Alpaca Fleece Sales Reality Check
by Kate Perez
Please note the the article below is several years old. My husband and I DO still sell the Alpaca Care DVD, but we no longer have alpacas due to a serious illness (Sarcoidosis). Please do not contact us for fleece advice or help in selling fleece! We moved to Florida in 2008.
I wrote this article in response to the constant stream of e-mails and calls that I receive from other alpaca breeders, asking me where and how to sell their alpaca fleeces. I hope readers will take it for what it is. I do not want to discourage and upset others or be "the bad guy", but I do want to interject a little reality into a subject that I think has been sugar-coated by too many in the alpaca business.
Selling your alpaca fleeces and alpaca fleece products is a business like any other. There is no magic wand you can wave to get people to come and buy your alpaca fleeces, nor is there some group out there, just waiting to buy up the fleeces that you produce each year.
Lately, there is encouraging news about the future of the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative. After some years of missteps, the co-op seems to be back on track. They are processing large amounts of alpaca fiber here in the U.S. and this year will show a profit that can be paid to their members. That payment is not expected to be very large but it is certainly better than not using your alpaca fleeces. There is a one-time fee of $250 to join the co-op and this gets you a stock certificate and also the ability to buy most of the products of Americas Alpaca (the co-op's marketing and sales entity) at half price.
Me, hand spinning and wearing alpaca at a show
If you want to sell your own alpaca fleeces you should know the following:
- Where to sell them. You could find a venue like a large fiber festival or farmer’s market and try to get a vendor space there. You may have to pay for the vendor space or you may have to get on a waiting list for the vendor space or both. If you have to pay quite a bit for the vendor space and you don’t have enough fleeces to make the rental worthwhile, you may have to re-sell other alpaca products to make a good profit. You could also consider selling your fleeces from a web site or from your own farm event but then you will have to figure out a way to advertise your product to the public.
- How to make sure they are of good quality to begin with and then make sure they are properly shorn, skirted and prepared. I have seen many alpaca breeders who do not know what criteria they should look for in an alpaca fleece shearer and they pay a shearer to just, “get it off.” It isn’t the shearer’s fault if you do not keep your alpaca’s fleece dry and clean of debris before shearing. Nor is it the shearer’s fault if you do not make sure that no second cuts get into the fleece during shearing, nor make sure each part of the fleece is bagged up separately with no mixing of 1sts, 2nds and 3rds in the same bag. If you don’t know what is meant by the latter three terms, you should not be trying to sell alpaca fleeces. Educate yourself in how to produce an acceptable sale fleece.
Don’t sell poor quality fleeces at all. It will only damage your reputation. Every alpaca has their primary “job” on the farm and girls who have birthed and nursed several cria should not be expected to produce top quality fleeces each year as well. Their job is to breed babies. The same goes for older, breeding males. Expect to get your sales and show quality fleeces from your younger alpacas and your geldings.
- How to answer your customer’s questions and give them advice on using your fleeces for spinning or felting and/or knitting or weaving. Most hand spinners and felters are accustomed to working with sheep wool. I know from personal experience that they often need some advice on how to work with alpaca fleece. If you cannot give the proper advice, based on what they want to do with your fleece, they may be unhappy with their finished product and they will not want to buy alpaca fleece again or, at least, not from you.
However, if you can give good advice, they will often want to buy from you year after year. I have many repeat fleece customers each year. Don’t expect to sell a product that you yourself know very little about and don’t repeat things that you have heard from others who may not know much either. All too often, at shows, I have heard other alpaca breeders tell their potential fleece customers false “facts” that they heard from another alpaca breeder. This makes all of us look bad.
Despite having a lot of experience in spinning, felting and knitting with alpaca, I always ask my fleece customers to share their insights and techniques with me. I have learned a lot from my own customers by asking for their opinions on using alpaca fleece. I ask them if they would be willing to send me a photo of whatever they make from the fleece in exchange for a discount on next year’s fleece sale.
Don’t sell alpaca fleeces while wearing Gore-Tex© and Polartec© . If you don’t like your own product, why should anyone else? If it’s too warm to wear alpaca at a show, at least have a garment made from one of your fleeces there to use as a display item.
- How to price your fleeces. Other breeders often ask me what I think they should charge for their alpaca fleeces. This question is impossible to answer without all the facts such as, how fine is the fleece? How clean and free of debris is the fleece? Is the fleece an unusual color? For example, a white Merino fleece is as soft or softer than the average alpaca fleece but rose gray and fawn are colors that do not occur in sheep. Is the fleece strong or weak? What is the length of the fleece? Is the fleece “tippy” or “tui?” At what venue will the fleece be sold? How much can YOU contribute to the desirability of the fleece by your own knowledge and presentation?
I get as much as $3 per oz. for my fleeces and I sell them as a whole, not by the ounce. However, I can answer my customer’s questions. I have a booth at the largest fiber festival in the U.S., which I help to run. I have a very large web site with a lot of traffic, and I have many friends and acquaintances that are also hand spinners. In addition, I make sure that my fleeces are clean and of high quality with very few second cuts. They are skirted properly and bagged and stored properly so that they will not get too hot or damp. I check the tensile strength of each fleece that I sell. Weak fleeces are thrown out. I may spin up fleeces that are too short or a little coarse myself, but I do not sell them to others.
I always put an attractive photo of the alpaca whose fleece I am selling right on the bag along with the alpaca’s name and description. Most buyers want to have that information because making something by hand, from a specific animal, is a very meaningful experience. I often tie a small, 5-inch sample of handspun yarn to the fleece bag so that the customer can see what the fleece looks like spun up. I make an effort to make my product attractive to customers.
Maybe you don’t want to fool with all of this and just want to send your fleeces somewhere to be processed into yarn. That is fine, but you will still need to have a plan to sell the yarn. If you sell yarn, you should know how to answer your customer’s questions about using your yarn. Alpaca yarn knits or crochets up differently than wool, cotton or acrylic.
You will also have to have a venue from which to sell your yarn. I would not recommend sending out poor quality fleeces to be made into yarn because it may not be worth the money to try to sell these and they will give you a reputation for selling itchy yarn. Don’t forget to subtract the fiber mill’s processing fee and the shipping fee from the profit you make from the sale of yarn.
Think that my description of the alpaca fleece sale business is discouraging? Me too. I would love to see a much larger market for alpaca fleeces, yarns and products produced in North America. If more alpaca breeders were out there making an effort to show, sell, wear and educate the public about their own product, your prospects for selling your fleece at a good price would look a little better. The problem is that almost everyone is waiting for someone else to do the work of creating this market.
If alpaca buyers asked the farms they bought from what they are doing to promote and expand the market for North American-grown alpaca fleece and products, before they bought animals from those farms, that would be a start. Many alpaca farms, including some of the largest farms in the U.S., do not bother using their own alpaca fleeces at all. If they do wear and sell alpaca products, they use the ones made in Peru from Peruvian fleeces. That doesn’t do anything to increase the demand for U.S. alpaca fiber. These farms know that they have to win in the show ring to increase their live alpaca sales but they feel no such pressure to demonstrate that they are trying to promote the sale of North American alpaca fleeces. I know of the owner of one very large farm who tells his customers the he doesn't use his fleeces at all and large numbers of customers buy from this farm anyway! This person was even quoted recently in an article in the Wall Street Journal (April 4, 2007 - "Tax Breaks Spur Alpaca Market", ) as saying, "it's not worth the energy" (to sell the fleece.)
I have done my part by helping to run many fiber festivals, fleece shows and fleece sales. I have taught hand spinning and skein judging while my husband taught shearing for many years. When my husband became too ill to shear, we made a DVD movie instructing other alpaca breeders in how to shear their alpacas in a way that produces good quality fleeces. I have spun up and knit up many of my own fleeces and I wear these homegrown alpaca garments at many shows and public events. I also enter these garments in contests and fairs. I have sold fleeces, hand spun alpaca yarns and hand made alpaca products at many different venues over the years. I tell my alpaca customers to wear some of their own alpaca fleeces and get the rest of it out there for others to use and enjoy. I always considered it my responsibility to increase the alpaca fiber market for the sake of the customers I sold to as well as the alpacas that I sold. If the value of alpacas decreases, that is bad news for the animals as well as their owners.
Having had the pleasure of wearing good quality alpaca clothing for many years now, you couldn’t pay me to wear Thinsulate© or Polartec© clothing in the winter! I truly believe that, if more alpaca breeders took their responsibility to educate the public about alpaca fleece and create new customers for it seriously, the North American alpaca fleece market would be booming today. There is a lot of work to be done to let everyone out there know how great alpaca products are and all alpaca breeders should be doing their part to make that happen. Things that would help are:
- Some huge alpaca fleece festivals similar to the largest of the sheep and wool festivals held in West Friendship, Maryland and Rhinebeck, New York. Those festivals have attendance in the range of 50,000 or more people per day. They offer classes in hand spinning, knitting, weaving, felting and other fiber arts. They have hundreds of vendors offering a very large range of fiber-related products and they have dedicated volunteers who run them each year.
Other alpaca breeders very often ask me how they can get a booth at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. I have worked in various volunteer capacities at that festival for many years. I did this because I truly love the festival but I didn’t turn down the chance to have a booth there when it came up. However, they have a very long waiting list for vendors and are not anxious to have more alpaca breeders at their sheep and wool event. They have worked hard for 34 years to make this a showcase for their product and, by the way, there is nothing to stop them from selling a few imported alpaca yarns and sweaters along with their wool products. You don’t have to be an alpaca breeder to re-sell alpaca products. Alpaca breeders need to start working harder to produce their own fiber festivals and events.
- More emphasis from AOBA and “Alpacas Magazine” on our North American alpaca fleece, yarns and products. The yearly “Fiber to Fashion” edition of “Alpacas Magazine” features many Peruvian designers and products with one or two North American companies thrown in.
- More emphasis on fleece and fleece products at our alpaca shows. Why do most of the alpaca shows in the U.S. have live animal entry numbers that are more than twice, or even three times, the number of fleece show entries? Some shows have live alpaca classes with no fleece show at all. After all these years, hand spun, alpaca skein entries are still considered to be an “exhibition” class in AOBA shows and AOBA fleece judges are not required to know anything about hand spinning (much less be a hand spinner) to judge skeins. Some shows have entry classes for hand-made alpaca products as well but these are not covered by AOBA rules at all. What is the message here, the closer our “product” comes to being used in a practical way, the less it matters? Doesn’t this make for a system where the judging criteria are based more on show ring fads than what matters in the finished garment?
Now that I have given you the tough talk, is there anything positive that I can say about selling alpaca fleeces and products? Yes, there is. My experience has been that, if you do the work to educate yourself about your own product, produce a superior product and work to find ways to sell your product, you will find a lot of enthusiastic customers who want to buy it and are willing to pay well for it. I did.
I have several pages on this website about the shearing and selling of fleece and they can all be accessed from this page. I also have some articles on these topics at the Alpaca Heritage Website under shearing and fiber.
Kate Perez - Mount Airy Alpaca Company, Hand Spinning Instructor, Certified Hand Spinning Judge for Maryland Association of Agricultural Fairs, Fleece Show Superintendent, Knitter and Enthusiastic Alpaca Clothing Wearer.
two of my hand spun alpaca skeins