25087 Sun, 06/10/2012 - 1:20pm
By David Gill
The alpaca—an animal that produces fleece like a sheep and is shaped like a giraffe—is drawing increasing attention from U.S. manufacturers of home textiles.
Some of these products are providing vendors with a new angle to “Made in America,” because the alpaca fiber used in their production comes from alpacas that are raised on these shores. A large percentage of the world’s alpacas are raised in Latin American countries, but some alpaca farms have emerged in the United States, on both the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest.
Two manufacturers—Pendleton Woolen Mills and US Alpaca Co.—have come out with product lines made with alpaca fiber. Pendleton has a line of alpaca throws that will launch at retail this coming fall. Priced at $248 for a 52-by-70-inch size, these throws are being targeted at upper-end catalogs and boutique gift stores.
US Alpaca is marketing a line of hypoallergenic bed pillows made with alpaca fiber. These come in standard, queen, king and travel sizes, and range in price from $69 to $199. US Alpaca also offers a king medium-fill set of two pillows for $378, and is looking to add other basic bedding products, such as mattress pads, to its offerings.
Alpaca fibers have a number of qualities that make them useful for bedding products. “Alpaca is a hollow-core fiber, stronger and warmer than sheep wool,” said Bob Christnacht, director of wholesale sales for Pendleton. “It retains heat and repels moisture like wool. It’s a very long fiber, very soft with a luxurious hand, and you get more variety in colors with it.”
The fibers offer a number of health benefits as well. According to the US Alpaca website, alpaca fibers, unlike wool, don’t contain lanolin, which may carry microscopic allergens. It is also naturally fire-resistant and free of toxic chemicals, contrasting it with pillows produced with synthetic materials. The alpaca is “the greenest animal on the planet,” US Alpaca said.
Developing a U.S. alpaca industry is the goal of the Alpaca Blanket Project of Stayton, Ore., which has worked with, and continues to work with, Pendleton in developing the company’s blanket and throw collection. Founded and operated by Peter and Carol Lundberg, who have their own alpaca farm, the organization channels alpaca fiber from a variety of sources to end users that then manufacture a number of products from the fiber.
Pendleton owes its alpaca lineup to its relationship with the Alpaca Blanket Project. According to a statement from Carol Lundberg, Pendleton’s wool buyer happened on the organization’s booth at a trade show in late 2007. In summer 2008, the organization delivered sorted and graded alpaca fiber to Pendleton, which produced about 300 test blankets with it. The initial results were disappointing. The blankets “were thin and not adequately fulled (cleansed of impurities), and the yarn had a tendency to be weak and had a poor handle (feel),” Lundberg said.
Pendleton and the Alpaca Blanket Project discussed the matter, and the manufacturer made some changes to its equipment to accommodate the fiber. A production run in 2009 produced 500 blankets with much-improved quality, Lundberg said. In 2010, Pendleton made an additional 1,100 blankets, and in 2011, its production run numbered 2,200 blankets in eight different styles.
Based on numbers provided by Peter Lundberg, the growth potential for alpaca products is huge and rapidly advancing. From 2008, when retail sales of alpaca merchandise registered about $8 million, this category is expected to achieve retail sales of more than $100 million by 2015. “Each year across the U.S., there are more uses for American alpaca,” he said.
For example, along with bed pillows and other basic bedding, “one producer received an order for 40,000 pairs of alpaca-blend socks in 2010,” Peter Lundberg said. “Another has increased his sock line and currently has over 20 varieties ranging from extreme to golf to convalescent. Alpaca is being used to cover furniture.”
While the Alpaca Blanket Project sources fiber from all over the world, there is evidence that supplies out of U.S. farmers and breeders are becoming more plentiful. “By rough estimates, there are approximately 225,000 to 250,000 alpacas in the United States,” Peter Lundberg said. He also estimated the number of farms with alpacas at from 24,000 to 28,000.
Carol Lundberg said, “The fact that (the Alpaca Blanket Project) has made such strides in such a short amount of time corroborates our initial supposition that a U.S. alpaca fiber industry was not only desired by alpaca breeders, but was necessary for the use of this resource and to meet public demand for new, natural, eco-conscious products made in the U.S.”