight Owl, a blend of American wool and alpaca, proved to be especially elusive throughout most of 2021—leaving us and many of our long-time Owl fans waiting patiently for its return. Initially scheduled to arrive back in the Fall of 2021, our sweet little bird finally made its way back to the warehouse in December, and is just about fully restocked at the time of writing this post.
Of course, ongoing supply chain issues aside, the alpaca that makes up half this yarn has proven time and again to be somewhat of a challenge when it comes to procurement. So it only made sense to reach out to Quince’s founder, Pam Allen, for the full scoop—not only because we learn something new each time we sit down to chat (heck, she literally co-wrote Knitting For Dummies), but because she can talk on and on about alpaca (and we love her for it!).
Without further ado, let’s turn it over to Pam:
When we decided to make a woolen-spun wool/alpaca yarn, what became our lovely Owl, we wanted to do what we’d set out to do when we started Quince & Co: we wanted to source the yarn’s fiber from the US.
Sourcing the wool component was easy. The American wool industry is long established. You can order fleece from a large processing plant or broker. You can specify a range of micron counts with consistent results. You can ask for whiter or yellower fleece, more crimp or less.
Not so for American alpaca.
With no central clearing house or organized supply of American alpaca, it was hard to know how to find fiber in the colors and fineness we needed. We started with the phone book, so to speak. We put together a list of alpaca farmers in the East, and I began calling. Yes, this farmer and that farmer possibly had fiber to sell. They’d be shearing sometime soon and would know more then, they had a few bags in the barn attic, or they were working with a mini-mill to spin their own yarn and had no interest in working with Quince. Colors? Yes, several. Quantity of particular colors? Well... couldn’t tell you exactly. Fineness? Always, the answer was, “Good! I think.”
Not the way to procure consistent fiber for a yarn we wanted to make a lot of.
Unlike domestic sheep, which first arrived on Spanish ships in the 1500s, alpaca didn’t come to the US until the 1980s, when they became the preferred animal on gentlemen or hobby farms. The first alpaca farms were dedicated more to breeding good breeding stock than they were to encouraging good fiber. A good stud or female was worth far more than the fleece they wore. It was a given that at some point, down the line, there would be demand for the fiber—and a good fleece price would justify the cost of breeding stock.
So, as you can guess, alpacas followed the course of any market bubble. The demand for fiber never developed, and hence, the demand for good breeding stock tanked. Further, American farmers had to compete with the well-organized, competent, competitively priced alpaca supply from South America.
What to do? The solution for our first run came from a local alpaca farmer who had a good size herd with the three or four colors we needed to make our blends, and she had these in the quantities we needed. That said, when it came to establishing the fineness of the fleece we were buying, well, it was anyone’s guess. Price of fiber varies by the fineness or grade. There was no way to know if we were paying too much or too little for these first bales of American alpaca. Hmmm. It was clear that if we wanted to make a consistent commercial yarn using American alpaca, we were going to need some professional help.
Enter Roy Lockwood, a wool broker. Roy was born in Yorkshire and grew up in a mill village. Instead of romping with his friends in the backyard, Roy’s playground was the woolen mill, his slide and swings the bales of wool that filled the warehouse. By the time he was an adult and went to work for a top mill (top as in fleece in ready-to-spin form), he was familiar with some 300 breeds of British sheep.
Roy first came to the US to work in the American office of a large Danish wool company. And after years of working for large companies, he set out on his own. He now sources wool from all over the world and finds markets for it, these days mostly in products unrelated to knitting or clothing, e.g., mattresses and insulation. Mention an interest in sheep and he’ll tell you about some Karakul he knows in Africa, a rare breed in New Zealand, what kind of wool is on offer in Patagonia. His internal globe is a series of crisscrossing paths, making connections between sheep, farmers, and markets.
Around the time that Quince was wondering if there was any way to reliably source colored, graded alpaca fiber in the US, Roy was casually meeting and talking with alpaca producers throughout the country, wondering if it would be worthwhile to include alpaca in his networks. When we asked if he could help us, the pieces fell into place. Roy went to work in earnest—over hill, over dale—finding American alpaca for our precious Owl.
Roy has seen the ups and downs of the wool market. That said, he is committed to wool. Synthetic textiles, in spite of the fact that they are made from unsustainable fossil fuels and that microscopic synthetic fibers pollute our oceans, are gaining every day on wool. For Quince, Roy is a hero. His knowledge and expertise are invaluable. He helps us make wonderful wool and alpaca yarn with materials right here in our country.
We hope you enjoyed learning more about sourcing American alpaca. Curious about what to knit next in Owl? Check out our latest knitting pattern, Avena by Emily Greene (pictured below)! Or browse our collection of patterns in Owl. Happy knitting!
I always enjoyed knitting beautiful yarn. But I love to know the story behind the yarn. How it got to my needles. Thank you. 💕🧶
This was really interesting. Thanks for sharing! I’m knitting your Willow sweater in Owl right now and enjoy knowing more about the backstory of the yarn.
That seemed like a cliffhanger. What happened next?? He went to work for you and found what?? Where in the US are there alpaca herds? How did you get a good grade fleece? Are there more alpaca herds now than previously? Is raising alpaca in the US a booming business? Please continue your story! Many thanks!!! ( I look forward to working with Owl as well. The colors have so much depth!)
I’m very concerned about an extremely painful and cruel process called mulesing. I now buy U.S. yarn only and am so pleased that your company is striving to sell only yarn from animals in the U.S. I hope you can find enough alpaca farmers here, in our country, for your customers.
This was so interesting for history and context. Living in Durango, CO, one of my pleasures has been getting to know the owner and alpacas of Pleasant Journey alpaca farm. They are serious breeders and also have a small store where they sell some of their fiber spun to various weights. It has been such a delight to get close to this endeavor, and I can see that after learning your own history with alpaca, there will be some OWL in my future. Thank you. Elizabeth
Very informative article! Thank you.