Western Pa. farm remakes the alpaca business
84 Alpacas gives it a local spin BY LAURA ZOELLER, Lancaster Farming
EIGHTY FOUR -- Nearly a decade ago, when Craig Eslep was burned out after 18 years in the health care industry, a friend who raised alpacas introduced him to the species.
Infatuated with the animals, he bought a couple and boarded them elsewhere while he and partner Bill O'Donnell searched for a farm to buy. In 2006, Eslep and O'Donnell bought a farm here that they renamed 84 Alpacas and a new career was launched.
"From the very beginning, I was interested in what could be made from alpaca fiber beyond yarn," Eslep said.
Eslep also was envisioning a fiber mill with enough capacity to process the fiber from his farm and other alpaca farms, too.
So the same year, Eslep began 84 Alpacas Fiber Mill on his and O'Donnell's farm.
"There is a whole cottage industry of spinning equipment out there," Eslep said, "where a person can buy a home mill for processing their own fiber, and they can do others' fiber on it, as well.
"But the turnaround time for the smaller mills is often a year to 18 months," he said.
Striving for a faster turnaround time, Eslep opted for larger, commercial-grade equipment.
"Generally speaking, people shear in May, and our goal is to have their fleece processed and spun by September or October of the same year," he said. "It allows them to use it or sell it at craft shows in time for Christmas."
Raw fleece from clients' alpacas arrives at the mill in bags from all over the country, freshly sheared and still full of debris.
Eslep and employee Ally Kuzupas "skirt out the seconds" by hand.
"The prime fleece comes from what is called 'the blanket,' " Eslep said. "That is the back and sides of the alpaca. Neck, rump and belly hair is usually coarser, and short fibers created by a second pass with the shears are also less valuable. We pull those out before putting the fleece in the tumbler."
The tumbler works much like a bingo spinner, twirling the fleece around and around. The process flings out more of the short fibers and debris.
The tumbling is done in an enclosed room to prevent the debris and dust from settling on all the equipment and processed fiber. After its ride in the tumbler, the fleece is hand-washed, then dried.
The processing still has several steps to go.
"Once it is dried, it goes through the picker, which makes it fluffier, and then it goes into the carder," Eslep said.
"The carder feeds the fiber through rollers with millions of teeth that move in opposite directions. Those rollers organize the fiber by making them all face the same direction and flings out any remaining debris."
At this point, the fiber can be made into batts, which look like quilt batting, or it can be made into rovings, which is the next step in the process of yarn making.
"If the yarn will be hand-spun, then the rovings are ready at this point," Eslep said.
"But they are still too uneven for a machine spinner, so if we are planning to do that, then the rovings go into the pin drafter. It works to even out the thickness of them so that we spin a uniform strand."
Once the strands are spun, they are full of energy from being forced in one direction.
"That is why we ply the yarn immediately," Eslep said. "When we put two or three strands together, they wrap around one another, neutralizing the energy. If we didn't do it right away, it can lose its energy, and then the process is much more difficult. Next, we steam-finish the yarn, and it is retail-ready."
84 Alpacas Fiber Mill is definitely growing, and there is room for even more growth.
"In 2011, we had 30 clients," Eslep said. "Last year, we had 130. We processed 4,000 pounds of fiber last year, and that is with only Ally and me working here. We have the size, the space and the equipment to more than double that amount."
Another new endeavor takes 84 Alpacas to the cutting edge of technology and helps fulfill Craig's dream of going beyond yarn.
"We are partnering with Willow Hill Textiles in Mars, Pa., who has invested in a high-end, computer-driven knitting machine," Eslep said.
"We will be among the first to take raw fleece from a farmer and return a finished product.
"Before now, that required going in with a cooperative to have your fleece shipped to South America for production, and there was a 25,000-pound minimum," he said.
"So you didn't know if the socks you were getting back were actually from your animal or not," Eslep said.
"But now, we will be able to have products made on a small scale, so your fiber's identity remains intact. It is very exciting."
For more agricultural news from Lancaster Farming, go to LancasterFarming.com.