Frankly, I found it a bit unsettling standing in the middle of a herd of alpacas. It wasn’t that I felt endangered, more that I felt enweirded.
With their long, emu-like necks, their big eyes, their delicate lashes, their soft, sproingy fleeces, alpacas appear to have been designed by Dr. Seuss. They have shaggy mops of Moe Howard hair atop their heads and the sound they make isn’t a moo or a baa but an oddly insistent hmmm.
Like all members of the camelid family — and a few uncouth Homo sapiens — alpacas will spit at you if they feel threatened or annoyed, though as Nancy Barkoviak pointed out, “People get spit on just because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I did not get spat at during my visit to the BlueGenes Alpaca Ranch in Olney, which Nancy and her partner, J.C. Williamson, run. Last month, fleeces from their herd practically swept the field at the national Alpaca Owners Association competition in Harrisburg, Pa.
Alpacas are from South America and smaller cousins to the llama. Llamas make good pack animals, J.C. and Nancy explained, and with their taller profile, they are watchful guard animals. But llama fleece isn’t much to write home about.
Alpacas, on the other hand, have fleece as soft as angel hair, if angels had hair or even existed.
“Yarn, socks, hats, capes,” J.C. said, rattling off some uses for alpaca fleece. “Men’s suits in Italy are made from alpaca. The military loves it. It’s a natural fiber. If a guy gets burned in battle, it doesn’t do what nylon does, which is melt in to your skin.”
J.C. and Nancy started their herd — now numbering 29 — 10 years ago. They’d seen an ad on television touting the wonders of alpaca husbandry
“It seemed to be a fun thing to do as we approached retirement,” J.C. said.
They both have other jobs — J.C.’s a graphic designer, Nancy a registered nurse — but found themselves attracted to the sweet, big-eyed creatures.
J.C. had five acres of family land next to a former Nike missile site. “I didn’t know what to do with the property,” she said. “It’s too much to mow and not quite big enough for anything else.”
So: alpacas. They come in 25 colors. BlueGenes specializes in gray ones, especially a coloration known as “tuxedo”: gray with a white face, legs and neck. The ranchers choose breeding combinations they hope will produce high-quality fleece: good “micron” (the fineness of the hairs) and “crimp” (how straight and tightly packed it is).
Alpacas aren’t just curious looking, they’re curious, too. When I walk toward a fence, they amble over, checking me out. There’s Gypsy, Honeymoon, Abby and her 5-month-old baby — or cria — Whimsy.
I push my palm into Abby’s back and my hand sinks in about three inches. The fleece is like nothing I’ve ever touched before: dense, but soft, cleaving as I run my fingers through it. I can see why knitters love to get their needles on it.
The alpaca community being very tight, Catherine Beatty of Frederick County’s Bellaserra Alpacas had dropped in to BlueGenes for a visit. She’s convinced that there’s a need for more alpacas and sings their praises wherever she can.
“We are driving the fiber train,” Catherine said.
The first alpacas were imported from South America only 30 years ago, making it a relatively young industry. According to Cindy Berman of the Nebraska-based Alpaca Owners Association, there are about 230,000 registered alpacas in the United States, which raises the troubling prospect of unregistered alpacas.
“I personally can’t wear wool,” Cindy said by phone. “I’m allergic to lanolin. But with alpaca, people don’t get the itchy blotches that a lot of people get from wool.”
As I took my leave from BlueGenes Alpaca Ranch, a gate was opened and a half-dozen more alpacas rushed from the barn to frolic in the sunshine, their heads gimbaling on those impossible necks. A tiny bump in the pasture was the closest thing to the towering Altiplano of Peru, but the alpacas took turns scaling it, surveying their domain.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.