Cathy Whitehead and Ed Hutchings shear one of their alpacas. Their fibre is spun into yarn and used to make a variety of crafts and clothing. — Submitted photo
Thirteen years ago, when Ed Hutchings and Cathy Whitehead decided to start an alpaca farm in Felix Cove on the Port au Port Peninsula, they intended to just breed and sell their animals.
A neighbour suggested they should have a craft shop on the farm. Agreeing it might be a good idea, they opened one in 1999 in the hayloft of their barn and started selling some local products.
The first year they sheared their animals, Hutchings said a woman who stopped by the farm asked if they would mind giving her some alpaca yarn to try knitting something with it.
“I said, ‘no my dear, go right ahead,’” Hutchings said. “She came back a few days later and had a pair of mittens knit.”
A visitor to the farm immediately liked them and offered to buy them.
“So we sent that lady home with more yarn and the first year she started to knit, every time she’d bring something back, it was already sold,” Hutchings said.
Today, 13 women in the area knit and crochet items from alpaca fibre for the craft store, including caps, scarves, mitts, gloves and duvets. Alpaca yarn in a variety of colours can also be purchased at the store.
The farm has 23 alpacas, two llamas and two pygmy goats.
Hutchings said the fibre from both the farm’s alpacas and llamas are used for crafts. The little goats are an added attraction on the farm.
There’s been so much demand for the knitted goods, Hutchings said they’ve had to bring in other products from South America to supplement what they carry — items like woven blankets and capes, toy teddy bears and alpacas and rugs.
In North America, he said, the alpacas are used exclusively for their fibre, which is sheared off them every summer like sheep’s wool. But, in South Africa, Hutchings said literally thousands of these animals die every year of natural causes in the Andes Mountains and their pelts are used by craftspeople there to make teddy bears, rugs and other craft items.
Hutchings said alpaca fibre is very soft and it’s also hypoallergenic. “A lot of people who are allergic to sheep’s wool can actually wear the alpaca fibre,” he said. “It’s also four to six times warmer than sheep’s wool. It’s one of the strongest fibres produced by an animal, it’s also a lightweight and breathable material, so it can keep you cool in the summertime and very warm in the winter.”
And, it doesn’t absorb water like sheep’s wool, Hutchings said. It actually keeps moisture away from your skin.
The prices for knitted goods range from about $25 for caps, $27.50 for mitts and gloves, $32.50 for scarves and $29 to $35 for socks.
Larger items like duvets are in the $224 to $350 range.
Besides the craft store in Felix Cove, Alpacas of Newfoundland products can also be purchased at The Bubbling Pot Craft Minders store on the Conception Bay Highway in Kelligrews.
Alpaca crafts will be sold as well at the Christmas craft show at the Glacier in Mount Pearl from Oct. 19 to 23.
Hutchings said the farm also sells alpacas. Prices start around $2,500.
Recently, he said, Lester’s Farms in St. John’s purchased a mother and baby alpaca for its petting farm.
Hutchings and his wife were both RCMP members stationed in Port au Port when they started the farm in 1998. Hutchings retired three years ago, but Whitehead is still with the force.
The idea came from his wife’s interest in getting a llama. Hutchings, who was home recuperating from knee surgery, read about alpaca franchises in a business magazine and after some research and trips his wife made to visit alpaca breeders in other parts of Canada and the U.S., the couple decided to build a barn and start a farm.
On the farm’s website, they recall dealing with government agencies where they were asked over and over, “you want to bring what into Newfoundland?”
The whole exercise involved educating people about alpacas before the couple were given the required permits.
Today, the farm is not only an important player in the province’s agriculture and crafts sectors, it’s also a big attraction for tourists and residents.
Hutchings said the lifestyle is great. Alpacas are very low-maintenance animals to care for, he said, the biggest job is shearing them.
“We had no previous farming experience or anything when we started. We learned as we went and everything has worked out fine.”
The farm’s website is at www.alpacasofnfld.ca. Alpacas of Newfoundland is also on Facebook, complete with photos of items sold in the craft store.