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Archive for February, 2009

You know when you buy a sweater and look at the tag to read what it’s made of? You look for whether it’s wool, cotton, alpaca, etc but what about when it says “virgin wool” or “superwash”? And what about when you read those spiffy catalog descriptions peddling the qualities of a garment?  Do you actually know what some the terms, like “fully fashioned” mean? Inquiring minds want to know, so:

  • Dyed in the Wool: The wool was dyed before it was spun into yarn. This allow mills to combine different colors  into one yarn, often resulting in melanges or heathers.
  • Fully Fashioned: Have you seen a sweater described as fully-fashioned? This means the shape was knit in, not cut and sewn from a large rectangular knit fabric. Fully fashioned sweaters use stitch decreases or increases to curve and shape, resulting in less waste, fewer selvedges, fewer seams.
  • Mercerized: This is a treatment you’ll see specifically for cotton, also called pearl or pearle cotton. The original process was invented by John Mercer who was granted a patent in 1851. Cotton is exposed to a caustic soda solution that causes it to swell and then straighten.  Horace Lowe then refined the process to place the cotton under tension during the process.  The result was a stronger, shinier, and smoother thread with wonderful dye uptake. Mercerized cotton is less insulating than un-mercerized but also tends to shrink less.
  • Superwash: Superwash refers usually to superwash wool but it can be applied to any protein fiber. It’s a treatment used on yarn to prevent it from felting and therefore make it machine washable. Needless to say, if you plan to felt a knitting project, you don’t want to use superwash. There are two ways to treat fiber to make it superwash. One is to remove the scales which enable felting , the other is to coat the scales with a polymer or resin that fixes the scales to the fiber. When you buy superwash, which method is usually not indicated, but coated fiber usually is shinier.  Because of the nature of the process, superwash may impact the memory of the yarn and also its ability to take up dye.
  • Virgin wool: or new wool, means that the garment is made from wool that was never used in another product. What? You mean there’s stuff out there that was used previously, maybe even worn by someone else? Historically – yes! In the olden days, people would sell their garments to mills. The mills would unravel or process them to resell in a new product (called reused wool). Technically, a wool is no longer virgin even if the original product was never used or worn (called reprocessed wool). And no, it doesn’t mean that it came from a sheep that was a virgin at the time.
  • Worsted vs. Woolen: This is a reference to the process used to spin the yarn that went into the garment. Worsted means the fiber was carded but not aligned. The spinning is done with a short draft zone. Fibers may be going off in all direction and woolen garments are often fuzzy.  With worsted, the fibers are aligned in parallel slivers to create a smoother yarn and fabric. Worsted requires a longer staple unlike woolen. You probably have also seen worsted used to indicate a weight of yarn, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate the worsted process was used in spinning the yarn.
  • Yarn-Dyed: Dyed as yarn before weaving or knitting. You’ll see this advertised in nicer quality garments since yarn-dyed garments tend to keep their colors brighter longer.

You may be wondering how this information may apply to alpacas. Maybe not so much right now, maybe more in the future as alpaca fiber commercializes.  But for all you fiber lovin’ readers , it definitely falls under just plain old Cool to Know.

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In some ways, I’d like to think of breeding alpacas like a recipe.  For instance, you take one fantastic white herdsire and breed it to one fantastic white dam , let bake, and after about 11 months, you  get one really fantastic white cria. 1 fantastic + 1 fantastic = 2x the quality. Right?

Survey says….Maybe!

Well, what if you have one really fantastic cria and have the sire and dam readily available . Obviously, rematch the parents and you’ll get another fabulous cria.  After all,  A+B always equals C. And the cria will inherit the same genetics, right?  All I can say to that is…

Dennis Quaid. Randy Quaid.

How about these other real life (and more alpaca specific) examples ?

  • Dam A has a micron of 25m. Herdsire B has a micron of 20m at the same age.  Resulting offspring? 27m same age.
  • Dam A and Dam C are full sisters but Dam A is a showstopper, Dam C is so-so. Both are bred to Sire B. Dam A has a so-so baby. Dam C has a knockout.
  • Dam A is a true black with three generations of black behind her on both sides. Sire B is a true black with black all the way back on the dam side but has a fawn sire. Their offspring is a beige with ventral fading to white (vicuna pattern).
  • Dam A has a great bite. Sire B has a bad bite but otherwise is much finer, denser, and heavier boned than Dam A. The offspring inherits the sire’s bite and the dam’s lack of fineness, density and bone.

Are you nodding your head? Sure, we’ve all done matches that seemed so sure a thing we were salivating the entire eleven months in anticipation of the baby’s arrival. But the problem is:

Alpaca breeding is not Math.

Alas, the rules of inheritance and genetic activation still remain a mystery. But we still persist. Are we just mule-headed and obstinate?

I would say , rather, that we are breeders. And if you’re a breeder, you can’t help yourself. You can’t help trying to improve each generation, you can’t help all the hours spent researching to find that perfect match, or those nights staring up at the ceiling trying to decide between herdsire A or herdsire B. You can’t help envisioning a cria arriving perfectly the way you designed it when you made the match. It’s what keeps you going.

And every now and then, probably not most of the time, maybe even not some of the time..you get a baby that makes your eyes pop, that grows up to become your pride and joy, that fulfills your wildest expectations. The satisfaction you feel is not the joy you get from figuring out a particularly gnarly calculation, it’s the fulfillment from a pure creative endeavor. And even though you love all your animals, those ones may be just a bit more special.

And that’s why I always think: go to it. Pour your heart and soul into it. Keep going and keep trying. Take your best shot. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.

But when it does…oh yeah. When it does.

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…would smell as sweet.”

You’ve heard the famous line from Romeo and Juliet.  And while it is certainly true, I  tend to think that having to spend beaucoup bucks on a full page ad to show off a splendiforous herdsire named SCOOBY DOO, would, in fact,  stink.

What's In a NameThe thing is, names do matter.

Along with other like-minded alpaca breeder friends, I keep a names list where I store any and all names I come across that I think might be great alpaca names. Although a bit more lenient with girls’ names, I’m always looking for really great studly herdsire names. I know many people who have their own themes or patterns in naming. Sometimes they are by dam line, sometime by sire name. They can be street names, city names, names after famous ships, favorite people, celebrities, favorite pets, racehorse-style names, names that tie into their ranch i.d., or even just alphabetical for each year of birth.  For those who have been in the business a really long time, it can come down to any decent name they haven’t used yet.

Here are some practical reasons why names can be important:

  • Highlight a Lineage: For boys that come from really prestigious herdsires, I like to include the herdsire name in the formal name. For example, Michelangelo’s St. Dominic. Ties into both the herdsire (El Nino’s Accoyo Michelangelo) and also the theme of the herdsire name (the artist Michelangelo).  When people see the name, they instantly know – this is an offspring of Michelangelo – and tie certain attributes to your boy. This is especially valuable if the herdsire is heavily marketed – you get to piggyback on those marketing efforts to attach value to your cria.
  • Standing out in a sales list:  When you go to Alpacanation and hit the New Sales or Herdsire listings, new entries appear in a simple text names list on the portal page.  By making the name distinctive or descriptive, you can increase the chances of people clicking on your animal’s name. Using the above example, say I put “Michelangelo’s St. Dominic” up for sale. Now he appears in the New Sales listing with a bunch of other names. Right above him is an animal named “Pooh Bear” and right below him is a boy named simply “Toby”.  Which name would you tend to be drawn to?
  • Create an image: Maybe you have a  cria that has a really distinctive positive feature you want to call out. In this case, I’ll use the example of a true black. That is usually considered a valued characteristic. You can make that evident in the name to instantly create a generally correct image in the minds of people who read the name. For example: Deepest Midnight, Black Night etc.
  • Facilitate advertising: I like to keep a positive attitude everytime I have a male cria born and assume it is going to grow up into a magnificent herdsire , well worth extensive marketing.  Some names can instantly conjure up a creative theme to an ad campaign. The example I’ll use here is Archangel. Years ago, he had a full page ad in Alpacas Magazine that showed him slowly ascending a green hill with a forest in the background. The text above read : “He descended from the heavens…CCNF Archangel”. (p. 137 , Alpacas Magazine, Winter 2005).  Besides a beautiful photo , the background tied into the text theme with the picture of an angel. It evoked an emotional response. Take away the theme, and you have just another beautiful herdsire standing next to pictures of all of his show wins. How many of those do you see? How many do you remember? To this day, this remains my favorite herdsire ad ever.
  • Make pet names obvious : When it comes down to daily life on the ranch, most people don’t call their animals laden with fancy names by that name.  Aren’t we all guilty of cutesying up really great sounding names to shorter less majestic versions? I have finally reconciled myself to the fact that I just can’t stop doing it so it’s really nice when I have an obvious pet name that works. For Dominic, it’s Dom. For another boy I have called Black Opus, I call him Opie. If I had an animal named Full Steam Ahead though, a lot tougher.

If it comes right down to it and I really wanted an animal but couldn’t stand the name, I would ask the seller for permission to change it. But to be honest, I’d really prefer to avoid the whole situation – the seller might really like the original name and I’d hate to offend them. And it would break up the continuity of history for the animal if someone is researching him or her.

And even after all considerations, sometimes a name comes down to simply what sticks. I’ll throw name after name at a baby and by the next morning, I’m just shaking my head. For some reason, what seemed like a good fit the day before has evaporated into a discard. When the right name comes along, I can’t describe it really…it just sticks. I find myself calling that cria by that name. If I were to actually come right out and confess to anthropomorphization, I’d have to admit that I think the cria somehow let’s me know when I’ve found the right one. Call it mind meld, call it subtle responsiveness, sometimes they know what they like.

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I’ll admit, I was well pleased after finishing my last post, What A Coach Tote Taught Me about the Alpaca Biz. But as I was preparing to box up the tote and wrap it, my thoughts went back to the scene in the store and my train of thought started to meander down a different path. There was more from this experience to be taken away than just self analysis. I set the tote down again and sat in front of it, ready to receive more insight from its beautiful silver-footed Scrumptiousness.

People, not just me, were scooping up merchandise at the Coach store like a squirrel on nuts. I heard one woman next to me talking to her friend say, “I’m just figuring out how to make this fit in my budget.” This was an unplanned and pricey purchase for her but nevertheless, she was going to find a way to make it work. And not only does that come back to the idea of perceived value but also one immutable rule of purchasing: If someone wants something badly enough, they’ll find a way to buy it.

I think there are things to be learned here that can apply to the alpaca business as well.  What elements led to that iron commitment to purchase?

1. The Right Product:  Most of my friends would agree with me that a Coach handbag is good thing. We love the quality, workmanship, the look, and the feel. Coach reinvented their style from stodgy to hip in the late 90’s. That change in product design was rewarded by strong sales growth starting with the new millenium. All while retaining the high level of quality their reputation was built on. Lesson One? What you’re selling needs to appeal to the target market.

2. The Right Customer: This obviously goes hand in hand with the above.   Coach wanted to grab the attention of fashion-conscious women who wanted luxury items, notably working women. They considered this a broader potential customer base than their legacy customers, whose tastes ran more conservatively. So:  You need to define your market.

3. The Right Price: Coach handbags are actually considered upper midrange in price. Not high end luxury but not bargain. Their handbags run from $300 to $1000,  so out of consideration for many people but certainly well within the range for affluent but not wealthy buyers. With the discounts over President’s Day, obviously this broadened their buyer base.  Coach needed to unload merchandise and recognized one important fact in making sales: at any point in time, the market determines what the product is worth, not the seller.

4. The Right Match :  This is Marketing. I can’t go into how to market. As I’ll say again and again, I’m no marketing pro. But having a great product ideally suited for someone at the right price doesn’t mean diddly squat if that buyer doesn’t know about your product. Coach uses their stores (location), advertising, and their website to create awareness of their products. They reach out to customers, because it’s the responsibility of the seller (not the buyer) to make the potential customer aware of their product.

5. The Right Relationship: When I walked into the Coach store, they were adequately staffed so that someone could actually help me and I got checked out quickly…even when it was a madhouse. I mention this  because I was in another store and decided to buy a pair of jeans. When I got to the cashier, there was a long line with only one person working the counter. Did I wait patiently? I put the jeans back and left, having decided my time was worth more and feeling slightly disgruntled.  It felt like they didn’t value my time – the seller needs to show the customer that they value them.

So now that I’ve milked the analogy dry , here are some things to keep in mind. Buying a tote is purely transactional. The relationship is pretty much done at purchase or after a return (a Coach, never!).  But alpaca purchases establish a much longer relationship.  An alpaca breeder has some responsibility that some degree of  financial diligence has been carried out. That is, if someone wants to buy from you badly but you sense they really can’t afford it – please act sensibly. Doggedly going for the close will most likely cause problems for both of you.

So after all these thoughts were done running through my brain,  I got up again and picked up the tissue to package the tote. What a lot I had gotten from my little shopping excursion. And perhaps the purchase received way more consideration than it warranted , but I can overthink any experience and tie it back to alpacas.  I believe the real lesson I took away was to learn from my own actions. What motivates me to buy or not? What do I consider worth the money or not?  How then should I expect other people to act based on my own behavior? It’s a reminder not to have blinders regarding my own animals and business.

So to close out the story, the tote was finally wrapped in tissue and I placed it in the gift box. It reached just over the top rim. To fit it in, I pushed down the center a bit and the crumpled paper deflated with a slight audible whoosh of air that blew across my face like a kiss.

And then it spoke no more.

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Over President’s Day Weekend, I had to run out to the mall to pick up a gift. It was the weekend and I expected it to be packed. Quite the contrary. As I walked down the sidewalk, I noticed many of the stores had closed , their windows displaying “Lease Available” signs instead of merchandise.  A sign of the times, I thought to myself sadly. As I rounded the corner, I saw the Coach store, partially obscured by construction scaffolding, which I’m sure didn’t help what was an obvious traffic problem for the stores. I swung the door open and stepped in….and my jaw dropped open. The store was packed. Women, girls, baby strollers, and a few men swarming all over the shelves and especially the back of the store.  I was greeted by a nattily dressed saleswomen in a blue blazer and cheerful orange scarf tied around her neck, who smiled at my expression. “We’re having a clearance sale”, she responded as I expressed my amazement. In her hand was a sales flyer. “And today you can get an additional 10% off any non-clearance items.”  As I wandered around the store, people were grabbing stuff out of the clearance bins and off the shelves without hesitation.  Then a sand colored tote at the very front of the store caught my eye. It was beautiful and a remarkable 50% off. Combined with the flyer discount, it brought the price well within my affordable range. My mouth watered and I had to get it. It was, as I like to call great shopping deals,  a Shopping Coup.

When I got home, I unwrapped the tote and put it on my desk to admire it in all its yummy lusciousness. Then my eye was caught by the paper it was sitting on. It was the registration for an upcoming alpaca event. I had been going back and forth about whether I wanted to spend the money to participate. The receipt for the bag was lying next to the registration form and I suddenly noticed…the cost of the tote was exactly the same as the cost to participate in the event.

I had bought the tote on a whim and without hesitation….but I had vascillated for weeks on spending the same amount on an alpaca event registration that would market my business. Why was that?

Coach Bag or Event Stall?

Coach Bag or Event Stall?

The answer is simply these two words:  Perceived Value.  I believed the tote to be well worth what I had paid. I was not so sure I could say the same thing about participating in the event.  Truth be told, in addition to paying for the registration, there were additional costs such as my time for an entire weekend, but all in all, hard to argue the worth if it resulted in just one sale or relationships that would result in sales down the road. What was lacking was my conviction.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the talk – the economy is in trouble, auction prices are declining (more on that in a later post), alpaca buyers are putting off purchasing due to uncertainty.  I had heard it too and it had seeped into my thought processes.  And although I wasn’t specifically trying to cut down on marketing expense, I had decided I needed to make wiser choices…more bang for each marketing buck, so to speak.  But after I bought this admittedly gorgeous (salivating) tote totally spontaneously, I came to a realization: I had crossed over from being thoughtful about marketing to being passive and put myself on the path to fulfilling my own fears about how my business trends might reverse through sheer lack of action.

So this is not a lesson on marketing (so not an expert), it’s not a pep rally on how positive thinking will make everything rosy (too pragmatic for that) …it’s simply a commentary about how we can affect our own opportunities with our state of mind . And make no mistake, there are still opportunities, lots of them, for people who keep their eyes open and their brains active and churning with ideas.  I firmly believe that sustaining that attitude is what will get each person through good times and bad.

So will I participate in the event? Yes.

And as for the tote…well, it was always earmarked for a friend’s birthday. As soon as I saw it, I thought it had her written all over it.  She’ll treasure it so much more than I ever would.

Coach tote or show stall? We’ll each get what we want most.

The Coach Tote story continues in More Lessons from the Coach Tote

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A Face To Cure All Ills?Could this be the face that cures what ails you?

As if providing clothing, comfort, company , and in some countries – food – for their caretakers weren’t enough, the Wall Street Journal published an intriguing article on the current research into alpaca and llama antibodies as potential treatments for various diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Read about it at:

When a Llama Is Laid Back, It’s Not the Only Beneficiary

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I’m sure you’ve heard the joke about sweaters made completely from alpaca: if it’s too short, wear it a while and it’ll be the right length by the end of the day. Alpaca fiber has poor memory as very briefly touched upon in the curvature section of my post: Field Trip to Yocom McColl: Interpreting that Histogram Report.  It just doesn’t snap back well to its original shape once stretched. This may be something you are aiming to improve in your breeding program or it may not be a priority at all. As it is, the current trend to favoring higher frequency crimp styles certainly will improve the memory of alpaca fiber, though to what degree is unknown. In the meantime, there are processing solutions to the memory problem – most commonly, blending alpaca fiber with other fibers. Blending in other fibers with greater memory at 10-20% gives you the qualities of alpaca while adding in some memory. The most common blends are with wool, silk, and also cellulose fibers such as cotton and bamboo.

However, if you are fixed on having your own fiber processed into 100% alpaca and are dreaming of that handknit sweater so you can proudly wear your premier herdsire or favorite cria, there are some things you can do to offset the dreaded alpaca sweater stretch when it comes down to needles and yarn.

1. Use a finer weight  yarn :  It probably goes without saying, knit a finer lighter fabric and you’ll have a lighter garment. Less weight, less drag down from gravity. 

2. Pick your design to avoid bottom weight:  If you see one of those beautiful patterns that have a knit intarsia or fair isle pattern along the bottom edge of the sweater and then move to a solid knit on the top half – beware! You’ll be creating a sweater that is potentially bottom heavy and encouraging stretching due to the burden on the lighter top half of the sweater. Conversely, if you see a sweater that has a solid top half around the bodice and then a lacy bottom half, you can get away with quite a bit of additional length due to the light weight of the lace pattern.

3. Use untextured stitches or slip stitches to minimize ease: Textured stitches such as knit/purl combos or ribs are by nature highly elastic – that’s why we use them in many cases. However, just be aware that stitches that take up more yarn such as textured stitches build in more ease into the fabric . This only make sense. If it takes 1/3 more yarn to knit a 4″x4″ square, you know that the links are deeper and the loops larger to accommodate the stitch changes. More yarn, more room to stretch. If less elasticity is what you want in the body of your garment, look at slip stitches. It’s amazing what some of the slip stitch variations can achieve in look while adding in structural integrity.

Lined Handknit Jacket
4. Line the garment: There are a lot of reasons to line a sweater. Perhaps the yarn is not the finest grade and you don’t want it to irritate the neck. But lining can also add inelastic structure to the garment, especially if you have knit an oversized jacket. On the left is a good example of using a lining for this reason. The fiber used was definitely fine enough to wear next to the skin, but the weight of the jacket benefited from a matching satin liner, which also eased slipping it on and off.

5. Use inelastic cast on, seaming, and bindoff techniques: There are a wide variety of cast on, seaming, and bindoff techniques invented by people much more creative than I am. You can pick ones that suit the design of the sweater and decrease the elasticity of certain stress points. For example, I like using the 3 needle bind off for shoulder seams, even when I shape the shoulders using short rows. It creates a neat seam that is much more resistant to stretching than grafting.  

6. Reinforce with thread: Sometimes you just want something to be absolutely immutable – no elasticity at all. Perhaps you need a firm neckline or cuffs. You can use a thread to weave into the knit fabric to reinforce certain rows. For areas that you need to be elastic but you want to snap back snugly, you can even interweave elastic thread. I wouldn’t recommend using this except for single rows here and there. If what you’re really looking for is inelastic material – you probably want to switch to a weave.

I’m sure there are a bunch of other tips and tricks that crafty knitters have come up with to manipulate the behavior of their knits. Drop me a note and let me know other techniques that have worked

Happy Knitting!

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