Sheep Thrills

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Location: Orange County, California, United States

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Alpaca Adventure

The little car wound its way higher and higher up the slope, working its way slowly into the gathering twilight. We were on a magical adventure, off to capture alpaca wool at the incredible rate of $5.00 a pound. I'd like to say we were winding our way into the Andes, but on this particular evening, we were winding our way into one of the affluent and rurally zoned areas of Orange County, California.

We glided to a stop in front of a large house and were greeted by friendly Greg, breeder of show alpacas. Husband Steve and I followed Greg out to his yard, where, up a short slope, three furry heads on incredibly long and graceful necks turned straight toward us. "They're looking at us," I whispered to Steve. With graceful Andean rhythm, the three chocolate alpacas, mother, father, and baby, loped down a short trail and stationed themselves at the side of the patio, where Greg was dishing out something that looked and sounded like dry cat food. Such cute, sheepy faces peering at us from underneath curly chocolate masses of fleece. Neither of us had ever seen an alpaca in person before.

As they munched, Greg weighed out five pounds of what looked like chunks of very dirty, crimpy pet hair (which I suppose is what it was, really) and placed it all into plastic bags. He pointed out the long staple, which was evident to me, but which Steven looked at doubtfully. Within minutes, we were winding our way back down the hill, this time with five pounds of fabulous alpaca hair in four colors.

Next morning, it was off to the local megawarehouse pet shop to pick up some pet hair combs and look for slicker brushes, since I am loath to pay $80 each for a set of wool rakes and a set of carders. Especially when they look exactly like hair rakes and slicker brushes made for large animals, that cost a quarter of what rakes and carders cost. Then I went home to begin preparing the first pound of fleece for spinning.

Five sinkfuls of absolutely filthy sudsy water later, I was finally getting clear rinse water off the fleece. I plunged it into a sinkful of warm water, to which I'd added a bit of hair conditioner, then rinsed, wrung, and rolled it all into a towel. The chunks now resembled creamy white dreadlocks. Steven continued to look at them doubtfully, and to complain that alpaca hair might clog the drain. Philistine.

Appropriately wrung and only partially damp, the dreadlocks, with a little raking (actually, a lot of raking--what a workout!), were transformed into voluminous, diaphanous swirls of silvery-white, angelic-looking magic I cannot wait to spin, and that elicited a "wow" from the infidel husband.

When I was in fifth grade, my mother knit for my father an alpaca golfing cardigan. My father, an electrician and welder, was by no stretch of the imagination a clothes horse, but he wore his sweater with pride and made sure it was always washed by hand. My mother's creation was celebrated and passed among the family members, including we children, at every family gathering. I remember that sweater; baby blue heathered pure alpaca, knit in a plain stockinette stitch in a mind-numbingly tiny gauge that was probably the reason my mother began to wear glasses (or was that the Chanel-style suit she knit from grosgrain ribbon?). How did she keep from going mad while knitting that thing? I used to ask myself. The answer is the magic of alpaca. Holding something so exotically, fabulously soft makes you want to create any excuse to continue working with it. I don't know what I will make with my alpaca, but whatever it is, it will be luscious and wonderful, full of the wonder of strange animals from mystical places. That is the magic of alpaca.