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Off the Clock - Women Raising Alpacas, Creating Fabric

Catherine Wheeler

Four women own and operate Heartfelt Alpaca Creations in Columbia, Missouri. Three of the women, Mary Licklider, Linda Coats, and Diane Peckham, all brought their alpacas into the business, while Carol Brown is a fiber artists who makes felt sheets. The women started the business about six years ago.

Why alpaca?

Licklider said the best alpaca fiber is as soft as cashmere. Additionally, it's a stronger fiber, but a similar weight.

Coats said alpacas are easy to maintain. “As long as you have grass in the pasture, they’ll do fine. In the winter we feed them some grain and hay,” she said.

Licklider said she often gets asked about if alpacas spit. She said usually that will be the alpaca’s cousin, the llama.

“Llamas have been bred to be pack animals and guard animals, and they’re substantially bigger than alpacas, and consequently they are more aggressive,” she said.

Licklider said that if a person has been spit on by an alpaca, it was most likely aiming for another alpaca.

“They are much quieter by nature than say a llama, so very seldom are they going to intentionally spit on a person. You have to be really mean,” she said.

From Animal to Insole:

The first step in the process of creating alpaca fiber is getting it off the animal.

Licklider said the alpacas are sheared in the spring when it gets warm out.

“It’s so warm if you don’t shear an alpaca it will die in Missouri because of the heat,” she said.

Licklider said that Peckham then sorts the fibers according to how coarse or fine the fiber is. Then, it is sent to Zielinger Wool, a mill in Michigan, to be made into batting, which can then be felted and used to make products.

Brown said once they get the batting from the mill they unroll the 60x90 sheets and cut them to make felt sheets.

“That’s my favorite part: pulling it out of the bag. It feels great and smells just clean, like the animals,” Brown said.

There are two different kinds of felting, Licklider said.

One type is wet felting. “Imagine dred locks,” Brown said. The other type, which Heartfelt uses is mechanical felting. “Mechanical felting is when needles with barbs tangle the fibers together,” Brown said.

“It’s a different way of creating fabric that’s not woven,” Brown said. “It’s not one thread over another, it’s just knotting all those fibers together.”

The number of times felt sheets are run through the loom depends on the product they are making, Brown said. For instance, a sheet will be run about six or seven times before it’s taken to be an insole.

“On the insoles, we have three layers of batting and there’s a layer of burlap sandwiched in between it because it tends to get wiggly and stretch out,” Brown said.

She said the burlap helps prevent the insole from moving around and migrating to the toe of the shoe.

The insoles are cut using a clicker press, which runs on an air compressor. Licklider said it takes about 100 pounds of pressure to cut an insole.

The Business:

Licklider said that Heartfelt has outgrown supplying itself with its own fiber.

“We’re buying a lot of fiber. We’re buying 500-700 pounds beyond what we produced because we are both small herds,” she said.

Brown said that a lot of the fiber they buy is from small farms, most of them located in the mid-Missouri area.

“It’s easier and we know the people and we know the quality of the fiber,” Brown said. “Our business isn’t only supporting these two farms, it’s supporting a lot of farms.”

Brown said that Heartfelt is a place where farms can sell their fiber and make a return on it through buying the insoles Heartfelt produces, then selling them in their farm stores.

Licklider said that most sell the insoles for $15 or $20.

As for the partnership, Licklider said some people didn’t think the partnership would last.

“The gist of it was they expected that any business that was a partnership that had as many as four partners involved was going to break up and squabble,” Licklider said.

Licklider said the group has been lucky because each likes to do different tasks, making the division of work easier.

“Nobody dominates the conversation. Nobody needs to be the boss. We don’t have a president, you know. It’s just the four of us making decisions together and it’s a really beautiful balance,” Brown said.