Carla Cortesi of Urcuchillay Alpacas in Somerset shares a secret…

At Urcuchillay pronounced (ur-cu-chill-ay) we don’t breed our animals for meat, nor milk, but instead we breed for their luxurious fibre by combining the fleeces of our alpacas, Angora goats and Shetland sheep. So why the combination? Because we believe it brings out the best qualities of each of the fibres.

The end process is relatively easy, once we have had the fun of working out which colour and which fleeces go best together and chosen our colours for dyeing the mohair. The keeping of the three different species does take some work in managing their different husbandry needs, which can prove challenging. There have been times where we wondered if it was worth the extra work involved, but when we got our wool back from The Border Mill, all the work was worth it!

Starting with just two alpacas in 2010, building our herd took time because they are pregnant for 11.5 months, so there was a lot of waiting. We got a bit bored waiting for the cria (an alpaca baby), so we bought some Angora goats and Shetland sheep. After 4.5 years of waiting, we sent a selection of fleeces to The Border Mill with some rather complicated instructions – and are thrilled with the results.

We now have enough animals that we won’t have to wait another 4.5 years; in fact we now find we have more fleeces than we can get through, especially the Angora because they produce up to 10kg a year off a full grown male due to their twice-yearly shearing schedule. This is why males don’t get sent away for meat on our farm. Although some do get castrated if they aren’t good enough to go on as studs, they still have their place on our farm and make their own contribution.

We often get asked if these animals can graze together. The answer is the alpacas and goats can, and the alpacas and sheep can, but the sheep and goats can’t due to the worm burden and cross contamination issues. And, although they do have different medication programmes, I have an excellent system called Alpaca Manager that helps me stay on top of it all.

Juliet and John Miller at The Border Mill explain: “We started by just trying out some blends and really liked the result. The original reason was that our equipment, being designed for exotic fine fibres and set up primarily for alpaca, isn’t well suited to processing sheep on its own. We tried processing various types of rare sheep breeds and found it to be extremely difficult, and generally with disappointing results. Trying to understand why, we concluded that, although good alpaca is really fine, it’s also surprisingly strong; whereas, in our experience, fine sheep wools (e.g. Shetland) are often relatively soft, so the fibres tend to break and ‘pill’ in the carder. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with the fleece – it just doesn’t suit our machinery. With the blend, though, the alpaca seems to ‘carry’ the sheep wool through the carding process and produces much stronger, more even slivers for spinning.

“The alpaca will also add softness and wearability to less fine wools and, of course, with such a huge range of colours that alpaca comes in, we can match the colour to maintain the lovely character of special fleeces such as Hebridean. And there are benefits the other way – alpaca being quite a silky, heavy fibre, the wool will add a bit of lightness and elasticity, which can be particularly good for heavier yarns such as Aran or Chunky.

“As for mohair, that’s usually very strong, so processes fine on its own, but the blend with alpaca just gives it a bit more softness and adds a feeling of luxury to it.

“We basically think that huacaya is a ‘magic’ fibre – blend it with anything and it seems to make it process more easily and produce a more beautiful yarn.

“So the blend of the three should be the best of all worlds – the silky shine of mohair, the warmth and spring of wool, and the smooth softness of alpaca. What more could you ask?”

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