Shear Excitement

RANDOLPH – Sue and Mike Bean have been spending a lot of time recently giving out free haircuts. And despite being neither a barber nor a beautician, everyone is pretty pleased with how the cuts turned out.

As per the springtime ritual, which began three years ago when they decided to invest in alpaca, the Beans once again took to shearing the alpaca on their farm. The alpaca fleece which is collected from the process goes toward producing alpaca fleece garments which the Beans sell at their in-home store, and the fleece has already gone on to win a few awards.

“If you see the crimp in the fleece, then you know you’ve got a good one,” said Sue. “You want to fleece to be very light and fluffy, but it is very important for it to be dense, as well.”

The Beans, like many alpaca owners, bring their recently sheared alpaca fleeces to a regional exposition to be judged for awards. Although the Beans were very happy with all of their fleeces this year, two were of high enough quality to win awards and recognition from the Northeast Alpaca Expo.

“When the alpaca are sheared, they start shearing them on the belly, and then they roll them over and keep going,” said Sue. “The idea is to finish with one big, solid fleece, because after that fleece is combed to get all the hay and dust particles out, that’s what gets sent to the expos to be judged. Toward the end of the shearing, we pull a small handful of hair out from the fleece, and send it away to determine the micron count of their fleece. If you give them too much protein, their fleeces get very coarse, and last year our fleeces were very coarse. We had opened up a new pasture, and there were a lot of weeds in that pasture, which meant more protein in their diets. This year we’ve got that under control, and after you shave them, their fleece can become less coarse. We’re really hoping that’s what happened this year, but we’ll see. It’s all about making everything better for the alpaca through the year so you get a better end product.”

According to Sue, a large problem with feeding the alpaca last year was the lack of good quality hay, due to poor growing conditions and an outbreak of armyworms. Sue said that so far, the farm isn’t having any trouble finding good hay for the alpaca.

“We had the Armyworms right behind our pasture,” said Ms. Bean. “(The worms) made it so much more difficult than it had ever been before. We’re looking forward to smoother sailing this year, and it seems that conditions are already far better than they were last year.”

THE FLEECE

Alpaca fleece is a naturally soft, durable and luxurious fiber, which is similar to sheep wool, only without lanolin. This makes alpaca fleece hypoallergenic, and many people prefer it to sheep wool because it is warmer, not prickly, and because it is a hollow fiber, it also has moisture-wicking properties to it, according to Sue.

“With (Huacaya alpaca), there are two types of fiber: primary and secondary fiber,” said Sue. “Primary fibers tend to lay straight and without any definition, where secondary fibers have a crimp in them, which is highly sought. When we went to the (expo), we saw an alpaca that didn’t have any primary fibers whatsoever, which is just incredible. That animal, of course, is going to be more valuable than the ones with primary and secondary fibers.”

Alpaca come in 22 natural colors, with more than 300 shades from a true-blue black through browns-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys and rose-greys.

CREATIVITY WITH FLEECE

While the Beans are able to offer a traditional line of handmade and imported apparel made with alpaca fleece, creativity has allowed them to sell with great success some alpaca themed items which you’re not likely to find anywhere else.

“There’s no waste with the fleece,” said Sue. “When we were shearing last year, we saw lots of birds landing in the barn and picking up little scraps of alpaca fleece and flying away with it. Once we figured out they were taking it to build their nests with, we came up with an idea. Other farmers have these little wooden birdhouses with the hole in front, and they would stuff the fleece in there for the birds to use. However, those birdhouses get (destroyed) pretty easily after enough poor weather, so instead we came up with these.”

The result of the Beans’ ingenuity was an ornamental metal sphere roughly the size of a baseball filled with alpaca fleece. Birds are able to peck at the fleece, and more than one bird can access the fleece at a time. The vessel won’t damage in the weather, and guests can refill the ball at the store when it is empty, rather than throwing it away.

“I bought all the (ornamental balls) that I could find in the store, because I knew that they would be perfect for what I wanted to do,” said Sue. “There were 27 in total, and within two days, I had sold out of them. I called the store back to see if they had any more, and I couldn’t find any more anywhere. I finally got a hold of the company that made them, and they told me that they wouldn’t give me a wholesale account. I didn’t know what to do, because they were in such high demand in my store. Finally, after a little persuading, I got my first large order of ornamental balls: 216 in total, and they were gone in a month. So then I made another order, and another order, and they just keep flying off the shelf.”

A NEW APPROACH

With shearing done and out of the way, the somewhat tedious work of spinning the fleece into yarn begins for the Beans. However, the Beans have decided to offer spinning lessons to customers who are interested in the craft.

“We offer people the opportunity to come in here and learn how to spin,” said Sue. “We charge $15 an hour, and the includes all the fiber. And usually, we don’t keep our eyes on the clock, especially for beginners, because it takes a little while to completely understand what you’re doing on a spinning wheel.”

Although the Beans have owned a spinning wheel for as long as they’ve owned alpaca, they decided to purchase two new wheels, so guests can spin with the Beans, and pick up tips and tricks along the way. So far, customers have taken an interest in spinning, and are curious how the process works, according to Sue.

“I had a woman come in here once who thought she was doing a bad job,” said Sue. “She thought her yarn was coming out too bulky, but she was doing a really great job. Her yarn was very consistent, which is very important. Personally, I like it better when the yarn has a few bumps in it, because it gives the garment that you’re going to make out of it texture. People tend to compliment clothing that looks handmade, because having the ability to turn yarn into clothing is an uncommon skill to find anymore. The yarn she was spinning was perfect for what she wanted to do with it.”

Although it is not the primary function of their shop, the Beans have been keeping additional spinning wheels and portable looms for sale, in case a patron should enjoy it so much that he or she would like to have one for home.

HOURS AND LOCATION

Mike and Sue Bean’s A Slice of Heaven Alpaca Farm is located at 11144 Pope Road in Randolph. The store is located on Cattaraugus County’s Amish Trail.

Store hours are 5-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Special appointments can be made by phoning ahead at 358-5242 or 499-0494.

Any additional questions about the store or products can be answered by emailing sandmbean@windstream.net.