Artisan Husbandry: The Montana Alpaca Experience
Atop the Continental Divide and North of the Walkerville section of Butte, fiber artist Betty Kujawa works with select, raw yields of fleece. Here, on eight hilly acres and three high pastures, she tends to the dozen quirky animals that form Snowdrift Alpacas.
The business name connotes the massive white fields cloaking the property for as much as seven months out of the year. Only a few miles from the haphazard detritus of the Mining City is a noticeably cooler, cleaner, quieter, and greener micro-culture, a magical, almost esoteric, land resembling the wobbly terraces and gallivanting grasses at the high altitudes of Peru.
“The altitude, the climate, the grass, it makes for a natural home for alpacas here where we are,” says Kujawa.
Alpacas Now Common in Montana
Alpacas are no strangers to Montana; in fact, folks in agricultural environs no longer even classify them as exotic. Long since domesticated elsewhere over the past twenty years they have become an increasingly more common brand of livestock in the state.
Herd animals through and through, alpacas are outgoing and require the companionship of the party. Friendly and droll to a fault, they are elongated, with bushy bangs and unkempt, eccentric hairdos.
Alpacas are missing their top teeth, and only have a bottom set – a feature that endows them with a lovably pathetic guise. Yet, they are quite intelligent – after all, alpacas poop communally to avoid contamination. Alpacas are known to be a great deal curious about humans, their surroundings, and other animals.
“Curiosity can often be their downfall,” notes Kujawa. “Alpacas are predator prone.”
Alpacas do come with risks, most prominently, the emission of spit. Splatter flies when an alpaca feels distressed or threatened, or senses competition for food. At times, they will shoot out saliva at each other as a warning, or to communicate displeasure, or occasionally to establish dominance.
While alpacas and llamas are descendants of the same camel lineage, the two animals have completely different bone structures and even separate personality traits. For starters, llamas are characterized by their banana-shaped ears and a forehead without bangs.
“Alpacas aren’t llamas,” says Kujawa. “That’s probably the biggest mistake that people make, confusing the two animals. Llamas are taller than alpacas, and their ears come in. Alpacas’ ears stick straight up, and they have their own sets of what look to be bangs. Llamas are much bigger, roughly 300 to 400 pounds, where alpacas generally get up to between 150 and 175 pounds. The bone structure of the alpaca is not designed to carry a lot of weight, and thus not as sturdy as what a llama’s would be.”
Spinning a Story
Kujawa’s connection to fiber stretches back to her childhood in Kansas, where her father spent many years as a member of the U.S. Army. She grew up in a pair of military towns, Fort Riley and Junction City, and later attended college at Pittsburg State College in Pittsburg, Kansas.
In the Sunflower State, she was raised among hogs and cattle, and brought up by a mother who looked at quilting and sewing as antidotes to both daily monotony and the frequent dull weather.
“Winters in Kansas, the electricity would go out and school would be cancelled and nobody could get out. So, we’d all put out big quilts and camp out in the living room. I remember these miscellaneous yarns that my mom had hanging around the house, and we learned the different crocheting stitches. I thought it was cool, and I wanted to make my own yarn.”
Betty Kujawa moved to Montana in 1999, settling in Butte. She enrolled in an alpaca spinning class about ten years ago while on vacation in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington and learned to spin alpaca yarn. Everything about alpaca fleece – its strength, its warmth per weight, its squashy and fine feel – sent her heart spiraling.
In due course, the entrepreneur in Kujawa had visions of soft, hypoallergenic, and eco-friendly fleece whirling in her head. In this affinity and awe, she is not alone.
Suited for the State
Alpacas in the US encounter a strange mixture of mythology and misunderstanding. Some of them have been bred as show animals, which has led to a surplus of babies available for adoption or sale, an overflow of casualties who haven’t met the industry exhibit or breeding standards.
Alpacas can be found throughout the world serving many purposes. They are a common food source and cooking staple in such South American locales as Peru, Bolivia and Chile, countries that also employ them in similar ways that North Americans do with their horses, activities like trail riding or packing trips.
While some alpacas are very good pack animals, to people such as Kujawa it’s what is on the outside that counts most. Naturally water-repellent and fire resistant, alpaca fleece has sometimes been referred to as the ‘Fiber of the Gods.’
About eight years ago, Betty and her husband Michael began raising alpacas in Montana and started producing their fiber. While most alpaca ranchers raise their livestock for fiber, a select minority raise the animal to harvest their meat. The meat-harvesting portion of the industry in Montana is, in Kujawa’s words, “negligible.”
“Compared to sheep or some other fiber animals, alpacas seem best suited for our area,” says Kujawa.“Alpaca ranching is growing in Montana, specifically here, the land we have is a higher altitude, at about 6,400-feet. While the decomposed granite is not the best for natural grass, it seems like alpacas are ancestrally pre-disposed to this kind of climate, one very much like the high plains of South America.
Fiber of the Gods
There are 22 natural colors of alpaca classified in the US and within that number exists more than 300 shades, from out-and-out white to pure blacks to silvery grays.
Kujawa explains that a lesson in alpaca fiber is a lesson is stubbornness, sacrifice, and subtlety. Alpaca fiber doesn’t have memory, meaning that it is especially difficult to introduce any kind of twist to their fiber. It takes a lot of alpaca yarn to even provide enough material to accent a small hat or scarf.
Costs associated with raising alpaca are somewhat greater than the expenses required for the sheep industry. As herbivores, alpacas only consume vegetation, their food pipeline being a three-chambered stomach that digests the roughage resourcefully.
“Alpaca come with a higher cost than other livestock animals,” says Kujawa. “The quality of the fiber is linked to the protein in the animals’ diets. If an alpaca has been grazing on poor-quality grass, its fiber won’t be as long or fine as it could be if its diet was of a higher grade.”
While alpacas generally achieve a life span between 20 to 25 years, the high quality of the fiber life of a typical animal is significantly less than that, approximately 10 years on average, says Kujawa.
An alpaca produces only enough fiber for a single annual shearing. Once the animal is shorn, the fiber must be carefully processed to remove the rough, hard debris and then spread out and sifted, to select the fiber with the softest feel. Fiber is then sent through a tumbler to do away with dust and hay and other unneeded items.
The finished product is one of the most plush and comfortable fibers in the world. Think of your favorite pillow, or a spongy, touchable cloud from a children’s book or freshly-spun cotton candy. It’s tougher than mohair, suppler than cotton, smoother than silk, and warmer than goose down. The versatility and sustainability of alpaca has convinced Kujawa that her role as a fiber artist is one part expenditure, two parts educational.
“I want people to learn about all of the possibilities that alpacas have to offer,” she says. “There are many people who rescue them, or who want two or three of them as either pets or producers. They need to know what the animals are offering. Right now, I know where I want to go as a fiber-arts farm, and that’s promoting the educational aspects of this great animal, and letting people know what they can give us.”
Snowdrift Alpacas products may be a common sight at local crafts fairs and farmer’s markets across Montana. They also maintain a shop and a blog at SnowdriftAlpacas.com.