The key to having a successful long-term alpaca farm based on the sale of your fiber is to create quality yarn and felt and find a buyer who will buy your alpaca fiber year after year. This will allow you to have a reliable and stable income. The two main targets you should check out are local artisans and regional fiber mills.
Fiber factories are easier to find, they are professional businesses set up specifically to take bundles (bags) of animal fiber and turn them into yarn or other end products. Therefore, they are easy to find, both on the Internet and in specialized magazines. Still, you’ll need to know what services to order, the time frame, and prices before you decide which mill you want to take your fiber to.
Most searches you do on “alpaca fiber factory” will say that they will do custom fiber processing; basically everyone does this. All of this means that they will take your fiber and spin it into yarn, roving or felt and give you whatever layer of yarn you request. Fiber mills don’t sell their fleece – they wash, spin and process their fleece into a material that can then be used to create wonderful products. Your fleece will be returned to you transformed, but it will still be up to you to find a reliable buyer for your final product, or work it yourself: many alpaca owners have a farm shop with a large number of products for sale and also have a page on your website to sell things online.
Fiber mills vary widely in their wash and skirting policy, so be very careful when calculating what your final cost will be. The socket is a phrase that you will need to learn. Basically this means removing any debris on the fleece, you also need to remove any guard hairs or any clippings or clumps of anything. Some people also refer to the socket as the separation of the second and third fibers from the highest quality. Some mills accept unskirted fleece and charge you for the work they do to prepare it; All fleece must be prepared well, as fiber processing machines are delicate and set up only for certain lengths and types of materials, so debris can really clog and potentially break a machine.
Washing the fleece is a whole different story as the fiber has no lanolin oil in it, once you’ve edged it it may be dusty. Some spinners, especially artisans who do this by hand, claim that the powder helps them spin the fiber. They don’t want to wash it off. Some factories want it to be washed. Some mills will wash it for a very small fee, some mills will wash it for free, and others for outrageously high additional fees. There is no right or wrong answer here, at least not yet. Make sure that by washing you don’t just mean edging it, there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding. You should be aware of what it means to wash and ask about it before sending your fleece to a factory for processing.
Almost all fiber mills will require you to pay in full before they ship the finished fiber to you or before you can pick it up. Some price you by the weight of the final product, most price you by the incoming weight. Fiber mills can cost anywhere from $15 per pound (about ½ kilogram) to more than $50 per pound. Again, you need to ask what this price includes so you don’t have any hidden fees at the end, does it include skirting, washing, yarn left on cones or wound into balls, length of ball and layer of yarn?
Some fiber mills deal strictly with alpaca wool, some will work with a variety of fibers such as wool, dog and goat. As long as your processor is conscientious about cleaning between batches and has the machines to handle this different fiber, you shouldn’t have any drop in quality from a mill that handles multiple fibers.
Craft spinners are harder to find, but if you can hook up with one, they can buy your fleece direct, as they like to work the fiber into a finished product (unlike a fiber mill) and can also use it for their own artesanal job. This can be much easier for the alpaca owner!
You can find artisan spinners at local and online craft fairs and shows. Artisans will almost always require you to court them at first. Get to know them, talk to them about what they like to do, ask if their fiber will work with their long-term plans, and really get to know them. You may also need to set up a schedule to bring them some of your fleece samples, so they can assess them based on what they like to work with.
Once you have established a client relationship with an artisan, they will most likely be a long-term and stable asset to you; a safe buyer for your Alpaca Fiber.