Friday, April 29, 2016

river hill ranch

Since the last few posts for Suri week have been more text-heavy than picture heavy, I've tried to include more pictures in this post about my visit to River Hill Ranch - lots of alpaca photos ahead! 

After speaking to both Liz and Margaret about these exceptional animals and the production side of manufacturing and dyeing yarn from the fiber, I knew that I wouldn't be able to provide a really comprehensive look at Suri alpaca without visiting a farm that specializes in raising them. I asked Liz if she had any suppliers in my area, and she told me pretty quickly that I simply had to visit the River Hill Ranch, located in Richmond, Kentucky.

I work every day in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is about four hours away from Lexington (and only an hour North of Nashville.) When I was in elementary school, my family lived in Georgetown, Kentucky, for awhile, so that area of the country feels a lot like home to me. If you've never been, Kentucky is absolutely one of the most beautiful states in the nation you can visit. Rolling hills are graced with green grass, horses, and a variety of plants and flowers. When I was little, you could drive for miles through tobacco fields, their arm-length leaves and sweet smell guiding you around each curve of country road. The country roads (and the beautiful stone fences that line them) are still intact -- the tobacco has made it's way out, for most farms. 

You take a long stretch of highway South of the city, then turn off onto winding country back roads, following a creek bed along the edge of open hills beneath a curtain of greenery. Break out into sunshine at the top of the hill and a valley lays below you, dotted with farm houses and alpacas. Suri alpacas. 

River Hill Ranch is run by Alvina Maynard and her husband. Alvina felt the calling to become an alpaca rancher after watching a commercial for National Alpaca Farm Day. A member of the US Air Force (now reserve), former country-girl and Californian (weird combination, right?), Alvina convinced her husband that starting an alpaca ranch was the right thing to do. Through raising Suris, she connected with both Liz and Margaret and has begun the work of developing a herd geared towards fineness and fiber dye-ability. You'll notice that many of the animals in these pictures are on the lighter end of the spectrum (and you may even spot a goat!) 

The River Hill Ranch focuses on all aspects of alpaca farming in an environmentally respectful and animal-conscientious way. Alpacas are grazing animals, and the two herds -- one male, one female -- travel the acreage of Alvina's farm (and possibly some nearby farmland in the future.) Alpacas contribute to the livelihood of the River Hill Ranch in a variety of ways. While grazing, they work up soil that otherwise would go undisturbed, interrupting invasive root systems. Alvina's alpacas often graze with chickens -- the two populations in co-existence help lower parasite counts in both animals. 

Baby alpacas' first shearing, the finest and typically longest fleece, will be sent off to makers who specialize in high-end dolls. Suri alpaca is a much sought-after material for doll hair, since it comes in both dyeable colors and a natural range of browns from strawberry blonde to deep auburn (especially Blythe, if any of you are fans!) The adult animals' fiber is graded and sent off to become yarns for Alvina's own farm stands (you can see the upcoming schedule here), and for other yarn companies working with alpaca fiber, like Salt River Mills (Liz's company) and Little Gidding Farms. In fact, Alvina has some of Margaret, Sue and Liz's animals on-site! All grades of fiber are used -- River Hill Ranch's cozy shed-shop even has a large-scale spun yarn woven into a rug made from skirt, leg and neck fiber -- fiber typically too short to be used in yarn production. I have to say, it certainly is a lot softer than rug wool! 

While I have not had a chance to try it myself, Alpaca meat is an important piece in the survival of Suri alpacas as a species. You can read about this aspect of the industry here, and I caution you not to jump to conclusions! As fiber people, it can often be hard for us to accept the idea of eating one of our fiber-producing friends, be they sheep, rabbits, goats or alpacas, but it's a necessary part of farm life that allows no part of the animal to be wasted. Alpaca meat has become a gourmet item on many menus, and knowing that any food can be raised and used locally (saving expensive and environmentally impacting travel across the continent) gives me hope that more Americans will begin adopting it in areas where alpacas are raised. While not every farm is a business, and some alpacas are more pets than livestock, the fiber industry counts on higher yield production farms like Alvina's to survive.

I, for one, am glad that there are farmers reviving the interest and increasing the availability of Suri Alpaca fiber in the US. Something over the last year that has become very important to me is low-impact, big difference production, and River Hill Ranch is doing just that. Going and meeting your farmers -- whether at a farm stand at your local market or by arranging a visit or tour -- is a wonderful way to educate yourself and feel connected to the person who makes the yarn that you love. I feel very blessed and happy to have had the opportunity to meet the determined people who can make my yarn dreams come true! 

If you'd like to visit the River Hill Ranch in Richmond, KY, Alvina and her family do give tours! I got to see some adorable crias (baby alpacas) while I was visiting, and the farm shop is full of goodies, from manufactured socks using Suri fiber (these are crazy warm and amazing for hiking, I'm told) to hand-woven scarves and professionally manufactured garments (there was the most beautiful seamless dress!) Be sure to check out her show schedule this year, as Suri shearing season is underway -- you don't want to miss out on this year's crop of this fantastic, home-grown, luxury fiber. 

I just couldn't sign off without telling you the cutest story Alvina told me while I was there -- Alpacas, when it's hot and sunny, will often lay down on their sides in the field. Since the herd here is guarded by Maremma sheep dogs, often in the middle of summer, all the alpacas will be laying around and the dog is the only one left standing. The first summer that Alvina raised alpacas, she looked out her window to see the whole herd flattened against the ground and the dog walking around, nudging each of them with her nose. The herd looked like they had all fainted in the night, and a worried alpaca farmer ran out, only to scare them up and away, confused about why their naps had been so rudely interrupted!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

little gidding farm suri

It's easy enough, as a consumer of beautiful yarns, to take every new skein you see at face value. With a quick squeeze, a check of the tag, and the right colors, many new yarns have found their way into my knitting basket over the years. In the past, I have stashed dozens of fibers without knowing their story, history, or how they were made -- and it didn't effect my knitting in the slightest, or so I thought.

During the process of writing what is proving (at least on my end, for the time being) to be a very interesting book, I have re-discovered a desire to know more about the history and story behind the yarns that I use. While a pretty yarn sits on the shelf and looks nice, feels good in my hands, and knits up beautifully, the history behind the yarn adds a whole knew dimension to my knitting. It's good to know who you're supporting, what business practices they use, and the thought behind everything from structure to color -- having this knowledge connects us to the person who made this yarn, and the long line of work that has been put into creating it.

One yarn that would be easy to read at face value is LGF Suris Ultimate. At first glance (or touch), it's very easy to see that this is a fine yarn. With a content of 90% Grade 1 Suri alpaca and 10% Wool, as dyer and manufacturer Margaret Long says, "this yarn dyes like silk, and feels like cashmere."

I have to agree. After receiving a skein as a gift from my mother, I was certainly impressed to have found not one, but two, high-end Suri yarns after what felt like an eternity of searching. (Did you miss that post? Read about Liz's work developing an outlet for Suri growers in this preceding post.) In the same way that the North American Suri Company has created something special and beautiful, this yarn from Little Gidding Farms is unique in it's own way by featuring the highest, finest, grade of Suri fiber available. I called up Margaret to find out the how and why of how this beautiful yarn comes to be.

Margaret Long and her mother, Sue Simonton, have certainly made a name for themselves among the Suri growers in the U.S. They maintain a small, carefully-bred herd of 21 Suri Alpacas just outside of the Twin Cities, St. Paul / Minneapolis, in Minnesota. Two of their herd - a male and a female, both white-fleeced, have been graded the finest Suris of that color in the country. Their fiber is combined with a small amount of other Grade 1 fibers to be used in Ultimate, the yarn that I had the pleasure of sampling. To give you an idea of how rare and special this particular grade is, consider this. Out of alpaca breeders in the world, only 10% of those alpacas are suri alpacas. Out of that 10%, only 1% of Suri fiber is Grade 1.

For swatching this yarn, I wanted to keep things simple and let the fiber speak more than the stitches, so I used stockinette. As I've come accustomed to with alpaca, going up a few needle sizes for drape and bloom is a good idea -- instead of the recommended size US 1 needles I'd typically use for a fingering weight yarn, I decided to swatch on US 5's. The resulting fabric pre-blocking was light, airy, and everything you'd want in a sweater for weather in middle Tennessee. Since Suri has a longer staple fiber, it also has a lot of shine, giving it the appearance of being blended with silk (when, in fact, it is not.) Something also worth noting for those who have had trouble with alpaca in the past? I did not experience any shedding when using this yarn.

The lack of shedding doesn't surprise me at all after reviewing how the yarn is made. Margaret and her family have exceeded what you'd probably consider quality control and research regarding a fiber. 16 years ago, they decided to turn their shared love of fiber and textiles into a mother-daughter event, and took classes together at the University of Minnesota. Meanwhile, they began attending various state fairs and craft shows throughout the region. Having done some research on alpacas (and knowing Suris were the rarer of the breeds), they were surprised to encounter farmers raising Suri alpacas mostly as show animals. Often, approaching a farmer whose animal looked promising and had earned blue ribbons, they were surprised to find that the farmer didn't have the fleeces processed into usable fiber or yarn. In some cases, those raising the alpacas didn't know the micron count of their own prize animals, and simply viewed their luscious coats as an essential part of getting a blue ribbon. They were often equine breeders looking to raise a hobby 'exotic',  and Suri alpaca had been their creature of choice.

While they could see that the animals were loved, Sue and Margaret were frustrated by the lack of fine-grade suri yarns on the market. Sue instantly saw the solution, and suggested that they begin raising and breeding for fineness on their own. Margaret, a busy nurse and mom, spent a lot of late nights learning about animal husbandry and care. Over time, they began a careful selective breeding program and experimented with different ways to have their yarn spun and blended. Suri requires special attention -- with a long staple length but such a fine diameter, it can be difficult for traditional mill equipment to process this fiber correctly. Typically longer staple length does not equal softness -- think of wool fibers like Wensleydale and Gotland for examples. Margaret and Sue also wanted to take this difficult process to another level by blending their fiber with a fine wool. This presented another unique problem - matching staple length.

Fine wools come in shorter staple lengths than Suri, which has a typical length of between 4 - 6 inches. Merino, Cormo, and other soft wools often come in lengths significantly shorter - 3 to 4 inches - that make it hard to send these fibers through the carder alongside longer ones without significant loss and nupping of the shorter lengths. More notable for Little Gidding Farms was that while they bred for micron count and length, many sheep farmers had focused on producing finer fibers, not longer ones. After significant searching and narrowing their own lengths down to 4.5 - 5 inches, they found someone near to them who could provide the wool they needed, and the resulting yarns passed the ultimate quality control test - expert knitter and yarn snob extraordinaire, Sue.

Together, Margaret and Sue marketed their yarns at craft shows, fiber festivals, and to local shops. Selling direct-to-customer, they focused on not only beautiful quality yarns, but also offering these yarns in an array of beautiful colors. Hand-dyed to be fully saturated with minimal variegation, the yarns drew attention of designers and locals, but weren't getting the national recognition they deserved, still not being available wholesale. Then, Magaret was laid off from her job, and her husband, an engineer, suggested that they take the operation wholesale.

Wholesale presents new and interesting challenges for dyers. Many independent dye businesses struggle through their first larger orders and have to make a slow, plodding climb away from hot plates and small dye lots to the type of volume that they dream of. Margaret had a secret weapon -- her husband designed a vat and pulley system that allows her to dye upwards of 60 skeins in a single batch, evenly and without heavy lifting. Working with Liz from the North American Suri Company, she is able to source the remaining Grade 1 fibers she needs to fulfill larger orders. This year, LGF Suris will attend the summer TNNA show in Washington, D.C., and I suspect that the yarn will be a hit! Designers like Bristol Ivy, Talitha Kuomi, and Hunter Hammersen have already used or are using this yarn in designs, and rumor has it that there will be a new base introduced, as well as a life-size Suri cutout with which to take photos in the booth.

If you haven't heard of Little Gidding Farms yet, I'm sure you soon will -- this yarn is one to watch. Of course, you can't research a fiber until you see where it comes from, so I made a pilgrimage to River Hill Ranch, where they raise some of the suris that produce fiber used by both Little Gidding Farms and Salt River Mills (North American Suri Co.) Stay tuned for that feature on Friday!

Monday, April 25, 2016

the north american suri company

Before I tell you about this wonderful new yarn I found, first let me tell you about the search for it.

When I first started knitting, I didn't know a lot about fibers -- like most new knitters, I used whatever my teacher sat in front of me, what I saw at the craft store, or what was given to me by friends and relatives. Eventually, I realized that I preferred wool to most other fibers, so that is mostly what I worked with. It wasn't until I began spinning that I began to notice differences in wools, and to research other fibers that I wanted to try and learn more about. I attended a session of Yarn School in Harveyville, Kansas in 2010 to learn more about spinning and fiber. There, I visited the Alpacas of Wildcat Hollow Ranch, and learned about different alpacas from Ed and Marta Howe, the owners and operators of the Ranch, who also happen to raise some very beautiful Huacaya alpacas.

For those of you who aren't familiar, there are two types of alpaca, Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya alpacas make up most of the alpaca fiber that you see in stores, in yarns, and in fabrics. They make up most of the alpacas you'll see at 4-H events, fiber festivals and state fairs, too. Huacaya alpaca's fleeces remind me of teddy bears -- soft, fluffy, and crimpy, these alpacas have a medium length staple fiber at three to six inches. Great Huacaya fiber is soft, with a bit of a silky touch and a lot of drape in the skein. Ideally, it should have little to minimal shedding (although most alpaca on the market I have used does tend to shed.)

Suri alpaca is quite a bit rarer. Only 10% of the alpacas raised in the U.S.A. are Suris, and an even smaller percentage of those are raised for fiber. They are truly striking animals, with long dreadlocks of fiber, similar to that of a Puli dog. The fleece is soft, silky and shiny, with a longer staple length than Huacaya. Until fairly recently, very few Suri alpaca farmers were raising their alpacas to a specific standard for fiber, instead seeing Suri alpacas as a fancy equine "exotic" -- a show animal that could win blue ribbons when raised and bred for it's beauty. It's no wonder, then, that after learning about Suri alpacas,  I couldn't seem to find their fiber anywhere, until I attended the summer TNNA show in 2015.

The North American Suri Company's booth was easy to overlook, if you weren't meticulous about going up and down every row of the event. With so many vendors, TNNA is a huge industry show that attracts thousands of participants. The booth Liz Vahlkamp had reserved for her company, The North American Suri Company (or NA Suri Co.,) was tucked in between two very busy booths. I'm sure that some traffic was stopping in, but when I realized what Liz was selling, I didn't understand why her booth wasn't packed too.

Most alpaca I had encountered before had come in one of the 21 natural tones of browns, beige and cream. NA Suri Co.'s range of yarns come in deep, luscious jewel tones. Since each of the colors is a blend of several base colors - light, medium, or dark in natural tone - the yarns have an almost heathered appearance pre-dyeing. Additional blending for the bases with natural, white sheep's wools further enhance this effect, yielding a range of solids that have beautiful depth to them.

Unlike the handspun I have so often encountered at fiber festivals, or the minimally processed small batch alpaca skeins (all of which have their place), Liz's company coordinates much larger spins at a larger scale mill that has specialized equipment to deal with the long staple length of Suri fiber. Her bases include:

Suri Decadence, which comes in two blends. The first is a Suri and muga silk blend, the other is a Suri and angora blend. This is one of the yarns that I sampled and immediately adored. As you can see from this swatch, the Suri-Angora Decadence has a wonderful, subtle halo and small tufts of bunny fiber. I did not experience as much shedding as expected from this yarn -- in fact, I had very little, despite the reputation of angora fiber. The silk version of Decadence has more sheen and shine, but good angora blends are hard to come by, especially mixed with Suri!

Suri Textures is one of Liz's most interesting yarns. When sourcing wool to blend with Suri, it can be hard to reconcile the long staple length of the alpaca fiber with a long wool. Traditionally, the longer the wool is, the shinier -- but also coarser -- the wool is. Liz sourced some very high grade Coopworth wool, and partnered it with one of the middle grade Suri fibers she collects, to create a unique, cable-ply yarn that knits up beautifully and is as fun to work with as it is to look at.

Last but not least, Simply Suri is all about celebrating the natural Suri fiber in the best possible way. At a blend of 85% Baby Suri (this designation simply means that the micron count is between 21-23 microns -- right next to that 'cashmere soft' range), and 15% merino wool, this yarn is everything alpaca lovers adore. Soft and slinky, this yarn creates fabric with beautiful drape and halo.

(Liz also has a new yarn coming soon that I've been given to try, but I'll let her reveal that on her own at show this year, then share my thoughts with you later in the summer!)

While the yarns themselves are decadent and wonderful, I think that the story behind Liz's business and the way that North American Suri Company operates is even more interesting. Liz was serving as a Chairperson for her local Industry and Production board when she met Sue Simonton. Sue was a fiber enthusiast who had been doing some research with her daughter, Margaret, about raising high-end Suri fiber with the goal to see more Suri textiles being made. The problems they were encountering were those that farmers all across America were having - there simply wasn't a lot of education about Suri alpacas.

Liz and the team from the local industry board began going to fiber festivals and craft shows to re-educate and inform the public about  the existence of Suri fiber. They encountered many interested knitters, crocheters, and fiber enthusiasts, but discovered quickly that there was very little Suri to sell. Without a product, the most they could hope for was to be an educational group. Liz could see where there was a need -- fiber farmers had no central place to send their fiber for processing, there was no grading or sorting system for fleeces, and not everyone wanted to go into the yarn business in addition to the Suri business. She stepped down from her position on the committee and set up the North American Suri Company in 2011 as a private company.

Each year, Liz travels and connects with over 40 Suri alpaca breeders in North America. She purchases fleeces and grades them based on micron count, then sorts them by color. While her yarns use grades 1 - 4 of the finest fibers, Liz is also actively seeking uses for the lower grades in a variety of applications. One of her main goals is educating fiber farmers who have long focused on breeding the wide range of colors available in alpacas to narrow down their aim towards the cream and fawn ranges. It is easier to dye on lighter natural fibers, and customers want color. In the meantime, Liz buys fleeces in every color from white to black, and overdyes the natural colors for a unique range of tones. She has become an integral part of the hopeful resurgence of Suri fiber in North America, providing a place for dedicated Suri farmers to have their wools made into yarns -- and for those yarns to be passed on to those who will use them, whether in the textile industry at large or in the hands of a knitter at home.

Liz is all too humble about the impact she's making, but I decided to delve deeper into the world of Suri alpaca and talk to one of the yarn brands that works directly with Liz's efforts -- formed by Sue Simonton and Margaret Long. On Wednesday, join me for an interview and yarn review of their brand, Little Gidding Farms Suri.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

suri week

Today marks the start of a multiple-part blog series I've been working on, all focused on Suri alpacas. If you're familiar with alpaca fiber, it's likely you've tried Huacaya alpaca and not Suri -- as you'll see in the next few days, this fiber is a bit finer, much rarer, and hopefully soon showing up in all our stashes! I've long been on the hunt for beautiful Suri fiber, so when I found it I just had to share it with all of you -- and the information I've gleaned from those who are busy producing it.

Stay tuned to the blog this week for three great Suri yarn producers who are linked by their love of the animal, the fiber, and the yarn.

see green

There is just something really magical about new yarn, isn't there? Buying it, bringing it home, and planning a project for it are all in my top list of the simple pleasures that come with knitting. A little while back, I stopped into a new-to-me yarn store here in Nashville, Haus of Yarn.

I recently moved to Nashville from Iowa where my mom and I ran our own store, The Sheep's Stockings (which sadly is closed, but it's a good thing too since it means my mom is moving closer to me!) One of the things that we loved about running the store was seeing how our store was so different and in many ways the same to other stores that we encountered and visited. Our goal was always to provide the highest quality yarn available for garment knitting, since both of us are avid garment knitters and it seems like many yarn stores only carry a hank of this, a skein of that -- not always enough to make a full sweater.

There is no such problem at Haus of Yarn (unless they're running low on something, I suppose!) It's a beautiful shop chock full of many of my favorite brands, and many brands that I'd been meaning to try but hadn't yet. They are also a Brooklyn Tweed flagship store, which means that I can instantly gratify any of my desires when a new Wool People collection comes out -- dangerous! While I did pick up some Shelter while visiting, I also had to grab these beautiful sea-green skeins of Jill Draper Makes Stuff Windham.

Jill Draper is a wonderfully quirky, very talented lady who lives in New York and has a studio in Red Hook, just outside of Rhinebeck. One of the highlights of my Rhinebeck trip was visiting that studio (although it was very, very packed) and picking out two soft skeins of Hudson, one of my favorite bases. What I love most about Jill's yarn line is that she meticulously finds wools that are local and then turns them into some of the most fun yarns to knit cables with ever. Seriously, if you haven't knitted a cable in something from Jill Draper, go do it right now. You have to complete this knitterly quest!

For me, two skeins of worsted/aran, each with 220 yards, will be just enough to make something great. Windham is merino, spun just how it should be -- with four cozy plies and a bouncy hand just begging to be wound into cakes. I'm not planning on delaying this process any further than I need to, but I have to pick a project first! Any ideas?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

spring robin

I'm getting to the point where it seems like everyone I know is either engaged, recently married, or starting a family. It's exciting to have so many friends celebrating so many wonderful events in their lives, and I want to celebrate how I can, when I can. When my friend Emily asked if I would knit a baby blanket for her first, I couldn't say no -- and I had the perfect yarn already in stash.

Annie Yarn Madison Worsted in Robin's Egg blue, from one of the first years of Yarnbox subscriptions sent out. Annie, who has become a dear friend, runs her beautiful yarn dyeing operation out of an old farmhouse she's helping renovate in Georgia. Her mother and sisters live with her, and each of them seems more talented than the next, with so many skills in music and art. Annie lends her own sense of pure, beautiful color in her yarn dyeing -- the way that she glazes yarns reminds me of early Madelinetosh.

While the Yarnbox members at the time were on the fence about this colorway, I think it will always be one of my favorites. It's an in-between shade -- a bit pastel, a bit bright -- a soft blue with the tiniest bit of neon celadon underneath. Annie Yarn is ultra-soft, too, making it the perfect candidate for a lifelong lovie. A bit of the old to a brand-new life.

Of course, how could I resist also sending along the newest offering from Baby Boy Bakery, one of the companies partnered with Studio Calico, where I work? Jacqui Saldana is a gentle soul who has dreamed up one of the most lovely baby books -- journals -- a mother can buy. Each page is carefully thought out and sure to help Emily's family recall the details about Stella's first year long in the future.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


Sources: My Little Fabric . Annie's Annuals . Peru's Nazca Lines . Kiwi by Matt & Myra Callan . Zulu & Zephyr Cacti 
Glazed pottery or pale pigment, celadon green is a color I just can't stop craving. This cool, calming shade of pale green is at once refreshing and crisp: think cucumber, green apples, and celery. For me, it invokes a feeling of water and earth combined, fresh shoots in spring, the mystery of a luna month and softly-tumbled seaglass buried in beach sand.

I've been looking for ways to incorporate this soft color in my wardrobe and now I'm dreaming of flowing, comfortable knitted layers paired with white for Spring. This color also carries well as a Winter pastel, pairing with rich, earthy browns like in the Hello Yarn Hidden Thicket colorway shown below. I have a sweater lot of this in stash to play with soon.

Want some celadon goodness all your own? Try these yarns from some of my favorite companies:

Yarn: O-Wash Sport
Colorway: Watermill

A tall glass of cucumber water. This environmentally conscious superwash option comes in a huge array of color, but I can't help falling for this soft, watery-based green that can be found in sport or the newer fingering weight. I'm thinking that a pullover tee may be in order, maybe Jessie's Girl?

Yarn: Quince & Co. Sparrow 
Colorway: Leek

Fresh cut celery and new shoots. I can't resist this one from perennial favorite Quince & Co. 100% organic linen grown in Belgium, this is a treat perfect for a pattern designed especially for it, like Brise.

Yarn: The Fibre Company Arcadia
Colorway: Summersweet

Like spanish moss and a ride down river. This yarn's tweedy flecks add character to a great blend of wool, alpaca and silk. In a DK weight it's a trickier wear for summer weather but might be just what I need in Fairchild.