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February 09, 2016
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Alpaca: The new-age Golden Fleece

Herds of alpacas dot the landscape in various locations throughout New York and Pennsylvania.
TRR photos by Jonathan Fox

The Catskills and Upper Delaware River Valley are known for many things: hiking, river rafting, apple picking and the beauty and serenity that a visit to our region provides. Each season has something different to offer to visitors and residents alike, but since the 1970s, a warm and fuzzy attraction has caught on—alpacas. The gentle creatures have been domesticated for thousands of years and the Moche people of northern Peru often used alpaca images in their art. Too small to be used as pack animals, they have been bred exclusively for their fiber and meat, but it’s their fleece that has made the alpaca highly prized throughout the world. Today, alpaca can be found all across the United States, including right here at home, where their incredibly soft hair is made into scarves, hats, gloves and socks, along with stylish high-end garments that are sought after by folks from all walks of life.

The fiber harvested from the Alpaca is lustrous, luxurious and silky. It is softer than cashmere and warmer than wool. Knitters, spinners and crafters have been producing clothing and artistic creations with it here in New York and Pennsylvania for years, even sparking events like alpaca festivals.

Imagine! Alpacas is the name of a business owned by Denise and Ed Burkart, who have a cozy farm in Jeffersonville, NY. A recent conversation with them revealed some of the mystique surrounding the creatures and what can be achieved from harvesting their fleece. “The animals are shorn once a year, in early spring,” Denise explained, “so that they can be cool for the summer and provide fiber for the folks that spin, crochet, knit and felt. I, myself, am more into the crafts and soft-décor items for the home that customers are often drawn to, and incorporate both wet and dry felting techniques in some of the unique items that I produce locally.” Felting involves laborious hours of interlocking the fibers, which create mesmerizing color variations. The end result, a strong, durable fabric, is used for both small and large-scale projects. The Burkarts welcome visitors all year long and have a small retail store on the premises, where folks can admire, try on and take home a variety of products. Whether you’re looking for the raw materials or a finished product, there is something for everyone, beginner or accomplished, and the variety offered allows for every budget.

Durable and beautiful, items made from alpaca fleece have long been treasured, but the recent rise in popularity of local alpaca farms has allowed consumers here in the country to spin their own yarn, weave their own blankets or purchase a one-of-a-kind garment of such high quality that they can be “passed down for generations” according to Burkart.

Spread out over 40 acres in Callicoon, NY, another alpaca farm is thriving. Sixteen years ago, Rob Bruce and Michele Armour “decided to get a weekend place in the mountains,” finally settling on the property now known as Rosehaven Alpacas. Their journey from city dwellers to county life has been interesting, and their fascination with the animals themselves began with Rob coming across a small herd of alpacas “in the middle of a road,” after they had wandered out of their enclosure on a farm nearby. “We had seen a few signs for an alpaca farm in the area,” Rob said, “but had never really paid attention to it.” That day, surrounded in the road by “strange, long-necked, alien-looking creatures,” changed Rob’s and Michele’s lives fairly quickly and led to their ongoing love affair with the sweet, gentle giants. Today, the pair hosts the annual Alpaca Festival at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts each Labor Day weekend. Networking with others is a big part of what Rosehaven does. “We’ve had a great time meeting and knowing [other] alpaca people,” they say. “We email together, learn together, travel to shows together and most importantly, we laugh together.” Rosehaven Alpacas has grown exponentially, hosting other farms on its property, building a large clientele and supporting an extensive inventory with its online store. Men’s and women’s apparel, kids clothing, and golf attire are available along with yarn, fabric by the yard and items for the home. “Cozy up with a luxurious alpaca throw,” their website reads, “or treat your feet to a beautiful rug that will last forever.” Hats, socks, bags, gloves and mittens are but a few of the luxe accessories available at Rosehaven, Imagine! and other alpaca farms scattered about the countryside. What better time than now, with winter upon us, to add to your wardrobe, or enhance your own warm and cozy home with something made from modern-day golden fleece?