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.

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